Reimagining agriculture

Drones, tiny satellites, ultra high-tech sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence, space technology... Yes, I’m talking of farming in India. It’s a far cry from the traditional tropes of a tired farmer following his equally tired draft animals, or rows of saree-clad women, knee deep in water, planting rice. And yes, this high-tech version of agriculture is not the reality across the country; drought, debt, and other issues continue to plague the sector. But technology could well be the future.

One of the people pushing for change in agriculture is Rohtash Mal, founder and managing director of EM3, an agricultural startup that wants to “re-imagine agriculture” as a transformative enterprise and not as an event of nature. I had earlier met Mal when he headed telecom behemoth Airtel, and later, tractor manufacturer Escorts. He has also had stints at Maruti Suzuki and BILT.

It’s clear that Mal has brought his learnings from the corporate world to farming. He is very clear that farming can break out of the cycle of natural disasters, suicides, and debt only “when agriculture is treated like an industry, where every small parcel of land is treated as a profit and loss account in order to create enough surpluses to be reinvested in the land for better production next year”.

Mal, who set up EM3 in 2013 with his son Adwitiya, a financial services professional who last worked with the insurance multinational AXA, says his aim is to make farming services easily available. In the ubiquitous idiom of the day, it’s the “uberisation of farming”.

Mal’s preferred term for what he does is “farming as a service”. He says his job is to make global technologies and farm equipment accessible to and affordable for Indian farmers. Basically, he offers farm machinery like tractors and harvesters to smallholders on a pay-per-use basis. On offer is some high-tech machinery including a laserguided levelling machine which Mal claims can cut water usage by 30% or so.

Farm mechanisation, says Mal with all the zeal of a preacher, can cut cultivation costs by 25% and raise productivity by 20%. And that means a significant rise in income for farmers. Farmers and even governments are clearly convinced. Just a few months ago, EM3 signed an agreement with the Rajasthan government to open 1,240 farm mechanisation centres across the state. There are already 22 such centres across Madhya Pradesh. These centres are called Samadhan Techno Kheti, and Mal plans to focus on the north and east of the country in the near future.

Each Samadhan centre costs around Rs 2 crore to build; each has upwards of five tractors and 25-30 other pieces of farm equipment. Typically, it takes two years for a centre to break even. Luckily for Mal, funding isn’t a huge issue.

His idea of farming has caught the imagination of global fund managers. The U.S.-based Soros Economic Development Fund and London-headquartered Global Innovation Fund (a nonprofit supported by British Department of International Development, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Omidyar Network) have pumped in Rs 101 crore (including Rs 15 crore as line of credit) in EM3’s second round of funding. In the first round in 2015, Bengaluru based Aspada Investments had put in $3.3 million (Rs 20.8 crore).

Mechanisation is only a start; Mal has a different vision of farming which involves technology and finance as well as planters and harvesters. He’s also an ambassador for farming, inviting companies in Israel, Britain, and Japan to visit India and partner EM3 in solving farming problems here. But more often, you’re likely to meet Mal coming out of the offices of tech giants such as IBM, Ericsson, Cognizant, and Nokia. “If we are in the agricultural services business, then anything that is technology-based and can be used to better the life of the farmer is our business,” he says.

The introduction and use of new technologies— satellite imagery, data analytics, soil chemistry, Big Data, apps, artificial intelligence, and sensors—in the farming sector is enough to propel the $400 billion agricultural economy—17.34% of the overall gross domestic product—to $1 trillion in the next five years or so. I clearly don’t look too convinced, so Mal shows me his calculations.

Even if the country’s productivity were to double, which is a conservative estimate insists Mal, the agriculture economy could easily touch $800 billion. According to a recent McKinsey study, the farm mechanisation market in India is worth $112 billion and growing at 16% year-on-year. This can add at least $50 billion-$70 billion to the agri economy. Similarly, even if there is a small increase in government credit to farmers from the Rs 9,75,000 crore earmarked in Budget 2017-18, it too will expand the country’s farm economy.

By now, Mal is on a roll. “If every year the farmer decides to get even half the total area under cultivation analysed—nearly 220 million acres—at Rs 1,000 per acre, it could easily add another Rs 22,000 crore to the agricultural economy,” he says. He has reason for this optimism: For perhaps the first time, agriculture is seeing the coming together of easy credit to farmers, accessible and affordable farm technologies, and a large market. Add to this the value of data scientists providing accurate weather forecasts, health of crops, crop-related news, and so on, as well as agri-focussed e-commerce and I see that Mal’s $1 trillion estimate may actually be conservative.

