Rikin Gandhi: Shifting My Gaze from the Stars to Earth and Within
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Dec 10, 2016
Guest: Rikin Gandhi
Host: Amit Dungarani
Moderator: Rish Sanghvi
Shifting My Gaze from the Stars to the Earth and Within
Amit: Well, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, depending on the part of the world that you're calling in from. My name is Amit Dungarani and I'm really excited to be your host for this week's global Awakin call. Now, every story is the beginning of a conversation and whether it's with ourselves or with others across time and culture, stories have been the agent of personal transformation in part because they have the power to change our hearts and minds. The purpose of our weekly calls is to share the stories from the lives of incredible change makers from around the world. Through thoughtfully guided conversations with them, our special guest speakers share their personal stories and ...through their actions, their experiences, and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant seeds for a more compassionate and service-oriented society, while serving to foster our own inner transformation.
Today, we have an incredible guest speaker whose passion for the stars and space exploration ended up leading him down a path back to earth within. His name is Rikin Gandhi. While Rikin's organization, Digital Green, uses an innovative digital platform for community engagement to improve the lives of rural communities and specifically farmers across south Asian sub-Saharan Africa. There's a deeper sense of purpose and meaning for him and those that he works with and aims to serve.
Rikin recently shared that "at Digital Green we start with a sense of gratitude and 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 ourselves as they are sources of inspiration that lead to innovation. We know the challenge is not easy and that investing in the growth of one another is as important as those whom we serve." As you can easily surmise, Rikin and his team is nothing short of inspiring and we're very grateful that he is here with us today.
And, staying on that note of gratitude, behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space and so we're thankful to them and all of you as our listeners for helping co-create today's space.
[minute of silence]
Amit: Thank you. So again, welcome to our weekly Awakin call....
Amit: So our theme for this week is shifting our gaze from the stars to the Earth and within. And as I mentioned earlier, at one point Rikin had aspired and prepared to be an astronaut, but after spending most of his life gazing outward and beyond the physical limits of the Earth, he turned it inward and back toward Earth and realized he wanted a better way to connect to this world and its people.
And so we've been asking people this week, have you had situations where you've gazed outward to the external world for meaning only to find that that true meaning and satisfaction require looking inward? And how has that inward gaze allowed you to better connect with others. When we had one of our frequent listeners write in, David, who had said, "I've looked outward for meaning, such as to look outward for approval, and have learned that true meaning really comes from looking inward. Such as realizing the meaning that is most important to me comes from me and to look inward is to see whether or not I have my approval. Inward gaze has allowed me to realize that we are much more alike than different, which has helped me better connect with others.
And so Rish, I was hoping with that you could continue the circle, share some of your own thoughts, and then please introduce us to Rikin and we can dive right into the conversation.
Rish: Yes, thank you very much. So the idea of the answers being much closer to home is something that certainly appealed to me, not just because I often look for my keys that are still in my pocket, but this thing that this listener shared about shortening the distance to our answers, instead of looking farther out, is something that we've all been close to at some point or another. But what I'm intrigued by, in the case of Rikin, is that where does that contrast start? This is someone who literally is an MIT-trained rocket scientist, and at some point decided that it would be better for him to form a non-profit working on agricultural practices, digging deep into the Earth, quite literally, and what they do at Digital Green is produce and share video content of farming best practices with each other.
But of course, the work goes much deeper than that. Rikin himself, he's an Ashoka fellow, he has won many accolades beyond that. I know him personally, and just an amazing, grounded, and humble individual. And so I'd like to open up this call by welcoming Rikin and hearing from Rikin himself. Rikin, thank you for being on the call today.
Rikin: Thank you so much, Rish. Great to be with you.
Rish: Let's start with this aspiration of you wanting to be an astronaut. Almost every child wants to be an astronaut, but what our listeners may not know, Rikin, is the level of intensity and commitment that you had to this. This is obviously not a passing phase for you. Can you pain the picture of the level of commitment to your childhood dream for our listeners?
Rikin: Sure. So it was like a very young age--around age five or six--that I saw the first footage of those...images of astronauts on the surface of the moon. And from that point on I was clipping out newspaper articles that featured astronauts and would read biographies of them to try to put together my own astronaut playbook to try to get to space. I studied engeineering, I got a pilot's license and was about to enlist in the US Air Force with this aspiration of being able to make it to space.
Rish: So you were about to enlist, and then what happened?
Rikin: Well, I went back to the same biographies that I was trying to follow when I was growing up, and what I had focused on while I was growing up was what they did to get to space, and I was just trying to emulate the same for myself. But while I was in the waiting queue with the Air Force as I was waiting for some medical clearance to go through, I had a chance to look back at those very same biographies and look at, what did these astronauts do after they came back to Earth?
And what I saw was that a number of astronauts, they see the Earth from this new perspective from above and they wonder, why is there war? Why is there poverty? And several astronauts come back and have become public school teachers or farmers, to really reconnect with the world and its people. And although I never made it all the way to space myself, I sort of had that change of heart myself, and changed trajectory.
Rish: Yeah, you didn't have to go all the way up there to reach the same conclusion. So this is something you have been working on since childhood. When you had this shift, did it feel very natural? What was your internal state? Was there a sense of loss or grieving, or did you immediately feel this sense of clarity and purpose? I think a lot of times transitions are very interesting moments and I'd love to hear a little bit more from you on how you made that transition.
Rikin: Yeah, I would say that growing up and having that very driven aspiration to try to become an astronaut, I have some sort of proclivity to trying to be on mission. And earlier it was to try to get myself into space. And then as I had this like reflection of, what would it be for me to say, in this rare opportunity that everything works out and I did get to have my fifteen minutes in space, what would I do afterwards? And there certainly was a lot of reflection and back and forth on, "what does this mean?" And perhaps I should just stay the course because at some level the astronaut playbook is perhaps more well-defined. Although it's of course hard, it has certain steps that you need to take to be able to potentially get there.
