As head of the Information Systems Unit of Icrisat, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, in Patancheru, a suburb of Hyderabad, in Andhra Pradesh, India, he has set an immediate goal that is both simple and ambitious. He wants to stop drought in Africa and Asia from threatening people’s lives. Meanwhile, he spends at least half his time running Icrisat’s information infrastructure, which connects its eight centers across Africa and Asia.
Sounds like a job for an agrichemist, perhaps, or maybe, in other times, a rain dancer. But Balaji thinks it is a job for an information technologist, because, he says, only with information and communications technology can the problem be solved. Such technology will allow knowledge of advanced agricultural techniques to spread to rural farmers, and it will link those rural farmers as well to local, national, and international markets. Both those factors, as well as improved drought prediction and the dissemination of that information, will allow information technology to finally defeat drought-created famine, he predicts. He calls this effort Vasat, for Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics.
A few years down the road, Balaji hopes his current work preventing drought from threatening lives will be self-sustaining and he will be able to move on to work on his dream project. That goal is to create a cloud of nanosatellitestiny communications satellites, almost the size of cellphonesover small regions to serve as communications outposts in the sky for poor rural communities. “The technology is already tested,” he says. “It’s only a matter of entrepreneurial initiative to make it real.”