Facebook for farmers: Technology empowers China's rural workers

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Media caption,

Long Xunming is a bee keeper who supplies expert information to the Nongxinton network

Straining to control a deafening, bucking, fuel-powered plough, Qing Zhongxing prepares a strip of land ahead of sowing next season's harvest of rapeseed.

Throttling down at the next turn, he pauses to check his mobile phone: it is the latest news on pork prices.

On the other side of the village, in Chongqing's Dazu County, beekeeper Long Ximing is too engrossed in his honeycombs - and avoiding being stung - to check on his phone's shrill alert.

Nonetheless, like Mr Qing and 20 million others in rural China, he is a big fan of mobile farming.

China Mobile's Nongxintong - or farming information service - launched four years ago. The company is currently focusing on expanding its delivery in China's west and south-west regions.

"Building the mobile network and covering most of the country's administrative villages, we realised that there was only a network signal. In rural areas, this is not enough," explains Liu Jing, a local manager for the service at China Mobile.

"It's like having a highway and no cars!"

Indeed, while most farming households in China now have mobile phones, very few have internet. So their main source for information was via television - that is, if they could be bothered to watch serious programming after a day out in the fields.

So, China Mobile created Nongxintong to deliver information and news directly to the farmer via their mobiles.

And for those who can't yet afford a basic $30 (£19.20; 22.66 euros) phone, they can have one for free so long as their total monthly bill exceeds $2.

Nongxintong runs on a web and mobile-based platform. Subscribers receive text or even audio messages - advice, warnings, job opportunities, buyers, sellers, market prices - all tailored to their needs.

There's a mobile phone hotline and it is available online, mainly aimed at those with rural businesses.

The basic service costs about $6 per year. The goal is to narrow the huge urban-rural information gap, a prerequisite to closing the huge income gap between cities and the countryside.

Networking, socially

Meanwhile, in two other Chinese counties, a social networking site is linking donors as far afield as London and California with farmers who seek micro-finance to develop small rural businesses.

Enter the web platform, Wokai, which means "I start".

Image caption,
Mr Long, with his bees, does not have time to check his phone at the moment...

It has profiles of borrowers from Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, and profiles of contributors from 47 countries who select online which projects they want to support. In many ways, it is a Facebook for farmers.

"You have the second largest micro-credit demand in the world and almost no supply of micro-credit," says Casey Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Wokai.

"And the reason for that is that the practitioners that are doing micro-finance on the ground don't have access to capital. And so given that context, the internet is one of the only ways that you can mobilise a global community to reverse that cycle and to get micro-finance in China on the map."

In two years, Wokai has raised over $370,000 and financed 500 projects - from small pig farms to roadside noodle stands.

Registered micro-finance partners administer the loans locally - and earn from the interest. Wokai doesn't take a penny from the money pledged, relying instead on donations and sponsorship to cover its running costs.

As for China Mobile's Nongxintong, this is a long-term investment that has yet to return profits.

The company regards the service as its corporate social responsibility.


To go it alone and go on to develop a service for a rural population of some 700 million could be prohibitively costly. This is where tech relies on old-fashioned connections.

Image caption,
Mr Qing, ploughing in the fields, relies on China Mobile's farming service

China Mobile is a listed company, but its main shareholder is the state. And so, it can draw on the huge network of rural cadres.

In this village, Ci Hong, officials like Chen Ou administer the service locally.

She formulates text messages based on the website's postings, while the database tells her what interests each subscriber. Plus, the platform is also used as a conduit for government news.

"The county government sends us meeting and policy announcements over the internet," says Ms Chen. "We use the platform, edit the information and relay this to the farmers by text message."

But what about the advice that the likes of Mr Qing needs as he struggles with his clattering plough - who helps supply that?

In the know

China Mobile knows very little about farming. It does take advice from government agricultural departments. But it also teams up with people in the industry who provide content and advice.

These include orange growers, vegetable farmers - and Mr Long, the beekeeper.

In Dazu County, Mr Long is an authority on bees and generating higher amounts of honey. So his local advice is valued. But he also sells produce from his network of local "honey collaborators".

Image caption,
Liu Jing works for China Mobile and its as-yet-unprofitable farmers' information service

In the past, dealings were mainly done face-to-face - and up-to-date information on market demand was scarce. Now, since partnering with Nongxington, he's more informed and more efficient, and does much of his business online and over his mobile.

As a business subscriber - paying $200 per year - Mr Long now uses the Nongxintong platform to support his honey sales enterprise and provide premium information services of his own.

"It saves time, saves energy, I have less worries," ponders Mr Long. "It helps us reduce costs, it's more profitable for us.

"Through the platform we get more information and more opportunities."

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