And so that was perhaps the most disconcerting for me. To say that, well, if I'm going to take this new mission of reconnecting with the world and it's people, which is a very broad one, and unclear of like what it entails, it obviously is going to be much more open-ended and is going to require a lot more soul searching around where do I even begin?
And that's where I kind of decided to go out to India. That was about ten years ago, and joined some friends from college who were starting up a bio-diesel venture in Maharashtra, and there was nothing specific about that venture or that place other than I thought that it aligned with this new mission that I had in my heart and I wanted to try to make the first step towards better understanding it and myself in the process.
Rish: Great, thank you. So you were trying to create your own playbook for this new thing, and so tell us how that connects to the beginnings of Digital Green--bio-diesel venture quite far from helping farmers through videos--how did one thing lead to the next?
Rikin: So while we were just trying to get this bio-diesel venture started off in Maharashtra, one of the things that I quickly saw was the fact that there's a small minority of farmers who are seeing agriculture as a source of prosperity, for themselves, for their families, being able to send their kids to school, earning a good living. And then there's the majority of farmers in those very same villages where those prosperous farmers reside who see it as a vocation of last resort. That they are hit by the vagaries of climate or markets that they don't know what to do or where to begin. So they're kind of at a point of desperation and have lost a lot of self-confidence in themselves and often are looking to move out of these rural communities as quickly as they can to try to see if they can find a better life elsewhere.
And that's where I then connected with Microsoft research in Bangalore in India and we had this opportunity to think about, is there a way that perhaps technology might be able to bridge this sort of chasm between these more prosperous farmers who are more hopeful and the majority of small-scale farmers who aren't? And is there a way perhaps just for myself--like on reflection, even my own journey of wanting to try to get to the stars and go to space and looking at those grainy images of Apollo era astronauts on the surface of the moon--could those same tools perhaps be ways that we could think about shifting people's aspirations and own confidence in themselves towards saying that this agricultural practice that they have doesn't have to be this desperate situation.
Rish: Interesting idea of trying to relate what might be applicable to space back to the farmers and I want to come back to that because I think you have some thoughts on that. Can you tell us a little bit about, so once you started engaging with the agricultural community and your won experience, what was the story of the experiences that you had there that were particularly moving or compelling for you?
Rikin: Well, I think as we started the work, for me personally, we started with using video as a tool perhaps for being able to capture some of these stories of other farmers in these like local communities to be able to share their stories with their peers more effectively. And to be able to kind of create new roles in the community.
And some of the things that we've actually seen over the years have been things like--there was once a woman who was ostracized from her village, and not just psychologically ostracized, but even physically, where she was pushed out to the edge of the village community. We were able to record some of her stories of applying some practices in agriculture that were more sustainable, that boosted up her economic status, even as just a single mother. And we shared that with her peer group of farmers in her own village. And what transpired was that they invited her back into the core community, to not just watch her video, but to have her speak to them and share and be able to ask questions of her. So that was really exciting to be able to see some of these bonds kind of like come together in these communities.
And it's also exciting to see how these folks who often--a majority of the communities that we work with are women--and oftentimes their own voices are low, from even just an audible volume point-of-view. And we've seen, just by featuring some of these women's voices who perhaps started off as being desperate, where they're--we've had a woman in...that we were working with, who talked about how she's lost faith in even God because of her circumstances of not being able to make ends meet in her home because she wasn't getting enough wheat to even be able to feed her family for the whole twelve months of the year. And as a result of applying some of these practices, and then more than that, even being able to be featured in some of these videos, you can even hear her voice become loud and she has now become almost a village leader in her community as a result of having gone through this journey.
Rish: So you undoubtedly see real transformation, and these stories speak to that. I think when you aggregate all of that that Digital Green has reached, you have then millions of stories now, with a million...that have been reached. You have been posting impressive metrics, ten times cheaper to facilitate best practices, seven times more likely that a family will try a new method after looking at one of the videos.
You know, one of the reasons you mentioned you're so successful in this approach that others have tried as well--when we were speaking earlier this week you talked about demonstrating a sensitivity to basic human psychology. And that if you noticed that if the farmer in the video had a watch on their wrist, then if a farmer who was watching that video couldn't afford a watch, they would be less likely to adopt those practices. Similarly, having women in the videos that you mentioned was incredibly effective. Can you share with us more of your experience on this, and this idea of what are some basic underlying human elements that have come out of the projects that you've seen, either within yourself or in the community.
Rikin: Yeah, what we've seen is just how much human identification with your peers really is what ultimately affects people's own aspirations to try to think that the information that they might be exposed to is of relevance for them and that they might try. You know, oftentimes, these videos, when you go and look at these 5,000 videos that we now have, they have names like, "This is a Composting Video," or "This is a Video on how to Improve your Rice Productivity." However, more than like the technicalities of the step-by-step information about how you do a particular practice, what people are really looking for is the stories of these individuals and how they can be able to relate to them. , where they ran like this trial where they compared two types of videos. One was where they were just kind of producing videos around pure demonstrative types of information that went through the technicalities of a particular practice, versus
Just like that example of that widow farmer that I mentioned, we've also, in Ethiopia, worked with a research organization called IFPRI, where they ran like this trial where they compared two types of videos. One was where they were just kind of producing videos around pure demonstrative types of information that went through the technicalities of a particular practice, versus a video that really featured an individual sharing his or her story and then having other members of their local community, from the local village leader to other peers, affirming that this was a great farmer. And they showed these two videos in a randomized control trial, and after six months they measure the people's aspirations about--looking at the psychology of even the levels of people's desperation and feeling about perhaps helpless against like God or the government, or optimism, to saying that "no, I can actually do this myself. I can actually improve my level and status in life." And they found that those second types of videos, the ones that were more aspirational in nature were the ones that ultimately really changed them.
