Information Equals Power: Nokia’s SMS Services For Farmers

University of Cambridge’s Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu write that since 2009, the cell phone company Nokia has worked to use cell phone technology both to empower and to target the world’s rural poor.


University of Cambridge's Navi Radjou (top) and Jaideep Prabhu explore how companies combine in-house innovation expertise with external partner capabilities to build tools for the world's poor.

Since 2009, the cell phone company Nokia has worked to use cell phone technology both to empower and to target the world’s rural poor.

It’s a big market: for instance, almost 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural areas, but only an estimated 23% of the rural population have cell phones (according to Deloitte, as reported in Indian Express).

Nokia’s service is called Nokia Life Tools, which delivers to farmers agricultural information via SMS. The program started in India and has been brought to China, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Navi Radjou, a fellow at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, and Jaideep Prabhu, the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business and Enterprise and director of the Centre for India & Global Business at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, write in the upcoming Spring issue of MIT Sloan Management Review that “Nokia believes that its technology-enabled solutions can help accelerate agricultural sector growth by providing farmers with the right information at the right time.”

Some of the program’s characteristics, according to Radjou and Prabhu:

  • Nokia Life Tools uses SMS text-messaging technology on cell phones to provide farmers with current information on weather, advice about crop cycles, general farming tips and techniques, and market prices for crops, seeds and fertilizers.
  • Information is delivered in the recipient’s native language.
  • Indian farmers using Nokia Life Tools during the pilot project in early 2009 reported that they felt empowered, with the information giving them greater confidence in negotiating with intermediaries — who had previously controlled the information.
  • Subscription cost to farmers is 60 rupees (about $1.20) per month.

Radjou and Prabhu write that to develop and deploy this service, “Nokia tapped into an extensive array of partners, including information service provider Thomson Reuters, agricultural domain expert Syngenta, weather expert Skymet and leading telecom carriers Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications and Tata DOCOMO.”

As well, “Nokia’s R&D teams and partners spent many months in Indian villages to learn about the living conditions of farmers and identify their unmet needs and aspirations. This grassroots approach to market research allowed the entire partner network to find a realistic solution that meets end-users’ real needs. At the same time, Nokia partnered with local government bodies and grassroots NGOs to promote Life Tools as an innovative solution across many Indian states and accelerate its adoption by local farmers.”

Radjou and Prabhu’s article, “Mobilizing for Growth in Emerging Markets,” is online now as a special preview of the Spring 2012 issue.

The article details the ways that multinational companies are creating new networks of local partners to reach the underserved consumers at the base of the pyramid in emerging markets. These consumers have been dubbed the “next billion.”

Radjou and Prabhu’s book, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, is scheduled for publication by Jossey-Bass in April 2012.

The authors can be followed on Twitter at @naviradjou and @jaideepprabhu.