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Five Days in West Bengal - The Research Trip

Women in the village of Mirik Busty with the research team
Meeting with women in Mirik Busty with research partner Tiffany Davis and translator Pricilla Sherpa

February 7, 2018 - Siliguri

The morning began with chai tea and a home cooked breakfast at the apartment of our local hosts and friends in Siliguri. A ten-hour train ride the night before has delivered my research partner, Tiffany Davis, and I from choking smog of Kolkata. Yet even here on a cloudless day, the sky is hazy with smoke. Normally the air is cleaner here, being located near one of the rainiest places on the planet. However, we are here in the dry winter season and no rain has fallen for nearly three months. I consider how the annual monsoon rains impact farming practices. I’ve packed a WIFI solar-powered soil and climate sensor with me to test out. If it performs well, perhaps an area could be geo-fenced with them to gather microclimate data. Now I sit with a picture of them floating away in a flood in my head - just as my host asks if I have a solution against theft with them. I don’t.

The flooding is catastrophic for the poorest in this region as they are pushed on to unowned land upon which they build shacks and subsistence farm. Some are migrant workers, some undocumented refugees. They live out by the road, you can see them at night burning their fires by the road. When the floods come, everything they own is washed away. Many, many lose their lives. I immediately think that there must be some way to leverage any mobile app we create to provide some kind of early warning system by SMS to save lives, and perhaps some personal property.

But back to farming. The rest of the morning and early afternoon we plan out the next three days of interviews. Our host has already visited the villages ahead to lay the groundwork ahead of our visit. Mirik Busty, the first village we will travel to is located to the north at foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. Nepali and Lepcha farmers grow cardamom and oranges in this region. Our friends have family here who will assist with translation and introductions. This is a great place to start our fieldwork, get a feel for what works and what doesn’t in our approach, and refine our research questions in a friendly environment. The following two days we will travel east to Dooars south of Bhutan and north of Bangladesh not far from Darjeeling. An interpreter will meet us there to help facilitate conversations with two groups of female and male farmers.

Fueled by chai and coffee, the afternoon hours slip away, the sky darkens, and we and our hosts are deep into researching database sources and APIs, downloading existing Indian agriculture apps, and considering how to connect these last mile farmers to the data available. Having attempted to download a few apps to our Android device and getting incompatible version errors, I continue at this point to favor building a mobile application rather than a native app simply to make the app more accessible across numerous devices. I am also hopeful that we will find a way to gather our own microdata to ensure it is accurate, accessible, and reliable.

The conversation turns to Blockchain technology, its potential to allow the poor to build equity or borrow against their land, price to rent ratios, and new real estate reforms in India. Interestingly, the market is just as hot in Siliguri as it is in Seattle! I’ll spare any reader who has managed to read this far the ensuring rabbit trail we followed. I’ll just close this post by stating I am in this moment filled with great joy at being right here right now--in the flow with my incredibly intelligent and vibrant partners in this venture. Now, time to eat and pack for tomorrow.


February 8, 2018 - Mirik Busty

My fingers are cold and stiff as I type. Situated at the foothills of the Himalayas near 4,000 feet of elevation Mirik is shrouded in a dense cold fog. We have returned from our first set of interviews in Mirik Busty (Village), accessed by hired car on a deeply rutted dirt road and hike down stone stairways. Passing orange trees, cardamom stalks, and some cabbage we arrive at Sameet’s place. Actually, it is her husband’s place, as I have learned that women move to the homes of their husbands, so one can assume that a man you meet in a village in India is from that village and his wife is from another. The men are out, allowing us to meet specifically with three women of the Lepcha tribe. Sameet in her mid-thirties, Chumit, who looks to be about 11, and Doma who looks to be about 60. Doma says she came from Darjeeling and has lived in this village 42 years and has two children in Siliguri, two in the village and one who is married (likely a daughter living with her husband away from the village). She tells me that there is great concern about the health of the orange trees. Indeed, my hands are sticky from the juice of the orange I am offered upon arrival. In this region, this is the high-value crop and main source of income. She informs me through our translator that they use cow dung as fertilizer for the crops because they are afraid the chemical fertilizers will hurt their soil. However, they have seen nearby villages use the fertilizer and their orange crops were good.