And if I look at my own self, that's what happened to me too, in terms of having even that first mission of like wanting to go to space. I certainly went through the biographies to look at the technicalities of how to get there. But at another level, that whole like mission orientation to say that there's something beyond myself, this larger cosmos that I think human curiosity just drives us to understand, is what drove me to want to be an astronaut. And in the same way, that is what is sort of happening for these rural communities as their aspirations about themselves are starting to shift as they see these peers in their communities--and not just seeing them, but also having discussions with one another as these videos are being shared because those peer effects that happen in the videos and in real life with one another, after the video shows talking with each other, is ultimately what drives the change.
Rish: So you noticed a universal drive for aspiration. Anything else in terms of insights or anything else that you've gleaned over these last ten years on the basic human condition--not to put too philosophical a point on it--but, yeah...
Rikin: Yeah, I think that the other one that drives our work is this notion of Homophily, the psychological concept, which is--the social distance between two individuals is ultimately what drives people's connection with them. And so in these video screenings, if you attended one of them in the villages where we work, the questions that you're going to hear first aren't about economics or the return on investment of the practices, but rather, what's the name of the person in the video, and which village is he or she from? People are really trying to connect with the people that they are seeing, and seeing if they can identify with them for themselves.
And I think we see that not just in these rural communities, but if you look at the way of the internet and the type of fragmentation that we see of perhaps people on one spectrum of the ideological spectrum going to this particular news sources, or the other side kind of living in their own bubble. That sort of condition of all of us kind of having an inherent sense of tribalism and relating to people who we think are similar to ourselves is also across demographics, across conditions. I think there's opportunities to break through it by featuring other people into the mix. But to the extent that you can show kind of a cross-section of people that really relates with the cross-section of people that are going to be accessing that piece of information. That's when you're going to really see people to take it up, to believe it, and to perhaps change as a result.
Rish: Thank you. What has been the impact of Digital Green--now you talked about a lot of the external impact that Digital Green is having on these communities. What has been the impact of Digital Green on you, personally? What other shifts has it enabled for you?
Rikin: Yeah, I think for me it's really been a journey of learning. When we started this work I had no aspiration of setting up an organization or trying to even create a development impact. For me, it was just to see if there was a way that I could spend my time on a mission that I thought was under-served and that perhaps I could learn something more about and maybe in the process sort of contribute. But at each stage in our journey at Digital Green, from being a research project at Microsoft to having the opportunity to spin it off, to now working across both the developing and even the developed worlds--because we've recently started also working not just in South Asia and Africa, but also in the U.S.--is to be able to learn about how I can learn better about the kinds of change that's possible, even within myself, even before I think about the type of change that might be possible in the rest of the world.
And I think that's what's different between what I was hoping to try to achieve via the astronaut path, where it as that well-laid-out path for me to be able to just kind of do one step at a time. Whereas in this new kind of stream of activity that I'm in with Digital Green. It's much more of a process of change that it requires of me and that I feel like I'm growing through myself even before I think about the work that we're doing in the world.
Rish: When you talked about Digital Green, you said that, "We start with a sense of gratitude." Can you expand on that just a little bit?
Rikin: Yeah, I think the opportunity that we have to work with these rural communities at this kind of level--we're working with a million people now across South Asia and Africa--and these folks have so much inherent potential and I think for us as an organization and for me as an individual, to even be able to think about what could be useful, what could be catalytic for them to be able to unleash that potential so that they aren't in that place of desperation, so that they grow their self-confidence, so that they can sort of be able to take their next growth in themselves and for their families.
There's a real humility that that requires to even think that you could be that, or serve that function. And I think we at Digital Green are learning so much from these communities and from the partners that we work with in the process about what are even our own interests and what is also our kind of true purpose as a result of engaging these communities. But that's what we're most grateful for.
Rish: How do you operationalize that, Rikin, is that more a philosophical underpinning of Digital Green, or do you have practices that you actually incorporate into your daily operation? Is there something you do? Because I think a lot of organizations are trying to be in this space, but how do you operationalize something like that?
Rikin: Well, one is like to distill it in the form of even language, a common framework of being able to talk about it with one another. And also applying the very same practices or approaches that we used in the world within ourselves. For instance, we used videos at the community level to be able to share practices of agriculture amongst farmers. But we also now have videos about team members sharing information about some of these cultural values about lifting each others' voices or standing with the core with a sense of gratitude. To be able to--within our own organization--be able to hear and see through video how other team members are living that out in the work that they do, whether they might even be not in the field, but maybe they're in a back office function in administration or finance, to be able to allow them to share their own voices that might be translatable to peers in their kind of peer group.
Rish: Great. Yeah that's very interesting to move that beyond the philosophy. So thank you for sharing those thoughts. I wanted to ask you, now, having done this for ten years, having made the transitions, and obviously very successful, what are you finding yourself occupied with lately? What matters to you lately? Where do you find the next frontier of growth for Digital Green, but also for yourself?
Rikin: So I think it's in two streams. One is for us to imbibe some of these cultural elements that we just described more deeply at a team- and for me at an individual level. And the second is to see how we can create even a deeper impact in these communities' lives, so that it isn't just that they are getting exposed to practices and that they may or may not apply these things for themselves. We've seen sort of these aspirational shifts, but I think there's more that we need to do to proactively enable that. And some of that requires us to go deeper than information alone. For instance, we're also starting to connect farmers physically to markets and such to be able to enable them to translate that information into tangible actions that they can see gains from and that reinforces them to be able to participate in this larger knowledge exchange, so to speak.
