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Nokia Taking the Rural Route

Nokia-LogoOn Saturday at dawn, hundreds of farmers near Jhansi, an agricultural center in central India, received a succinct but potent text message on their cellphones: the current average wholesale price for 100 kilograms of tomatoes was 600 rupees. 

In a country where just 7 percent of the population have access to the Internet, such real-time market data is so valuable that the farmers are willing to pay $1.35 a month for the information.

What is unusual about the service is the company selling it: Nokia, the Finnish cellphone leader, which unlike its rivals — Samsung, LG, Apple, Research In Motion and Sony Ericsson — is leveraging its size to focus on some of the world’s poorest consumers.

Since 2009, 6.3 million people have signed up to pay Nokia for commodity data in India, China and Indonesia.

“For Nokia, Ovi Life Tools creates tremendous brand loyalty,” said Wally Swain, a mobile analyst in Bogotá, Colombia, at The Yankee Group. “Farmers and their families will not want to lose this capability. No other handset manufacturer pursues anything like this.”

So far, farmers are embracing the service, but it is still too early to say whether it is bringing concrete benefits to Nokia, said Mary McDowell, the Nokia executive vice president in charge of the company’s nonsmartphone business, which accounts for about 11 of every 13 units Nokia sells around the world. Most of the subscribers, she said, already had one of the 20 Nokia models required to subscribe to the real-time pricing service.

“The premise here is that we will be able to complement good hardware with services that will attract and create a sticky situation with the consumer,” Ms. McDowell said during an interview. “This is not only good business but also about doing good for the community.”

Anecdotally, Ms. McDowell said the service appeared to be bringing real benefits to impoverished farmers, many of whom often fall victim to opaque markets with unscrupulous middlemen. Nokia said many people using its service were better off.

Dattarey Bhonge, a 27-year-old onion farmer in Barshi, an Indian village 370 kilometers, or 230 miles, east of Mumbai, said he learned through Life Tools that he could earn more by selling his onions at a market in nearby Solapur. The additional profit allowed him to buy new farm equipment.

“I don’t have to go anywhere to find the prices,” he said in a video provided by Nokia. “The prices are reliable. I was cheated by my agent. Now he can’t cheat me.”

In India, China and Indonesia, Nokia has entered into commercial partnerships with agricultural extension and weather agencies, which collate, edit, package and translate weather, market news and pricing data in more than 13 local languages