While Mal is looking at technology as the next big thing for his company, there are plenty of others who see technology as a tool to help farmers right now. “What we are doing is digging deep into the trisection of three important technologies—satellite imagery, robotics, and Big Data—to improve the condition of the Indian farmer. Twenty-first century robotics and sensing technologies have the potential to solve the problems that are as old as farming itself,’’ says Ashhar Farhan, a former software engineer with Microsoft and now director at Hyderabad-based agricultural company Daana.

Farhan’s current project: building a tiny satellite, about the size of a standard Rubik’s cube with the electronics and processing power of a high-end smartphone. I’m a bit underwhelmed by this, till Farhan explains that the magic lies in the payload that will be attached to this tiny satellite. That’s a bunch of sophisticated electronics and circuitry that will be able to track every paddy plant in a 2,000 km radius. Farhan says once enough data is gathered from the satellite, the computer itself can differentiate between healthy and non-healthy plants by matching them with the millions of pictures of healthy plants already present in the cloud. I came to talk farming and instead got a lesson in satellite technology.

Farhan is not the only person marrying agriculture with technology. There’s a space-age farming revolution happening in Karnataka’s Chikballapur district, where remote sensing satellites are used to map the region. The man responsible is P.P. Nageswara Rao, a soft-spoken bespectacled scientist who specialised in astrobiology, geoinformatics, geodesy, and surveying at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Using his ISRO-honed skills, Rao says he has developed a plant health indicator index with the help of satellite imaging; “a healthy plant reflects a different colour on the satellite than a sick one”, he says. What he and his assistant did was to create what they call the “NDVI—Normalised Difference Vegetation Index. If the NDVI of a plant is low, then the plant is suffering from distress and needs immediate attention like fertilisers or pesticides”.

Correctly identifying weak plants and using precision farming has helped farmers in the region drastically cut their use of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium fertilisers from 20,000 kg for 16 hectares to just 1,900 kg without any loss in productivity. And with a little help from the Gandhi Krishi Vigyan Kendra at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Karnataka, Rao and his assistant were able to do a detailed analysis of the soil. “We were able to measure the soil fertility per square metre of the land and provide sensor assessment of the input needs of the farmers,” he says. Such a technology can be used to map other parts of the country because the satellite orbits around the world and its camera can focus anywhere.

Meanwhile, in Hubbali in Karnataka, Srinivasulu Reddy, founder and CEO of SkyKrafts, is busy building drones that can be used on farms. He says he specialises in “spraying drones and multi-spectral imaging drones for precision farming”. He’s extremely proud of the fact that his 14-member team developed a 20-litre spraying drone in 60 days.

Mal, Rao, Reddy, and a host of other scientists and entrepreneurs are betting big on a simple equation: Satellite imagery + data analytics + precision farming = reduced input costs + higher productivity + lesser wastage = more income for farmers.

Of course, things are never that simple in real life. With the help of Mal and his ilk, it’s possible for farmers to reduce input costs and increase productivity. But Amir Ullah Khan, visiting professor at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and an agricultural expert, says that’s not enough: “One of the major challenges before Indian farmers is not just price discovery but also bringing produce to the market at the same time [leading to a supply glut], resulting in lower realisation for their produce. If some farmers delay their harvesting for better prices, they are branded as hoarders.”

The real problem with policymakers today, he says, is that they do not know whose interests they are protecting: consumers or farmers. “The government clearly needs to make up its mind whose side it is on”, he says. Right now, as soon as prices rise (good for farmers), they take drastic measures like banning exports, etc.

Policy has a huge role to play in any potential agricultural transformation. Take 100% foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, a proposal that has been hanging fire for longer than I care to remember. Why does this matter to farmers, you may well ask. Simply because international retail giants such as Walmart and Carrefour with the financial muscle to build warehouses and cold chains that can delay sale of perishable items, make the supply chain far more efficient by weeding out middlemen and bring in the latest technology and standards that are sorely lacking in agriculture today. Connecting 2,50,000 panchayats through the promised broadband connectivity, can be the other game changer in terms of price discovery because even farmers in the most remote areas will know when to sell and at which mandi.

Farhan, I thought, would be among the loudest in seeking technology improvements for farmers, and indeed he is. What he’s really passionate about promoting, however, is organic farming. Input costs are low—no pesticide or fertiliser—and the land is not adversely affected, he tells me.

One of the big issues for organic farmers is the lack of a regular, assured market. That’s why Daana is working with the likes of Amazon and Big Basket, trying to develop a customer base online and provide produce on demand. This helps in better price discovery and higher sales. As important, farmers can use the cold chains and warehouses belonging to the retailers. “We need to find the Indian Alibaba for agriculture; Alibaba in China turned out to be a saviour for small and mediumsized industries in China,” adds Farhan.

