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How a “missed call” in India can control a farm’s water use

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Using text messages or iPhone apps to manage physical devices isn’t all that uncommon — think Zipcar’s door unlocking app or Verizon’s new apps to remotely manage thermostats and lighting. But in India sometimes it’s the “missed call” (the fee-less “ring once, hang up”) that’s driving the platform for managing devices, and in some cases precious resources like water and energy.

This week, an Indian site focused on Indian entrepreneurs and startups, profiled a startup called RealTech Systems which has developed an irrigation control system for farmers that uses cell phone networks and missed calls. Essentially a farmer installs the company’s Real Mobile Starter Control product at an irrigation pump, and the device uses a SIM card and a missed call to turn the pump on and off remotely.

The problem, as puts it, is that many farmers have to walk many miles to get to the pumps for their farms, but once they reach the pump sometimes the power to run the irrigation system isn’t available — unreliable power is one of the biggest infrastructure problems throughout much of India. The farmers can use the product to check to see if power in the area is turned on, and then run the irrigation accordingly — from miles away.

As I explained in an article late last year after a reporting trip to India with the Geeks on a Plane group, the missed call ecosystem has emerged around the abundance of callers who aren’t willing to spend on making a call, or sending a text, so they call a company or friend to signal something pre-arranged — and that’s free. It’s very common across India and companies like Zipdial have developed the missed call into a platform for a host of services from advertising to delivery of goods to information. Picture a person who wants to buy tea calls up the local tea seller and sends him three missed calls to indicate he wants to buy three cups worth.

In the case of RealTech Systems they’re moving the missed call beyond just communication between companies and customers (or between friends) and linking it to resource management. Helping companies and people more smartly manage resources like energy and water will also be a very important trend in the coming years for the country and its 1.2 billion population. has a full interview with the founder of RealTech Systems, T. Kumar, so check that out.

21 Responses to “How a “missed call” in India can control a farm’s water use”

  1. If I can buy 3 cups of tea at Rs. 10 each, I should be able to make a call that costs 10paise (Rupees 0.10)! Missed calls for the most part in India are just plain bad phone etiquette. There has to be a business case for the technology & it does seem interesting to medium & large farmers who have enough funds to invest in pumps, the $100-150 equipment & of course the cell-phones (still around $50-$100 in India) & of course the maintenance of these in India (which is another story-book in itself!). Lets not create an impression that this somehow serves the needs of destitute or marginal farmers. In a way this invention also takes away from the value & wages of day labourers who would have done all the walking to switch the pumps on & off for the larger farmers.

  2. Saurabh Gupta

    Hi all, this sort of public SMS/missed call is susceptible to faking. MetroBuddy Secure SMS has developed a secure SMS solution that encrypts SMS messages between two senders so that ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks and sms-faking can be avoided.
    Check it out at:

    This is a peer-to-peer encrypted system, so there’s no central store of encryption keys to hack or compromise the communication with.

    Available for Android, but a BlackBerry version is coming soon!

  3. Justin Hayward

    What if a wrong number is dialled and reaches the pump? How will the farmer know the field’s been watered all night? Will he know it will go out of synch?

    • Sanjay Swamy

      Justin – that’s no problem – I’m sure the system has checks and balances in the system to know which system is calling the pump and only allows authorized callers to turn on the pump.

      Overall ZipDial which has pioneered this at a cloud-based platform level has a bunch of these capabilities built in as standard features. Registered mobile numbers, handling multiple calls within a threshold time, filtering out spam callers, etc.

    • @Rams, Check out the original article. It explains how the system works. Basically the farmer sends a missed call to the system and the system sends a text back to him/her (in their desired language) confirming that the pump was controlled. There’s also a text pic (not a photo I think) of the pump in an “on” or “off” position sent back to the farmer as many farmers can’t read text.

  4. Innovation in India is always just absolutely astonishing. The cleverness there is just rampant. It does make me curious though about why we don’t see this type of innovation in the U.S. more often? I hesitate to reference the individual who recently wondered and wrong why inner-city youth didn’t take advantage of the technology they had around them, but when I see tech like this…I’m starting to wonder myself. If any Giga readers would care to explain to my why we see this in India, but not in poorer parts of the U.S., I’d love to know. Is it that we have it and it’s not reported or are there other structural factors involved? Just curious…

    • If you’re talking about cell phone calls or texting specifically I think the cost parameters are radically different as a percentage of income – why used a missed call if you can call or text or have an app?

      As for innovation, just look at little harder like kickstarter or instructables for example. Pretty amazing stuff there alone.

      • Wes, Kickstarter is definitely amazing and doesn’t have a distinctly Western/American feel to it. Have there been any success stories from inventors in America’s inner cities or rural areas?

    • vipulbhojwani

      ‘Need’ is what drives people in India. Innovation is not an option here but a way of life. Even with our limited resources, we can do great things. :D

      • Exactly. That’s what always impressed me the most was how quickly a need, using whatever they had around them, gets converted into innovation. Yet there are needs in inner-cities and rural areas of the U.S. that have access to similar things (if not more) and yet we don’t see the innovation. My “theory” is that is has something to do with Americans acceptance of technology as a tool to help…but just looking for input.