The three ladies patiently answer my questions about the crops they farm, their biggest concerns (which are pests such as monkeys, rabbits, and wild pigs as well soaking rains that damage the squash, and the health of the soil in general), and data network connectivity issues. I am struck by their independence and ask if they have reached out to the local agriculture ministry for help. I learn that there are seed and chemical fertilizer programs they know of, but it is unclear how much they take advantage of it. They express quite a bit of support for the idea of not having to access information through the ministry but rather directly through mobile phones. However, I have to ask them to imagine reliable network connectivity to get to that answer. Having observed signs along the road for 4G networks, it is only a matter of time in my mind. The family has a satellite dish and do get some weather information from TV. Sameet and Chumit both own their own smartphones and while Sameet uses hers to make calls, Chumit uses both WhatsApp and Facebook. I wonder if there may be an opportunity to work with teens and young adults in introducing apps to their parents.

We are staying at our translator, Pricilla Sherpa’s, mother’s house tonight, and while there is electricity, there is no heat. However, a steaming cup of chai has been placed before me and I hear a fire will be built later to gather around. I am surprised as our host asks me to please come by the fire in the adjoining bedroom and it has been built from coals inside the room itself. I should not be. The ride up to Mirik from Siliguri was like driving in Eastern Washington during fire season. People burn here, petrol, wood, coal and it permeates the air. This is the kind of pollution I have come to associate with Chinese cities. Actually, we are not far from China here, but having experienced this kind of persistent pollution, I now understand the scope of the problem.

Coal fire inside the house to stay warm
Coal fire inside the house to stay warm

I have been hearing loud, hacking coughs since I arrived and I can only imagine the health issues. Diabetes appears to be another big issue in India. Everywhere I go here, I am struck by the ready availability and matter-course-partaking of processed sweets, candies, chips, biscuits, and cakes. It reminds me of travels in the Dominican Republic where vendors line the streets with just such offerings. It seems everywhere in the world where people live in relative poverty, this processed sweet and savory food is popular. It’s an affordable luxury causing immense problems at a great cost to public health. It’s not quite a food desert here, but it seems like it. It is interesting how few vegetables are actually consumed at each meal. Favored are potatoes, much like in the U.S.

But I digress. The women I met at Mirik Busty were very honest and open with their answers and I came away with a great deal of valuable information to consider. How can I help them? Now, it is time to put the laptop away and return to the hospitality of my hosts, to stand by the coal fire and eat the bag of Lays potato chips I’ve been offered, while the kitchen begins to hum with the business of cooking dinner. I have to eat my words a bit as a beautiful pile of steamed greens is offered along with the delicious dahl and curry. And I admit, I do very much enjoy the fried prawn and starch chips on the side. We are due to get up at 5:30 am to hail a hired car that will take us back down to Siliguri station where we will catch our next train. I crawl into bed right after dinner, still dressed in my day clothes and snuggle under the thick blankets that ward off the 30-degree chill.


February 9, 2018 - Hamilton Ganj

We arrive in the village of Hamilton Ganj in the Alipurdura municipality near the small town of Hasimara in near the border of Bhutan mid-afternoon. The train we had rushed to catch was delayed by nearly four hours. We are late but greeted warmly with smiles and lunch at the home of our interpreter and guide for this region. Actually, the house is a sizeable complex that is home to 27 children who are “under his wing.” Children whose parents cannot afford to keep them are allowed to stay here and are provided food, shelter, and necessities, such as uniforms to attend school. An American woman traveling in the region familiar with the home is visiting. She sits with us, and as I work to eat the dahl and rice on my plate with my fingers, she questions us about our work. We share what we are researching and she offers that an organization called ECHO may be worth looking into and is also kind enough to show us where to wash our plates and show us to the bathrooms.

