My Experiences with Knownet-GRIN

This is a story I wrote for a very early ICTD publication called iConnect launched by a World Bank funding program called InfoDev that was influential at the time. InfoDev was also a key supporter of the Knownet-GRIN project at SRISTI where I worked. Unfortunately it seems the original publication has gone offline so I’m putting it here for posterity.

Date of Publication: 4/15/2001

It was a cool, breezy evening in northern Maharashtra. As we sat scattered amongst the buildings encircling the village centre, our meeting was moving at full speed. Professor Gupta, had managed to power the operation by rigging our laptop and projector to some wires diverted from the overhead light fixture, and now he was amazing the audience with a demonstration of our multi-media database, chock full of examples of creative and talented people working at the grassroots level.

The school children in the front of the audience looked on entranced as Professor showed them video after video of innovators, healers, and artisans — a collection of people across India displaying creativity and initiative at the grassroots level, as well as their inventions and achievements. A three-wheeled tractor, an efficient and effective weed sprayer, a noted livestock healer — everyone seemed to be very excited to see the great potential possible amongst the rural masses of India, the things their fellow villagers in other parts of India had been able to accomplish through their own creativity and determination.

During the course of the meeting Professor Gupta explained to the gathered villagers about all kinds of experiments and success stories taking place in other villages across India. Experiments in organic farming, in novel and useful farm implements, in herbal pesticides, in traditional veterinary medicine, and some of the great results of these experiments. Outstanding yields, commercialization of local ideas, national recognition and honor, these were just some of the kinds of successes he talked about, ample proof of the benefits of taking innovative approaches to your problems.

He also talked about the great riches present in our traditional and local knowledge systems, and the danger of forgetting this great source of information in the coming years. He emphasized the urgent necessity of maintaining our traditional knowledge of local bio-diversity, and of our traditional practices, medical or otherwise, to stem this ‘knowledge erosion’. This confluence of stirring and convincing ideas, in front of a video backdrop of examples of successful local projects and workers, made a compelling point and kept the audience spellbound throughout the meeting.

This meeting occurred during our stop-over in the Maharashtra village of Dalwat, near the Gujarat border, during SRISTI’s semi-annual Shodhyatra journey. Twice each year Professor Gupta and the rest of the SRISTI team packs up it’s entire operation and sets out on a ten day quest through the farmlands and forests of India — seeking to expand and recognize outstanding individuals within the Honey Bee Network of grassroots innovators, volunteers and supporters. Walking from village to village, conducting local meetings, honoring local people displaying outstanding creativity and knowledge about local bio-diversity, this is SRISTI’s way of maintaining it’s solid connection with the grassroots communities of India. Staying in local villages, seeing people’s ideas and accomplishments first hand, it is a great way to stay in touch with our vision.

During our latest Shodhyatra we conducted a mobile exposition of the newest version of Knownet-GRIN, a multimedia, multi-lingual catalogue of local innovations, innovators, artisans, healers and other outstanding people working at the grassroots level. This initiative’s aim is to create a digitally linked system where grassroots innovators from across India can share ideas, technologies and support — in effect setting up a nationwide (and eventually worldwide) community of creative people working on novel solutions to local problems and displaying outstanding knowledge and initiative at the grassroots level.

Through this system such people will be able to meet, talk, support each other’s ideas, and also achieve contact with the “mainstream” establishment — exchanging feedback with scientists and other experts, discussing marketing and distributing their ideas with entrepreneurs, investors and financial experts. In effect de-marginalizing one of the greatest sources of human natural resource in the world — outstanding people working at the grassroots level.

During our last Shodhyatra, we lugged a laptop and projector along with us and at certain meetings we demonstrated our current working prototype, getting users ‘ opinions and recommendations about the interface. We tried to gauge what features would be useful and what would not, as well as how well they could understand the functionality and the interface of our system.

These kinds of field trials are the most fertile sources of ideas for our development staff — seeing their work in action, it’s successes and failures, refines our ideas about the project and the design of the software, and are invaluable in the realistic development of the project.

This meeting in Dalwat was a particularly fruitful meeting. Professor gave a full demonstration of the database, after which some local children came and tried their hand at using the system, our staff taking notes about their insights, to aid in the evolution of our design and ideas.

The full meeting lasted over three hours, on top of the demonstration we had a general meeting where local farmers exchanged views and ideas with some farmers that had accompanied our yatra from Gujarat, we had a small skit emphasizing the importance of traditional knowledge and organic farming, and we took time to honor some locally outstanding workers scouted by our field staff. We also honored some local children that demonstrated the best knowledge about the local biodiversity of the area. One young boy was able to demonstrate knowledge about 394 local plants, as well as their uses! Even more gratifying was that he committed to learning about another 300 plants in time for our next visit. Truly outstanding…

After the meeting, our whole team was sitting around the fire with some people from the village, drinking tea like a cadre of well-fed cats. We were tired from a long day’s walking and talking, and were feeling smugly satisfied with the success of the day’s meetings. Just then, the village sarpanch sidled sheepishly up to our little circle, and queried…

“Sirs, we really enjoyed your meeting, it was great. We really, really enjoyed it. Especially the movie. But please excuse me for asking, but I feel I must ask. Why have you come here? Why are you in our village? Would you like to sell something?”

To say the least, this brought us a little back down to earth from our smug demeanor. To correct his misconception, one of our farmers from Gujarat and one or two of our staff preceded to sit with the sarpanch for another two or three hours, talking into the wee hours of the night, until finally he understood the full extent of our goals, of our vision. After this he was so convinced and enthusiastic that he guaranteed an audience of 5,000 for our next visit.

What is the lesson here? Why did we have a hard time getting our point across? Well, first of all, there was a language barrier of sorts. Most of our staff is from Gujarat, and most of the meeting was conducted in Gujarati and Hindi. The local language in bordering Maharashtra state is Marathi, so this created somewhat of a communication problem. This idea of language barrier is an important one, especially in a diverse country like India, and it is one we seek to address in our software, by providing as much information as possible in local language. Obviously this adds to the complexity of our development effort, but we think it is worth it. Without this feature it is very likely our system would be useless in most of the country.

But I think another issue is the ideological barrier. Many of the sources of our ideas and initiatives are framed conceptually within the confines of academia or similar institutions, in think tanks, universities and government offices around the world. Applying these ideas in the local context often meets with confusion or misunderstanding. Ideas that seemed so clear within the analytic and intellectual framework of a development conference or a project proposal often seem out of place or skewed within the simple day to day life of a village, where the philosophy of life can be quite different. The beat of village life is very different from that of many of our own lives, and to achieve any understanding or synergy with it I think one must adjust their own cadence a little.

This is why activities like the Shodhyatra are so important to us at SRISTI. It gives us a chance to slow our lives a little, to achieve some common understanding of life with the people and institutions that we are trying to serve. These types of activities continually refocus our efforts, and give added energy and direction to our project. Hopefully, by maintaining this strong link with the people and institutions we are trying to serve, we will achieve a truly useful system that will actually make a positive difference in the society we are trying to serve. That is our first and foremost goal, and this is just one way we are trying to stay focused to it.