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Steward for the environment: Prashant Gupta

In India, where a multi-year drought has affected more than 300 million people, Prashant Gupta is using technology to help farmers figure out the best times to sow crops.

He is one of the many Microsoft employees for whom every day is Earth Day, as they work towards embodying Microsoft’s longstanding commitment to sustainability by leveraging technology and innovation in a variety of ways to tackle environmental challenges more effectively for the benefit of the company, their communities and the planet. Here is his story:

In the southeastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh in India, farmers have always planted their crops at exactly the same time each year. But Andhra Pradesh, with a population of 50 million, has been faced what is described as the worst drought situation in its history.

Prashant Gupta believed technology could offer a solution to tackle climate change.

Born in India, Gupta came to the U.S. for higher education, including getting a master of science degree from the University of Florida and master of business administration degree in marketing from Kellogg at Northwestern University. He worked for Motorola in the U.S. where he was a part of the team that created the RAZR Maxx V6, then the first cell phone to have broadband and touch controls.

At Microsoft, where he is a Cloud + Enterprise Principal Director, Gupta co-founded Microsoft Accelerator for startups in 2012, which later became Microsoft Ventures. He also played a significant role in the 2015 acquisition of Revolution Analytics, a provider of software and services for R, the programming language for statistical computer and predictive analytics and now integrated in SQL server 2016.

But India was never far from his mind, and he longed to go back and make a difference there.

“I said to myself that I think it’s time to go back and do some real social experiments in the country where I was born,” Gupta says. “That would give me a lot more satisfaction than, say, making millions.”

Last year, through Gupta’s initiative, Microsoft partnered with a United Nations agency, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and the Andhra Pradesh government to help ground nut farmers cope with the drought. Doing things the same way year after year was not working.

The solution, developed by Gupta and his team was to use advanced analytics and machine learning to launch a pilot program with a Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard for 4,000 farmers in 106 villages in Andhra Pradesh and a Sowing App with 175 farmers in one district. Both the app and the dashboard take advantage of advances in Microsoft’s computing technologies.

The Sowing App advises farmers on the best time to sow, based on weather conditions, soil and other indicators. The Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard provides insights about soil health, fertilizer recommendations and seven-day weather forecasts, all configured for every village.

ICRISAT officials, from their previous work in Andhra Pradesh, had earned the trust of many of the farmers, but Microsoft was new to them. Gupta spoke to many farmers across villages to understand core pain points in crop life cycle. Those include how variable rainfall directly impacts crop yields, and in some cases, when an entire crop cycle fails because of that, it can lead to debt and stress.

Last June, data from the Sowing App suggested that farmers should delay planting by three weeks, the farmers who followed that advice saw a 30 percent higher average in yield per hectare than the farmers who decided to stick with their traditional planting schedule.

To keep the costs of deployment low, the solution enables farmers to get information and updates about sowing through text messages sent to cellphones given to them. Regular cellphones, not smartphones.

“We did not take a smartphone approach here, that was a very important thing,” Gupta says. “The whole world is racing toward smartphones, but we actually took an SMS [text messaging] route on a very, very simple, basic phone and that worked for the farmers.”

Gupta says he is enormously gratified by the results, with the program expected to expand to other areas in India and other emerging economies such as in Africa.

“One of my passions outside technology and mobile cloud and industry innovating has been around inclusive development constructs, especially in India,” Gupta says. “This project gives me a chance to bring all my understanding and knowledge to see how we could really help farmers – farmers who are impacted by climate change – and give them some assistance.”

Click here to read more about other inspiring individuals like Prashant Gupta. You can also find out more about Microsoft’s full range of sustainability efforts, and find additional Earth Day-related content this week on the Microsoft Green Blog.