Intuit brokers India farm trade with SMS app

By using only a basic cell phone, farmers in India can now find the best prices for their crops

Intuit has set up a pilot program that allows farmers in India to find the best prices for their crops, simply by exchanging a few SMS messages on their cell phones.

"We're making a difference in farmers' financial lives and saving them time too," said Intuit Chief Technology Officer Tayloe Stansbury. Intuit demonstrated the service at a showcase of new technologies in New York on Thursday.

Over 700,000 farmers have used the program, called Fasal, since its launch in October 2009.

This service is aimed at getting the best prices for farmers' crops. Today, a farmer may fill a cart with fresh produce and take it to market, only to find no buyer will offer a decent price. Because the produce is not refrigerated the farmer must sell at whatever price is being offered, even if that price is so low that the farmer won't be able to recoup the investment. For farmers already impoverished, such a loss can be devastating.

Using this service, a farmer scans offers and picks the best price that is being offered locally. Farmers can get, on average, 20 percent more for their goods, or about US$250 a year, using the service, Intuit estimated.

Because most farmers can only afford low-cost prepaid cellular phones, Intuit created this service so that it can be accessed purely through SMS (Short Message Service). Intuit staffs a call center to collect price quotes from the buyers, which then it formats as text messages for farmers. Currently, it charges neither party in the transaction, though Intuit plans to look at ways of monetizing the offering in the near future. The service has been offered in two India states, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, and the company is now ramping up the service in a third state, Karnataka.

Intuit undertook the experimental program as part of its core mission -- to provide people and small businesses with easier ways to manage their finances through computers and mobile devices, Stansbury said.

Intuit demonstrated a number of other new technologies at the event. Although best known for its TurboTax and QuickBooks accounting software, the company has been expanding its portfolio over the last few years with a number of other mobile and desktop finance applications.

For instance, the company demonstrated a white-label online banking service for small financial institutions. Big banks may develop their own online software for their customers to use, but smaller institutions may not have such resources, Stansbury said. Instead they could customize Intuit's service. This year, the company introduced an iPad application for the service, as well as a rewards program that offers discounts that users can opt in to directly from their devices.

Intuit also demonstrated the Intuit Payment Network, which allows small businesses to accept credit card payments on iPads. Intuit provides a portable credit card reader that can be attached to the device, as well as the back-end software that can transfer the payment information to Intuit for processing.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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