Virtual assistant Akeira helps farmers boost productivity

The service works with any mobile phone and has been piloted in Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Karnataka since 2014


Umesh Sachdev, co-founder of Uniphore, which developed Akeira using speech recognition technology that understands and responds to 24 languages and over 100 dialects. Photo: Mint
Umesh Sachdev, co-founder of Uniphore, which developed Akeira using speech recognition technology that understands and responds to 24 languages and over 100 dialects. Photo: Mint

Veeramani Kuppuswamy, a farmer in Kovilpatti in the coastal district of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu wants to know whether he needs to cover his young cotton saplings, so he calls Akeira, a virtual assistant on his mobile phone. Akeira is similar to Siri, a virtual assistant available on iPhones. Akeira realizes that the farmer wants to know whether it will rain or not and immediately responds with a yes in Tamil. This virtual assistant can be used in any basic mobile phone.

Uniphore Software Services Ltd has developed this virtual assistant, an upgraded version of its earlier one called Voicenet. The Chennai-based company has piloted this new version with farmers in Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Karnataka since 2014. It is still in the testing stages.

Farmers were more comfortable with Akeira, which is more interactive, than with the earlier version, said Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and chief executive of Uniphore.

Sending advisory voice messages through Voicenet, the Tamil Nadu government was able to reach 2 million farmers, out of which 70% listened to the messages completely and registered their feedback.

Farm businesses across India, be it a government subsidiary or a private firm, face tough scenarios in terms of customer outreach.

Farmers are typically spread across remote places, are often illiterate and prefer closely knit, trust-based business models. It is, therefore, crucial to pass on timely information to them to gain their trust and keep them updated on weather conditions, market prices, fertilizers and pesticide usage, etc., to improve farm productivity.

All the earlier modes of communication by the government to reach farmers through radio, television and newspapers are turning out to be expensive and not providing desired results. Also, tracking information consumption is difficult. In addition to these technical challenges, farmers are spread across different states in India where they speak different languages. So, agri-businesses can’t establish a single mode of communication to convey messages across boundaries.

By understanding these challenges and technical constraints, Uniphore designed Akeira, which helps farmers have a more interactive conversation than just listen to advisory voice messages.

Uniphore was incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2008 by two engineering undergraduates, Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Sarogi. The company is a leader in voice recognition, voice biometrics and offers Indian language enterprise mobility solutions.

Akeira uses speech as input; so, even when the farmer’s query does not relate directly to weather, it is able to understand the intent and responds appropriately. The solution is based on Uniphore’s multilingual speech recognition technology that understands and responds to the particular characteristics and nuances of 24 languages and over 100 dialects, said 29-year-old Sachdev.

The challenges witnessed by farmers was that they were used to automated voices and therefore, it took two to four months for them to get used this new way of conversation, he said.

By using the solution, various state governments were able to send multilingual personalized voice messages to farmers with weather conditions, market prices, etc. They also secured feedback from farmers on different government schemes and techniques and sent voice-based surveys to farmers to capture real-time data.

The use of the latest software has helped the government in reaching its messages to 75% of the farmers in the first call across different districts. It has also helped to cut costs on human resources and other channels that were used to reach farmers, said Sachdev.

Government departments are now able to receive clear data reports on number of calls made, number of calls connected and numbers of farmers who listened to the complete message. The relevant departments were able to reach 1.8 million farmers in local languages within 24 hours. This constant stream of information helped farmers to enhance their yield and reduce their risk of crop failure.

The investors in the company include Indian Angel Network, Rural Technology and Business Incubator, National Research Development Corporation and Villigro, a social enterprise incubator. In 2012, Deloitte named Uniphore as the 17th fastest growing technology in the country.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the mBillionth and Manthan awards.

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