Once organic produce finds a good online market, he says, buyers can start ranking farmers on the basis of quality and freshness, spurring farmers to improve. “It will probably start out as a gourmet thing, but over time as the numbers grow, you will start a new way of doing farm marketing. You can just change one part of the wheel and expect to transform agriculture as a whole.”

There’s something about farming that seems to produce zealots. Reddy of SkyKrafts is equally passionate when he talks of how his drones can change farming in India. But, unlike Farhan, Reddy says using pesticides and other chemicals is not necessarily a bad thing. “It is wrong to say that the overuse of chemicals is destroying the soil. Indian farmers only use 1.5 litres of fertilisers per hectare compared to 10 litres used elsewhere in the world,” he says .

The answer to improved productivity, Reddy tells me, is not in increasing the amount of fertiliser and pesticide but to target that properly. His drones can help here. “Data already shows that we can reduce pesticide consumption by 50% if we use precision agriculture and we are trying to accomplish that,” says Reddy.

He then tells me about the camera-fitted drone developed by SkyKrafts. Backed by some nifty cloud-based software, these drones survey fields and can actually diagnose the health of the crop, report the onset of infestation, and even advise farmers on how to increase yield and prevent further damage to crops. It sounds pretty futuristic to me. But Reddy is dissatisfied. His dream is to figure out an electronic way to tell the exact amounts of fertiliser in the soil. “Once we can do that,” he says, “it will change the face of agriculture.”

The optimism around technology is palpable when I speak to the likes of Mal, Reddy, Farhan, and Rao. I’m almost as carried away about the use these people are making of tools like the Internet and satellites. This could be just what we need to finally have some food security, I think, as I prepare to speak to a few more scientists to validate this.

Cue disappointment as I hear that age-old problems still survive. Farming may go high-tech, but unless seeds keep pace, all improvements will be cosmetic. Or that’s what scientists at research institutes think. “Till the government allows farmers to adopt genetically modified (GM) crops, there is little chance of an agricultural transformation that we are talking about,” says P. Ananda Kumar, director of the Indian Institute of Rice Research.

But isn’t GM bad? Globally, scientists are arguing about the merits of seeds that have been manipulated to make them resistant to pests and drought. In India, the government is debating allowing GM seeds in food crops. Kumar sees little benefit in the endless debate. “After all,” he says in a matterof-fact way, “it is already working in 28 countries covering 185 million hectares and 15 crops.”

So far, there has been a marked reluctance on the government’s part to allow genetically modified food crops, given that the research around this is still far from satisfactory to many. Kumar has no time for this. The government’s own committee of scientists, including the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India, has given the go-ahead to use GM food seeds, he says. Kumar believes that the demonstrated success of Bt cotton, using which has made India the largest cotton producer in the world, should be enough to get farmers on board.

Modified seeds for brinjal and mustard have been argued about for years now. “It is time that the Indian government or the political leadership heed the advice of its own scientists than some vested interests using scare-mongering tactics in the media,” says Kumar caustically. Elsewhere, K.K. Narayanan, founder and chairman of Kottaram Agro-Foods, gets agitated when I ask about Bt brinjal. These technologies, which can add Rs 60,000 crore every growing season, are left “sitting on the shelf”, he says. Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director of New Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre, adds that farmers themselves will not have any problem shifting to GM seeds once they see profits flowing in. “Unfortunately, that is not happening because no one is allowed to demonstrate the benefits of GM crops to the farmers,” he says.

Others argue that tampering with food crops could affect the health and safety of consumers over the long term. There’s also a compelling argument made over the “terminator seed”, which allows farmers to use the seeds just once; every growing season will mean fresh seeds have to be bought. Add to that the concern over pests mutating to grow resistance to Bt crops—as has been observed in India in case of Bt cotton and bollworm—the debate is unlikely to be resolved in a hurry.

Meanwhile, “rural will be the biggest play” when it comes to investment, says Kenneth Andrade, founder and chief investment officer of Old Bridge Capital Management. It’s big business, he says, reeling off statistics. Technology means that some 65% of the farmer population is electronically connected with mandis, which means price discovery is easier. Allowing 100% FDI in food processing will mean a huge boost to that industry. And with e-retail and other markets opening up, there has been a marked increase in the number of cold chains and warehouses across the country.

Little wonder that Mal is busy planning many more Samadhan centres and getting more tech into fields. “It’s all about taking the latest technology from the laboratory to the farm,” he says.

(The article was originally published in December 2017 issue of the magazine.)

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