Along the New Airport Road in Pune, there sits a drought-hit village by the name of Pimpri Sandas. This is one of many similarly affected villages in the city, but this is unique in that it is home to five recently erected Vodafone billboards. Now while the presence of branded billboards in a drought-stricken village may seem tactless in the extreme, all is definitely not as it seems as you pass through the arid and baking hot city.

In fact, these ‘billboards’ are far-removed from the cut-throat world of consumerism, while they are also doing more to help the drought-ravaged villagers than the local government.

But how can this be, we hear you ask?

Put simply, these are far from ordinary billboards, as in fact they are fitted with large-volume tanks that have been harvesting rainwater.

As these tanks reach their full capacity, an SMS is sent to the 24-hour collection team who make their way over to the site.

They then collect the water and deliver it to the Pimpri Sandas villagers, sustaining life and enabling farmers to grow crops that can also drive the local economy.

Vodafone Billboard Pimpri Sandas
Image: Vodafone


Mechanics and Impact: The Background to Smart Billboards

Vodafone have referred to these designs as smart billboards, which have been fitted with a U-shaped aluminium sheet to help funnel rainwater through a conduit.

This allows the water to flow freely into the fitted tanks, which are positioned at the bottom of the billboard and can store an incredible 2,000 litres of water.

The ‘smart’ element is captured by the presence of an advanced water sensor, which triggers the SME and alters volunteers when each tank has reached its capacity.

Fully funded and manufactured by Vodafone, these billboards represent the type of socially-responsible innovation that has the potential to change the world as we know it.

As you would expect, they have certainly had a seminal impact in Pune and the village of Pimpri Sandas.

When they were first erected, just two months ago, Pimpri Sandas and its long-suffering farming community had experienced four consecutive and exacting years of drought.

This is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, while the impact of this sustained hardship has left as many as 60 local farmers immersed in debt and on the precipice of being destitute.

Scarcely eight weeks into the project, Vodafone’s billboards have emerged as a lifeline for the entire farming community.

Locals such as Dada Navsare, who is a sugarcane and pomegranate farmer who has been among the worst hit, now benefits from the delivery of a 2,000 litre tanker of fresh rainwater every single day, which can be used to grow his current crop and deliver a harvest that enables him and his family to survive.

Navsare is just one of many farmers who have benefited in the same way, many of whom have already encumbered themselves with huge debts.

Some have been forced to take out loans worth several thousand rupees, while also being forced to allow for quite frankly excessive interest rates of 4% each month.

With the government unable to effectively manage the circumstances or deliver a fresh supply of water to its subjects, there have been substantial losses that will be hard for the villagers to recoup.

Vodafone’s smart billboards have begun the healing process, while also creating hope for a brighter and more sustainable future in the village of Pimpri Sandas.


What does this mean for the Third World and other, drought-hit regions?

Of course, some have expressed health concerns about the deployment of rainwater harvested by smart billboards.

This is largely because the farmers of Pimpri Sandas have also been forced to drink the water that is delivered to them, without it first being purified.

While this is far from ideal, there is little else for residents to do given the gravity of the water-shortage within the region.

In terms of the bigger picture, it is hard not to imagine technology such as this making in impact throughout India and in other, drought-stricken regions around the world.

The success in Pune and Maharashtra have created a template for future success, meaning that smart billboards may ultimately be replicated and erected in other communities and rural, farming regions.

Going forward, this could benefit the estimated 330 million Indian citizens who were affected by drought during the last year, before being rolled out in similar locations in Africa and across the globe.

This is certainly a sustainable measure, and one that enables farmers to create viable, long-term income sustain rather that encouraging them to borrow money and incur debt.

It is also incredibly empowering, as the simple process of harvesting and sharing water affords them the tools to grow their crops and achieve financial independence.

This is pivotal in countries such as India, where extreme weather conditions will often recur and lead to regular periods of drought and austerity.


The Last Word

The latest census findings in 2011 revealed that an incredible 70% of India’s 1.25 billion strong population relies on some form of farming to survive.

In this respect, Vodafone’s smart billboards represent a truly impact and seminal social innovation, and one that could negate the impact of doubt in similar regions all around the world.