Battling tsunami and drought with technology,
teamwork and "God's forgotten grain"

Story of service • India • March 2013


Tribal farmers (seated) learn new
techniques for an old grain with the
help of IBM volunteers (standing).
The horrifying tsunami of 2004 inundated farmlands along the southeast coast of India with salt residues, and that disaster has been followed by years of drought. The one-two punch has been devastating for the rural poor who depend on those fragile croplands for survival.

But the recurring cycle of problems along India's southeast coastline has also brought IBMers and others determined to help coastal villagers and farmers recover and thrive. They bring knowledge of new "smarter" rain fed farming methods and renewed interest in the traditional but neglected benefits of millet, or as some prefer to call it, "God's forgotten grain".

IBM volunteers in India place heavy emphasis on reducing hunger and malnutrition, attacking it from a variety of fronts, including the rural areas outside Chennai, Tamilnadu, the densely populated gateway to tropical southern India on the Bay of Bengal. A volunteer team led by Ramamurthy Valavandan, IBM virtual learning lead, has been using IBM skills and other resources to help farmers reclaim damaged crop lands, return to a millet-based agriculture and use new techniques developed with modern agricultural research. In the process, they are adapting IBM marketing techniques to aid in that transition and remind consumers that millet is an under-utilized, tasty and nutritious source of food. And they hope to make the project a model for farming in other drought-stricken parts of the globe.

Ah, millet. India is by far the leading producer of several varieties of the tiny but nutritious seeds of hardy, drought-resistant and highly nutritious grain. These annual grasses, valued by farmers and cooks for thousands of years, are especially suited to the drought-plagued, infertile soils of southeast India. But with the coming of the Green Revolution in the mid twentieth century, acreage devoted to millet plummeted, mostly in favor of wheat and rice, crops requiring irrigation. And millet gradually fell out of favor among the cooks in many Indian households.

In the 1970s, virtually all millet crops harvested in India were used as human food. But per capita consumption of millet plummeted over the next quarter century, replaced by rice paddies and wheat crops. The majority of the country's millet is now used as livestock fodder and for production of alcohol. Ramamurthy says rice is the staple food of south India, even though it is largely unsuitable as a regional crop. As much as 1,500 liters of water is needed to produce one kilogram of rice, while millet grows easily on rainfall alone. With millet being replaced by rice and wheat, the diabetic rate in India has risen at an alarming rate, along with childhood malnutrition.

"Our project has been to develop a system to eradicate the salt from farmlands and introduce crops that will grow better under the drought conditions of these areas," say IBM volunteers Rajesh Velayudam and Jean Matthews. "We offer a complete solution for farmers and facilitate good farming practices, while providing math and science education for the farmers, and virtual learning opportunities for their children. And we're using marketing tools available from IBM Activity Kits. More than anything else, we're preaching the benefits of millet as a cash crop and a healthy source of food."

For more than two years, IBMers have been developing a close relationship with 416 farm families, sharing knowledge gleaned from the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and Indian universities on things like organic fertilizers, cheap methods of crop production and better water management.

The IBMers efforts to change the situation are moving in several directions:

  • Using IBM project management techniques, develop and implement an On Demand Community marketing tool that addresses the needs of farmers, traders, consumers and others, enhancing the perceived value and consumption of millet as food. Among other things, promote new and traditional recipes and use of millet for feasts and daily meals. IBMers have conducted meetings with affected villages, built a comprehensive profile of farmers, retailers, and distributors, identified the market potential of various crops, and created awareness of the appeal of millet alternatives.
  • Restore the productivity of tsunami-damaged farmlands. Along with teammates from the not-for-profit organization Nature Labs, IBMers have developed low-cost equipment and techniques to soften the salt-contaminated water in farmers' wells and ponds so it can be used for irrigation.
  • Introduce farmers to new equipment that easily removes the husk on millet before food processing. In 2012, IBMers led by Dhominic L Rathinasmay and Nature Labs introduced an improved method of dehulling that neatly separates the indigestible hull from the nutritious seed, which can be ground into refined flour for cooking.
  • Promote reintroduction of millet as the principal crop in the region, basically promoting rain fed farming practices to replace crops that require irrigation.
  • Using IBM Smarter Cloud technology, provide free education for the next generation, concentrating on math and science that can help farm families prosper and maintain their traditional lifestyles.

IBM volunteers have joined hands with farmers to become strong advocates of millet as a wonder crop in India. If millet is restored as the principal food crop in the region, "This can be a model for adapting millet for use elsewhere on marginal lands, in places like Africa with similar growing conditions," explained Ramamurthy. "We're developing a model here, giving it freely to farmers, scattering seeds that we hope will support crops."

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