And I think for us at an organizational level, we've largely taken this approach of using videos and using them to share information from farmer to farmer. But we now are seeing that there might be different situations and different sort of geographies where we're sort of expanding, where perhaps the entry point of sharing those stories might have to vary, right? It may not always have to be done over video. Maybe you can use other forms of media or perhaps there are other channels to be able to provide support.
Rish: And what about for yourself, personally? Where is the next frontier for you, for growth?
Rikin: For me, I think as we've been sort of growing this work, I've been trying to focus a lot more on how do we build the culture of an organization and the larger community of partners and rural communities that we work with, to really imbibe this spirit of lifting each others' voices, having each others' backs, seeing the least amongst us as the sources of inspiration for the work that we do or for the knowledge that we share. And I think especially as we've been growing, there can be sort of a tendency to just focus on scale and expansion. But trying to see, how can we make sure that we're not losing the ethos. Not just in the day-to-day, but also the types of approaches that we take, the types of policies that we create, the systems that we develop. And I find myself pushing my own self to make sure that we're embodying that spirit.
Rish: Yeah, and that's hard to do. I think especially given your success, just to--that's great. I want to come back to something you mentioned earlier on and I promised I would come back to it, something that I'm curious about. What similarities you've found between rocket science and the work that you do at Digital Green? You alluded to this earlier, that you were challenging yourself to say, okay what are some things that I know that I can apply to this unknown area that there isn't a playbook for, right? So what did you find?
Rikin: Well, it's one that you have to approach these partners and these communities with a position of humility, and really to understand, what is it that they do and what is it that you can learn from them and perhaps see what you can contribute. And I think one of the major learnings that we've had--or that I've had personally as a result of looking at the parallel of my own inspiration of trying to pursue sort of the dream of going to space and this new mission--is just the power that stories and media can have towards affecting that.
And of course our work at the community level does this as I've described by featuring local individuals that people are able to relate with. More recently we've also, for instance, co-produced like a reality TV show to try to change the discourse of--agriculture in India has such a negative connotation that is largely based on the major tragedy, which is a farmer suicide, and it's a real problem that needs to be addressed. But you can only imagine if you're a farmer who is exposed to media that just is talking about documentaries related to farmer suicide, it further reduces your own confidence in yourself in dealing with your own self-worth if all you hear is peers or others like you who are committing suicide.
So what we wanted to try to do was to have at least an additional voice in that mainstream sort of media discourse about agriculture by producing a reality TV show, which was like a thirteen episode series where we would have young contestants applying practices like drip irrigation or preparing a meal with local millets. And doing it kind of in an entertainment and sort of educational format that people were able to relate with. And almost the primary audience of this program was largely urban audiences because rural audiences are often the ones who are looking to urban communities as their source of aspiration. And so what we found is that by changing some of how urban India looks at rural India, who this benefits the most is rural India because they start to think that "urban folks in Bombay care about compost-making or some of the things that we do. That makes me feel that what I'm doing has some more worth to it." And so I think this is very much related to how I was also looking at these astronauts on those images and also kind of gaining my own inspiration.
Rish: It kind of reminds me of the point you made earlier about aspirational--that if the aspirational quality that gets the most traction, even in the videos--and it's like you almost have people see themselves in a different light, in a better light, and it's empowering. How did the reality TV thirteen-episode series go? How was it received? And what changes have you seen--have you discerned any real impact from that?
Rikin: So yeah, it's hard because broadcast television is a harder thing to measure, but the program got about two million views across four major networks in India. But what we see is more of these intangibles that are more anecdotal in nature where the farming community themselves relate--like looking at some of these programs, like "hey this person is preparing a meal with local millets," and we didn't even know local millets are being consumed in urban India. We always thought that they just are eating staples like white rice and wheat. But to see them doing a cook-off with ragi for instance, a finger millet in South India. Show it to some of these ragi-growing farmers that what they're doing also has relevance and interest and value amongst these folks that they always just thought are into white rice and other types of rice, which I think that they often see in other types of media programs like Bollywood films or other types of television programs. And for them to see this, and they were able to notice there's this small element of this reality TV show that probably some audiences wouldn't even pick out.
But for a rural audience that kind of receives like this trickle down effect, they are able to relate with it because that's their bread and butter, is like these millets that they're both producing and consuming, and to see that these folks that they aspire at some level to become, doing these things and being excited about them, there's even greater excitement and confidence for themselves.
Rish: Yeah, so hearing that, the intangibles are often seems like they are as important if not more, not just for the reality TV shows, but even for Digital Green. So do you have any thoughts on sort of this tension between this need for showing tangible impact versus the real value of intangibles? How are you processing that and managing that tension?
Because it seems like some of these intangibles are equally valuable, but obviously you can't demonstrate it in a way, you can only talk about it, you can only tell stories about them. And it comes back to this point of the value of stories, right?
Rikin: That's right, yeah. And so I mean our primary proxy is looking at whether people applied the practices that they see or hear about for themselves on their farm. And physically observing, did they do so or not? But for us, I would say that that's kind of a means to an end, right? That this technicality of a particular practice is a stepping stone, hopefully, for these communities to be able to gain the intangible of that later sense of self.
That's what we're trying to shift, even for ourselves as an organization and the work that we do.
Rish: How interesting. And what would you say? What would you feel are intangibles as members of your organization are receiving?
Rikin: Well, it's this change in perception and this greater sense of curiosity at some level and wonderment. Related to even my journey towards space and these aspirations of what these astronauts conferred. What is the cosmos? It's this expansive thing that we can never wrap our minds around. And also if you look at the human condition, it's also something that we can never be able to really wrap our minds around.