While this is happening, our friend and host from Siliguri is speaking with our local guide. I had been advocating since 6:00 am that once we arrived in Hamilton Ganj that we to go directly to our hotel so that I could take a shower and change my clothes (I’ve been wearing them three days now). However, I am told that I have a choice. We have 2.5 hours of daylight left and a group of villagers was ready to meet us, but we could reschedule for the morning, it was up to me. I said, “OK, let’s do it,” but that I would need to lean on my partners for help as I was not feeling super sharp at the moment. As we start gathering our backpacks back up, the American woman asks if we would like coffee. She has a stash of Nescafe (which, I have learned to enjoy during this journey) and comes out with a strong cup for my research partner and me, while our guides wait somewhat patiently in the vehicle. Down the gullet with the Nescafe, and running to the car, we are on our way. I see children wearing pollution masks from time to time and adults with their scarves wrapped around their faces. Even is this less populated area, it is the typical bumpy, frantic, horn honking journey to our destination.

We arrive at the home of one of the village farmers. I am quite impressed with the beauty of this municipality. Tall, healthy pine trees and lovely wooden homes with flowers gardens are most welcoming. Chairs have been brought out and we are greeted by our hosts. Gradually, more people from the village arrive and the circle grows and more chairs are brought out. Our interpreter is a polyglot. This group is mainly Sadri speaking, but in this area so near Bhutan and Nepal, there are numerous other languages spoken as well as Hindi and Bengali. The llama tribe has also sent a representative. I do my best to introduce myself and explain our reason for being here. We go around the circle to allow the villagers to introduce themselves and I am impressed that the women stand up when it is their turn. We have several male and female farmers, a postal worker, a linguist, a pastor, housewife and teenage students. I begin asking my research questions about their main crops, issues and concerns, market prices, new crops they are considering to supplement their mainstay of rice, where they get information, interactions with the agriculture ministry, smartphone use, use of Apps (it’s all WhatsApp here), knowledge of current government agriculture apps, and network reliability, Almost everyone looks me in the eye and while they do look at our interpreter when they are answering questions, they return their gaze to me. I must not be doing too badly!

Interviewing the farmers
Interviewing the farmers

Still, I realize I’ve reached my limit of effectiveness and ask my research partners for help. They ask questions and also help frame the purpose for my being there in such a lovely way. I am deeply appreciative to them and to our translator. My mind slips back from the scene for a moment and I think to myself, I just cannot believe that I am actually here doing this. And I know I would not be able to without so much generous help. Although we are nearing the end, additional villagers have continued to gather. But it is time to wrap up and we ask the group if they have any questions of me. You can see the wheels turning, but no one is ready to ask yet, so we formally close the meeting. I am amazed to see quite a few smartphones pop out at that moment as the teenagers rush and ask “Selfie ma’am?” It is not just the teens with the phones, though. Indeed, as we learned in our conversation, the phones are here. It’s really just a matter of reliable network connectivity before their potential to provide information is realized. My mind goes to the young girl in Mirik Busty and I formulate some thoughts around increasing adoption rates for any web-based solution we create by reaching out to the youth. Much the way my parents always asked me to help with technology until they got the hang of it themselves, that is happening here. As I am thinking this, I notice that the group has starting buzzing. Our interpreter tells me that they are starting to talk amongst themselves and are formulating some questions. Some want to know more about other crops, one mentions wanting to know about aquaponics and fisheries. This is a great sign. It is agreed that we will return to this spot tomorrow morning with a smaller group who are most interested, so that we may continue the conversation and allow them to ask their questions. I look forward to that interaction even more than the shower and hot meal that awaits me at the hotel 11 km away.


