helped found is now the CEO of Digital Green, an agricultural development company. Digital Green
is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa through the use of videos on agricultural best practices, which are locally produced and showcased in interactive small-group settings. Whereas the traditional approach to agricultural extension services emphasizes the role of experts in providing top-down advice to farmers, Digital Green's approach empowers farmers to connect with and provide guidance to others who are similarly situated in their communities. Rikin co-founded Digital Green
as a research project in Microsoft Research India's Technology for Emerging Markets team and now leads the spin-off of Digital Green that partners with government and non-governmental agencies to amplify the effectiveness of agricultural development globally.
Working in concert with local public, private, and civil society organizations, Digital Green helps local farmers produce 8-10 minute videos in which the farmers themselves star; check the quality and accuracy of the videos; organize and mediate local gatherings in which the videos are shown and discussed by community members; and gather feedback from community members in order to expand upon and improve the content of the videos. In this manner, the Digital Green method
"creates a new ecosystem of community learning where the community creates, disseminates, and evaluates the information." Digital Green thus "flips
the broadcast paradigm" by facilitating the creation of content "by farmers, of farmers, for farmers."
Rikin’s journey to Digital Green began with a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. He was inspired by the 1969 moon landing and the combination of "brains and brawn" exemplified by the astronauts. So he graduated with a Bachelors in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master's in Aeronautical and Astronautical Space Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rikin then planned to join the U.S. Air Force, but he was told that he would need to undergo a painful eye surgery in order to be eligible. He underwent the surgery and, in the interim, worked at a private space tourism company, earned his private pilot license, and performed research work at Oracle, where he received patents for linguistic search algorithms that he helped develop. Rikin was on the verge of joining the U.S. Air Force and taking one step closer to making his childhood dreams come true.
Then a personal shift
occurred. After spending most of his life gazing outward and beyond the physical limits of the Earth, Rikin turned his gaze inward
and back toward Earth. He learned that many astronauts experienced a transformation after going into space that caused them to look upon the Earth -- and themselves -- with fresh eyes. Many of these astronauts went on to become farmers and teachers in order to better connect to the world and its people. After some self-examination, Rikin realized
that he "d[id]n't need [his] fifteen minutes of fame to go into space." He, too wanted to better connect to this
world and its people.
In that spirit, Rikin became inspired by a "different sort of hero
" -- the men and women who represent 60% of India’s population and who produce the second largest farm output in the world. Rikin consequently "reverse-migrated" to India and immersed himself in rural India and Indian agriculture. He worked at Microsoft Research India's Technology for Emerging Markets team, which led to the creation of Digital Green.
Digital Green's approach to agricultural extension services has been shown to be
10 times more cost-effective and 7 times more effective in terms of uptake than the traditional approach to agricultural extension services. There are several reasons for Digital Green's success, many of which have to do with the localized nature of Digital Green's offering and the technological innovations
at the heart of Digital Green's platform. But, according to Rikin, there's another reason: Digital Green's outreach to women farmers has been particularly effective, as women account for about 80% of Digital Green's audience and are especially receptive to content that features fellow women
Since 2008 and as of June 2016, Digital Green
has reached over 1 million individuals across 13,592 villages -- including villages from 9 states in India and parts of Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ghana, Niger and Tanzania -- through 4,426 videos. Digital Green has received support
from a variety of organizations, including, among others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S.A.I.D., Google, Cisco and Oracle. Rikin and Digital Green have received awards including the Ashoka Fellowship, TED Fellowship, MIT Technology Review TR35, CNN-IBN Young Indian Leaders, and Fortune Global Forum Visionaries. Digital Green now looks to capitalize on its success by expanding on the topics covered by the videos to include health and nutrition.
Rikin has found that his background in aeronautical and astronautical space engineering has come in handy in his current endeavors. "[T]he same principles of looking at a rocket from a system's perspective – human, machine, and environment – are still critical when analyzing agricultural development issues. Like engineering, development decisions need to be grounded in sound science and reasoning," Rikin says
. Ultimately, Rikin finds agricultural development to be a "more challenging" and personally fulfilling enterprise.
Rikin is a licensed private pilot and received patents for linguistic search algorithms that he helped develop at Oracle. He has a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor's degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.