And what I think this journey is enabling for myself and our team, especially as we are getting a greater sense--seeing these concrete types of actions that we can take as more of that means to an end, of the intangibles is that greater sense of ourselves in the process of, who are we? And what is our human condition? It creates or shows us, as a team, what these inherent tensions are. Between ourselves and the external world. And we might be doing something concrete in the external world, we might be working with these rural communities, but we're also growing at the same time. And that might be, at some level, like our purpose--even as an organization--is our team's own growth, which is why that's also part of our cultural manifesto.
Rish: That's beautiful. It goes back to this idea of the inner transformation--the answers, the engagement being closer to home than you thought. Right? That's really great.
Where do you see this work--and by this work I mean the external work, the internal work, all of it--taking you over the next few years, as you look out to the next five, ten years?
Rikin: That's a good question. I think what we're moving towards as an organization is to try to reduce the divides between our work and the external work, like with rural communities versus us, or with us and our partners, or between the developing and the developed worlds. Each of these sorts of variables, at some level, seem silos of their own. And what we hope to be able to at least be one part of a catalyst in, is to see if we can sort of bridge these divides.
I mentioned how there is this inherent human psychology of living in your tribe, and sometimes living in your tribe can be very beneficial. But there is also utility in bringing together some of these more disparate groups, even for us as an organization. And that's like a new role that we've never found ourselves in.
We've just been pretty heads down in terms of working with these rural communities, getting them to produce and show videos and that sort of thing. It's certainly--I think that's the concrete action that can allow us in the next five years or so to think about how can we use that to bring more of these communities, these disparate, siloed ones together. And I think we've only just begun that journey. Like the reality TV show was just one of those kind of darts that were thrown, but there's certainly a lot more that needs to be. And for instance the work that we're doing even in the US also....
You know, does it have to be seen that small-scale farmers have to be totally disconnected and everyone looks down on them from the rest of the agricultural scene. And there's already been a lot of studies that have shown that efficiency of agriculture is not an economies of scale type of game. Right, like these small farmers also have their own learnings and knowledge and perspectives that are perhaps even valuable for the larger types of developed world types of communities as is vice-versa.
Rish: And on one hand, there's that. So actually several questions came out of that. There's also this element of the knowledge--sorry, let me back up just a little bit. Bridging Divides, would that be a good personal slogan for you? For your life's work and for the work of Digital Green? Does that encapsulate it do you think?
Rikin: Perhaps, yeah. I don't know. I don't know if there was a divide, but I don't know if I like the term divide as much, but yeah, in terms of trying to bring folks together and leveraging technology and process to facilitate that in a way that people find mutually beneficial.
Rish: And then coming back to this idea of rural farmers having something to share with the world, and as against that, this idea that local knowledge being really important and being relevant, versus the global...do you see a paradox there?
Rikin: There could be, but I think, so if I look at in our current work with the videos, the approaches not like I had totally like user-generated content type of play, like one would think of with a service like, say, YouTube, where anyone can produce anything about anything to anyone. Right? Ours is a little bit more like a Wikipedia type of model, where anyone can contribute, but there is this community of people who are practitioners or researchers. It might be more global or more local in nature. Or also, kind of like moderating or help curate some of this information for wider sharing. So that we don't end up with a huge fragmented, sort of world.
Rish: I see, so that's an important distinction. Thank you for clarifying that. Okay Rikin, I have a question on the lighter side. So, you just became a father, Amara your daughter is six months old. What impact has that had on you, your work, and your outlook? Being a father of six months.
Rikin: Well, yes, she's amazing. I think that for the last ten years Digital Green has been like my baby of sorts and now we have a real one. And I think what's amazing with seeing her in these last six months develop and grow so quickly is just to be able to see her own wonderment and curiosity, and just inherent potential wrapped up in her small little six-month body. And you know, I think for me it's like seeing development first-hand in our own household. And it just speaks about the human condition, which is there is just so much potential in everyone. And it's just about nurturing it, or kindling it, or perhaps reigniting it, that sometimes needs to take place. And that's how I relate it to the work that we do in general at Digital Green with the experiences I've had with Amara over these six months.
Rish: Alright, thank you for sharing that. Rikin, so I'm going to pause. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts and insights. Very interesting. I'm going to jump back in to see if we have questions from listeners at this point.
Amit: Yeah, absolutely...
Rish: Okay, great. And while they are getting the questions lined up I just wanted to ask you--I heard you say that you are now--and you started in India, Rikin, and you've now got projects in Ethiopia or in other parts of Africa, and now in the US even. And some view--would say, do the farms in the US really need the kind of help--do they need the kind of service that those folks in India and Africa do? What are your thoughts on that?
Rikin: Yeah, so the percentage of farmers in America is small--it's less than 2% of the population is in agriculture. But of that population, about 80% of that population is small-scale farmers. And there are a large number of immigrant and refugee communities who are involved in the agriculture in the US. And in a lot of ways face very similar challenges to those abroad, from not being able to grow the commodities that they might be more aware of--like, we work with, for instance in California with Hmong and Mien types of communities, who mostly are involved in growing Asian vegetables.
And there's not a great system to be able to support them, whether from the government or other non-profits. They're often leasing very expensive land and they're kicked off that leased land every year, so they're not able to invest in really developing their farms for the long term, whether that be investing in irrigation or other types of soil or fertility management types of practices. So their just kind of rotating around and they also face ultimately the same issues of self-confidence and self-worth that we see everywhere. Agriculture is one of these very difficult vocations that involves a myriad number of variables from markets to government schemes to climate. Many of which are out of one's hands and you operate out of a pretty razor-thin margin. And for especially a small farmer who has limited ability to hedge those risks, they can find themselves on the wrong side of things pretty often.
And so we've actually found, even some of our videos that were produced in India are relevant for these farmers here in the US. And what a great stroke of confidence boost that gives to Indian farmers to know that their videos are being watched by some farmer in America.