February 10, 2018 - Hamilton Ganj

A sudden death in the village in the night prevents us from convening the second round of interviews with the villagers. However, time is well spent visiting the local market and observing the transactions. It also allows a solid hour and a half for me to debrief and plan directly with our local hosts as I outline a vision for moving the project forward in this village. I am encouraged that they both fully grasp the notion of creating a pilot project in Hamilton Ganj and the phases and timeline likely involved. There are two needs, real-time data, which we posit may be accomplished through developing a geo-fenced data network of climate and soil sensors around the perimeter of the village as well as relatively static data on crop information relevant to this area translated into the local languages and dialects. The Indian government has developed quite a few apps to help farmers, but they primarily use Hindi or Bengali, neither of which are spoken primarily here. Our polyglot interpreter has a great deal of experience translating complex texts, so I have no doubt that he, or perhaps his similarly talented wife or grown children, could tackle translating the static data portion of the project. We would start with information on the crops currently being grown and then add crops that the villagers have expressed interest in testing out.

With regard to real-time data, the vision is to send the messages via WhatsApp, which is the primary way, with the exception of voice calls, that the phones are currently being used. A village farmer could receive a notice from WhatsApp each week that says something like, “Good morning” calcium levels are low in the soil this week, add eggshells to your tomato crop to prevent blossom rot.” Before that is possible, there are several issues to solve with the soil and climate detectors. First, we need to see if the particular model I have brought over to test will hold up and function in the severe monsoon rainy season. The model I have purchased is solar powered and I am curious if it will stay charged. We also need to identify how many sensors will be needed based on their signal range (which we may need to boost with some type of signal repeater) and the coverage area. Wi-Fi is available at our host’s business office, but still rare in this village. However, 4G network capacity is available now.

I also speak with my hosts about engaging the young adults and older students to assist with adoption rates of the app. I explained how my mother would call me frequently anytime her computer crashed or she needed help downloading photos or adjusting a printer margin until she got the hang of it. They laughed and agreed that part of our plan should include introducing the messaging and app service to the village youth so that they can assist in the process. I am eager to tap into the collective wisdom of my contacts back home to begin tackling all of these ideas and challenges and start designing solutions!


Market in Siliguri
Market in Siliguri

February 11, 2018 - Silguri

Back in Siliguri, Pricilla Sherpa and I set out in the morning to visit the local market. We are hoping to visit the Siliguri “Regulated Market,” but it is Sunday and the market is closed. Most agricultural commodity markets operate under the normal forces of supply and demand. However, with a view to protect farmers the government also fixes minimum support price (MSP) for some crops like Paddy, Wheat, Jute etc. as public policy instruments. The government also promotes organized marketing of agricultural commodities in the country through this network of regulated markets. Farmers send their crops to the regulated market which serves as a wholesale marketplace. Most of the vendors at the stalls who will speak with me through Pricilla Sherpa state that they have purchased the vegetables from the regulated market. They generally add 1 to 2 rupees to the price they purchased the goods for. Some of the vendors, however, have purchased directly from farmers. For those that purchased from farmers, the price is set by the farmer and the vendor adds to the price at the market. For example, one owner explained that he bought cauliflower from a farmer in Darjeeling for 5 rupees/kilo. He then sells for 15 rupees/kilo. What I do not know at this point is how aware the local farmers are of the prices set by the regulated market or the prices the vendors who buy direct are getting for the goods. I certainly have plenty of research to do. I do need to solve how to provide relevant market price data to the farmers via the app.

We head back home to refresh and type up some notes. A 7:00 pm overnight train will take us back to Kolkata where we will catch a flight to Dhaka. While this research trip to India only lasted a few days, I have enjoyed incredible access to speak directly to farmers through the assistance of our hosts in Siliguri and the local hosts, guides, and interpreters in Mirik and Hamilton Ganj. In the weeks and months to come, steadily we will make progress and continue to develop a methodology to introduce web-based technology to the last mile farmer in developing regions. Our approach is to start hyperlocal and stay laser-focused on providing information that is both culturally relevant and relevant to the specific needs and concerns of the community. To cultivate a relationship with them through tech, we meet them where they are at with tech. In this case to meet them at WhatsApp, and test, try, prototype and develop until we work ourselves out of a job—at least in this village and then on to the next and the next and the next.

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