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Awakin Calls » Rikin Gandhi

Rikin Gandhi: Innovator, Technologist, Global Development Entrepreneur
Dec 10, 2016: Shifting My Gaze from the Stars to Earth and Within



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Rikin Gandhi 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 See full.
Rikin Gandhi 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.
 


Five Questions for Rikin

What Makes You Come Alive?
At Digital Green, we start with a sense of gratitude that we have the opportunity to stand with the poor. We see the world not just as it is, but as it could be. We elevate others' voices to imagine a better future for themselves, as they are the sources of inspiration that lead to innovation. We often find ourselves in unchartered territory, but we push ourselves to take risks and act at scale because time is short, particularly for those in need. We use technology to amplify good, and partner with organizations and individuals that have the hearts and minds to realize its potential. We are committed to the long game of our moonshot by starting with the poor, and relentlessly seeking to improve ourselves. We know this challenge is not easy, and that investing in the growth of one another is as important as those whom we serve. We will never be satisfied until poverty is history and every individual is able to live a life of dignity.

Your Greatest Inspiration?
Astronauts are the heroes that make childhood dreams. These men and women are known for their right stuff of brains and brawn. As many who have chased a dream, I studied the biographies of those who had come before to put together my own astronaut playbook of what it would take to make it happen. But before I got very far in getting up there, life took a different course. And like many of those who have seen the Earth from a new perspective, I sought to better reconnect with the world and its people. I landed in a place in rural India with a different sort of hero: farmers.

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
I was in the backseat of our old station wagon and shouted at my dad in the front seat that he never said that he loved me. That wasn't true of course, but I was a young teenager and was a rebel without a cause. He pulled the car to the side of the road and said that he was sorry if I ever felt that way, said that he loved me, and started to cry. We have never parted or ended a conversation since that day without him making sure that he's said that he loves me.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?
To see an Earth rise.

One-line Message for the World?
Onward and upward!


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