Rish: That's amazing. It goes to what you were speaking about intangible values and also just the universality of what seems to be these local differences. So thank you for sharing that.
Amit: You know, Rikin, I wanted to sort of just jump in here for a second--this is Amit--and ask, if you could just sort of walk us through the process of when you first got started. Because I think it is really interesting when you think of putting together these videos and now that you guys are almost 4,500 to 5,000 videos in, you know, there's definitely an easy process and you guys know what works and what doesn't work. But I think it's always interesting that learning curve that you have in the beginning or even having people have the courage to come on to video, in particular maybe some of the women in India to have that confidence to share--and then feeling that it's important enough, it's of value. And so if you could walk us through some of those lessons learned, I think that would be really interesting.
Rikin: Sure, yeah, glad to. You know, for us it starts by partnering with local organizations that already work with these rural communities. So these are organizations like The Ministry of Rural Development in India or various NGOs in various places who already are working with these rural communities, have already mobilized them into say women's self-help groups or farmer clubs, and already have front-line village-level workers to engage them and train them on improved practices and whatnot. We then kind of come in and we train folks at the district level, usually four to five people from this local partner organization in the communities that they work with to produce these short videos of eight to ten minutes in length. And then share these videos, which aren't scripted, they're just sort of roughly storyboarded out to try to get the testimonials and demonstrations of practices from real farmer experiences. And then these videos are distributed, primarily off line, by these village workers of our partner organizations, who already are from these same communities and are already engaging them. To then facilitate the screenings of these videos among the very same women's self-help groups and farmers clubs that they were working with. And basically layering on top of this existing program that we've partnered with is what allows us to be able to reach the levels of trust and level of scale that we've been able to do so.
With regard to the question about people's interest in appearing in these videos or even producing these videos, especially women. We've been really impressed to see how much innate interest and curiosity there is in people. And at some level, being featured in a video is a status symbol in these communities. And we've never had a problem of people raising up their hands if they want to be featured in whatever the next video is going to be about.
Amit: That's great. And earlier, too, you were talking about how you know, these videos--it's not just someone sitting there, turning on a selfie camera or anything of that nature. These are all very carefully curated and so you have a team of about 60-65 people that work with Digital Green. And so I'm curious: what does that makeup look like? You said there's a psychology component, there's obviously a research component, there's outreach at the grassroots level. And so I'm curious how you put together this incredible team that's been able to be expansive in India as well as sub-Saharan Africa.
Rikin: Yeah, it's a pretty eclectic kind of group. We're now about 100 people. Basically, there's a couple of key subgroups within our team. One is the one that works with our partners, which is basically like a trainer of trainers, to operationalize this whole process of producing videos and showing videos and collecting data and feedback from these local communities and just standing that whole activity up. And doing it in a way that we're not the ones who actually do the day-to-day activities of producing any video or showing any video or collecting any video.
We're just enablers of getting that system operationalized with these local communities and the partners that were already working with each other previous to us even entering into the picture. And then we also have a software engineering team that does some of the work around building out some of the systems for collecting data and sharing videos in places that have limited connectivity and electricity.
We've got a team that's involved in research and learning to continue to push ourselves to understand what is the type of change that--whether it is qualitative and intangible in nature, or more quantitative impact. And seeing how we can improve ourselves. And then of course there's the back office functions as well. So I'd say these are the primary sorts of folks involved. But we've been able to achieve the scale that we have with this relatively smallish group largely because of the great partners that we work with and their existing trust and relationships that they have with the communities that they work with.
Rish: Are you finding that the work that you're doing that primarily relates to agricultural practices, is it having a halo affect on the direction or equalizing some of the social ills that you might see in these areas, whether it's just certain mindsets? For example, social hierarchies and class hierarchies and things like that. Is it having an effect in those ways as well? Even though that's not your primary purpose.
Rikin: Yeah, I think the one element that we've looked at more closely is how, from a social dimension of how this work is having an effect is women's inclusion in, especially decision making around the household. So the primary audience for these video screens in India is women's self-help groups who are involved in micro-credit and savings kinds of activities. And as now these individuals in these groups have become the primary source of new information that they're getting exposed to for their whole household. And so what it does is it sort of changes that dynamic in the household where the husband isn't watching the video, but he's often asking his wife now, like, "hey, what did you go to this meeting for and what did you learn?" And for a woman who perhaps always was involved in the agricultural labor side of things, now she has a voice in actually thinking about what should we do on our farm? And how should we manage it better?
So that's happened there and in some of our work in Ethiopia we're also--what we've found is that there was a hierarchy even amongst these farmers who would have greater access to information. They would have like these model farmers who the government would be primarily working with, to the neglect of the majority of farmers who were perhaps not model farmers. But through this exercise we found that by featuring videos that feature non-model farmers and also women, we're able to connect with these other more marginalized types of communities. And as a result, they themselves then gain a greater standing within their respective communities.
Actually going back to the IFPRI study that I mentioned, where they were looking at the differences between the demonstrative kind of video and the more testimonial kind of video, which was more aspirational in nature. What they also found in that aspirational video case was not just that people ended up adopting more agricultural practice--even though those aspirational videos didn't actually contain any specific information on agriculture information. But they also ended up sending their kids more to school, they ended up having more savings in their accounts. Changing people's aspirations or notions of themselves ends up having a much larger effect that goes well beyond whatever technicality of information that you might want them to apply.
Amit: [Reminder to callers] We had one of our listeners, his name is Charles and he writes: "Might the gaze be beyond the inward and the outward and the physical world? How might we connect with which we cannot see, describe, or understand? Rikin, in creating Digital Green, were you not just sharing better ways of working through your video technology, but perhaps might you have also been sharing hope in a growing sense of community?"
Rikin: Yeah, I think so--that's our aspiration. I think we're not necessarily fully there. There are perhaps some intangibles that we've been able to record in our work to date that sort of reflect those changes in aspiration and hope that has been conferred by our work. But yeah, I would say that although our work is typified by the fact that we're producing and sharing videos. That really represents kind of like 20% of the work that we do and the kinds of outcomes that we want to achieve. Right, like, 80% of what we want to achieve is more like this intangible change, and really these are just tools that are being used as a means to an end--because you do need some means to have some concreteness of what is it that you're doing and how do people connect with it. But it's definitely not the end game.
Amit: The same individual also asks, or comments: "Again it's been so wonderful sharing. Have you connected your desire to reach space to perhaps...this desire to venture into the quest of understanding life and death? Has the two birds in a tree metaphor ever been helpful in your work? And this might be helpful in connection with the fragmentation that you might see all over the place. Again, great effort." Charles, from Germany.
Rish: Yeah, I think just to add to that...story in the mist about a person who was single-focused in trying to find and transcending material desires for liberation. So I guess this idea being, has you quest, whether it's been in rocket science or with Digital Green, been in some ways an effort to transcend? And then just a shout out to say thank you to Charles again.
Rikin: No, thank you so much. I would say that yeah, for me, it was at that juncture between making the switch from pursuing that astronaut dream versus seeking out sort of a new mission. Yeah, lots of questions around purpose and also life and death types of questions related to the fact of what would I do if I went to space and what would happen afterwards. So there was certainly a spiritual seeking dimension to also what happened as I was thinking about, how can I go beyond just thinking about myself to have these fifteen minutes of space in a very physical kind of experience sort of way. And perhaps try to be able to change myself from a more deeper spiritual kind of dimension. Even though it was an unclear one, and one that I say that I'm still seeking and learning, that was certainly part of the transition that took place. And some of that is also reflective of some of the astronauts who have seen the Earth from above and gained that sense of wanting to transcend because you really see and experience the enormity of it all. And reading these biographies of these astronauts sort of made me....[technical difficulties]
Rikin: I was just connecting my own journey that happened between pursuing the space mission to searching for this new mission and having this kind of spiritual element, and also relating it back to many astronauts in their biographies talk about, how they've had these epiphanies, you know looking at the enormity of space and Earth in its perspective. Of course, I didn't go all the way, but looking through these biographies I sort of experienced some of it for myself.
Rish: Which biographies have you read that you would recommend?
Rikin: There are a lot, but I guess the one that I especially would recommend--well, there was one book that I especially like, which was for Rick Husband, he was an astronaut who flew the space shuttle missions. He actually died in the Columbia disaster, but he wrote a book called High Calling where he talks about that epiphany that he had while in space and how it sort of changed the course of his life afterwards, in terms of similarly, obviously not going to go into rural India, but getting back to the roots of people and trying to understand, from within, what does it mean to be here on Earth?
Rish: Beautiful. Thank you.
Amit: That's great. I'm going to go to one of our callers who's in the queue.
Caller: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm Cassi. And my question has to do with--you've been talking about aspiration and studying how the videos have inspired and motivated people, and I'm curious what you might have learned about resilience and perseverance when the sort of vagaries of life bruise our aspirations, what kinds of things are helping people grappling with that?
Rikin: Yeah, that's a good question. I think what we find in our work is--one good thing about these videos is that they're all aspirational in nature, so you want to avoid the situation where you're creating false hope in real circumstances, where things go awry as they certainly do and can. But the way that we sort of address that is by featuring real people's stories where they talk about the issues that they face, and also sometimes how those circumstances don't always lead to positive outcomes. So we actually have a mix of content, which both says, this is what you should do and this is the person whose story it is who did it, and you could be like him too. But there's also stories that talk about how perhaps somebody did face a challenge and then maybe it was because of an issue that was not even of their own volition. But we sort of share some of those kind of stories to kind of show that these are real stories of people to be able to relate with.
And there's sometimes learnings that can be had even in those circumstances that--perhaps things did go awry, but perhaps that person that had applied some practices that helped them at least not lose everything, or lose faith in themselves. And so that is also a story that also kind of connects with people, to say that it's not all just that everyone has boosted their income by 10x. No, there's also certain stories that also show how conditions didn't go as planned, and what did people do about it. And that also boosts people's confidence in themselves. To say that, actually I can control at least some parts of my destiny. And that can serve as a way to boost people's agency in the process.
Amit: That's great. Thank you, Cassi. Appreciate the question. You know, Rikin, I just want to go back to what you were saying earlier--you were sharing about some of the books you had read, the autobiographies. This past week, you know, we talk about space exploration, the loss of John Glenn--very much a hero and a titan in his own sense. I know that there's--when you think about your world now, when you think about some of the farmers and stories you heard, is there a hero that comes to mind, an unsung hero, someone that the world may not have heard of, but you, through your work has heard of and found inspirational?
Rikin: Yeah. So one of the women that I was able to meet directly, kind of like, in the field, and kind of build some amount of relationship with was this woman..., in.... And she was that farmer that I was actually referring to earlier on the call who had that desperate circumstance of having given up on God and on her family because she was just not able to feed her family for the whole year, because they just weren't having enough produce. Her husband had migrated out, but she was pushing--she was able to come out of that circumstance by seeing peers that seemed to be doing better and that had somehow pulled themselves out of that circumstance. And she was able to get some sheep initially to be able to take care of and then to produce some extra milk that helped to hold things over when some of their staple crops weren't doing as well.
And she ended up appearing in a number of Digital Green videos featuring dairy production to even some staple crop production types of videos to eventually--one of the things that we did in Bombay once was to have a film festival of some of the farmers that we work with and their videos presenting to urban gardener types of associations in Bombay. And she was able to share a story of how she got out of her circumstance, how she's now become a role model and is in these videos to be able to share her own learnings with others, to now this urban audience. And this urban audience just looked at her and was so impressed with the level of confidence that she displayed and the fact that they had things to learn from her on even how they might do their own compost on their terraces in Bombay.
So that's the kind of farmer-hero that I think we see everywhere across rural India. It's not just those prosperous farmers that I mentioned. Those are the prosperous farmers who really have made it, but even those farmers who have kind of given up at some level sometimes, they're actually--it's pretty remarkable to see that they are actually pretty resilient heroes, too. And they just sometimes don't even know it for themselves. And sometimes it's just being able to feature them in a story or on a video that can be the confidence boost for them to realize it.
Amit: That's great. I think a good part of our audience tends to be involved with social work or social entrepreneurship and I think a question that would sort of come from that community is: it's not easy doing the work that you're doing and I'm sure there have been moments in Digital Green's history where you wondered if this thing was really going to work or it was really going to be successful. So I was wondering if you could share a moment or two of that and how you were able to push through, and obviously you guys are doing very well now, over 100 people, and well-established. But the journey there is not as easy as it's often maybe painted as.
Rikin: Yeah, there's been points along the journey--I'd say perhaps my most personal one was when we were first starting Digital Green as a part of Microsoft research. And we had no plan. It was an open-ended research question about is there a role for technology in small-scale agriculture. I went out with a video camera, of which I am not super capable, nor an avid fan of. But I was just going to try to produce some videos with these rural communities and try to see if they would be interested in watching them.
And in those early days I would just be kind of like walking through villages to see if people would be open to being featured in these videos--of course I wasn't doing it totally alone. There was an NGO called Green Foundation that I was partnered with. But it was still a struggle to get people to initially understand, why would you want a video--they were fine to be featured in a video, but they were like, why would you want to do this on our farm about some composting type of practice that we just do all the time?
And initially there were times when people would even think that perhaps I was a spy or--like, why was I coming as like this foreign entity trying to record them do their own day-to-day work. So that was certainly like those challenging days where it was really unclear where this may or may not lead.
And I think the other bit was, initially, we were a research project and so a lot of the onus of the work was pushed by us as researchers to try this new approach with this NGO and these local communities. And that was useful. We did get research results out of it. However, on the other side of things, the challenge was that it didn't bleed much ownership within our partner organizations or the communities because it was always us as the researchers who wanted to try something, and not them, who really saw it as something that would enable them to be able to improve themselves.
But we had to make a shift actually at that point, which is essentially when we spun off from Microsoft and we basically presented that this is kind of the sort of approach that we've seen to be successful to date in these specific communities that we've rolled it out. But if you're interested, you should let us know if this might be relevant for the work that you do. And that really changed the game because then the onus was on these partners and the communities. And that's really what has accelerated the growth that we've had over these years.
Amit: That's great. You know, obviously when you started to take a look at the numbers, both obviously your organization's growth, but the analytics and the efficacy of these videos in these farming and rural communities, I'm sure the question has come up in terms of, well, if these videos are so helpful and so effective, well what other sort of social issues can we use this type of platform to have an impact on. You know, like such as women's health issues or perhaps alcoholism in certain rural or even urban slum areas. And so I'm curious, has Digital Green explored that? Is that something that might be a part of the horizon over the next five, seven years?
Rikin: Yeah, well one of the sources of inspiration for our work was a program called Digital Study Hall, which used video for primary school education. Where they would record private school teachers teaching after school to slum school kids, and share those videos on Science, Math, and English types of lessons with surrounding government school teachers to improve the pedagogy in their classrooms. And that was found to be successful, and that was the reason why we even started with this interest and thinking about the use of video in the agricultural space.
So, and at Digital Green, we've actually expanded our work such that it's actually not just focused on agriculture. There's also information related to nutrition and women's health and other types of messages too. The main driver ultimately of what messages are promoted or not promoted through our channel is a combination of the partners that we work with and the communities that they engage.
Because the information in and of itself depends on a lot of other complimentary product services, markets, resources that are going to be needed, even if it is say like a tomato practice. People are going to have questions about where do I get the seed, or where do I get the credit for the seed, or where's the market to sell my tomatoes? Or if it's an iron folic acid tablet type of video like in the health scheme of things, again, people are going to have questions of where is it available? Where are these IFA tablets available? How much do they cost? And what if I have problems when I consume it?
And so that's why these partners that we work with are so key, and actually our very name, Digital Green, comes from that--Green Foundation was our very first partner NGO that we worked with. And we were just adding on the digital component to it. That's how we became Digital Green.
Amit: That's great. That's wonderful. You know, as a community, one of the things that we like to always ask our guests is what can we do to further support you and the work that you're doing?
Rikin: Well, I would say that one is if folks know of organizations or individuals that might be complimentary to the sort of work that we're doing, we're always on the look out for potential collaborators on the ground, in the various geographies where we work.
And the other bit I would say is to encourage everyone to plant their own seed of creating their own sort of dream of the kind of change that they can create. And maybe that change might not be an external one--it might be more of an internal one, but through the means of doing something on the ground, you might find yourself changing in the process.
Amit: You know, Rikin, I really appreciate it--on behalf of all the callers, your time today. Rish, thank you very much for a wonderful, masterful job of moderating this conversation. I think there's so much to sort of, we're going to take a look back and just over the last hour and a half, and in terms of hearing your story, how things sort of evolved and just the real power of, you know, even after you go after your dreams and maybe something sort of comes in the way, knowing that there is a deeper sense of purpose and that's one of the things that I'm really going to take away. And I'm grateful for today's call.
So really appreciate you spending your time with us today, even thought you're in the midst of travels.
[moment of silence and gratitude]
Amit: Thank you very much, Rikin.
Rikin: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to connect with all of you.
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