ABOUT 18 MONTHS AGO, Union Ministry of Agriculture And Farmers Welfare helped start-up Star AgriBazaar Technology (AgriBazaar) access digital land record data of villages in Una (Madhya Pradesh), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh) and Kota (Rajasthan) districts. This was part of an agreement to prepare a database of farmers, farmlands, soil health, crop patterns and agricultural practices. The aim was to build an open source and inter-operable agriculture digital public infrastructure (DPI) for creating farmer-centric solutions and supporting agri-tech industry and start-ups.

AgriBazaar was not alone. The agriculture ministry roped in ten others — Microsoft India, Amazon Web Services, Jio platforms, ITC, Cisco, ESRI, NCDEX e-Markets Ltd. (NeML), Wadhwani AI, Patanjali Organic Research Institute and Ninjacart — around the same time. The target was development of digital solutions to enhance farm productivity or increase farmers' income or facilitate implementation of schemes. The benefits included advisories based on weather and soil health, better farm-to-market linkages, development of credit-worthiness evaluation tools, use of e-commerce portals for buying right seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and farm-gate sale of produce.

The exercise was in sync with Centre's digital push. Union Budget 2023-24, for instance, talks about building DPI for agriculture. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her Budget speech that this will create crop planning and health solutions, improve access to farm inputs, credit and insurance, help in crop estimation, provide market intelligence and support agri-tech industry and start-ups. Previous year's Budget proposed public-private partnerships for delivering technology services through public sector research and extension institutions, private agri-tech players and other stakeholders in the agriculture value chain. A key announcement was use of drones for crop assessment, digitising land records and spraying insecticides and nutrients.

The 11 pilot projects completed early this year have thus set the stage for a digital revolution in Indian agriculture after the green revolution that helped India achieve self-sufficiency in food grains and white revolution that made India milk-surplus. These successful pilots, along with efforts by dozens of private companies to offer digital solutions, can transform lives and livelihoods of the country's 12.6 crore farmers having less than two hectares farm land and 5.3 lakh lease holders.

Image : Photograph by Narendra Bisht

Quality Inputs, Scientific Advisories

An Indian farmer's problems begin with the poor quality of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers that he often gets. Right advice at the right time is another challenge. Both agri-tech and legacy protection firms are keen to launch digital solutions for these problems.

“In India, 65% agri-inputs are adulterated at the last mile. We have developed a cooperative social commerce model to address the issue," says Raj Yadav, CEO and founder of Lucknow-based Gramik, an agri-e-commerce start-up. The company, which has presence in 10 districts in UP and three in Maharashtra, has developed a digital platform that can aggregate input (seed, fertiliser, pesticide, farm equipment, animal feed, etc) requirements of small farmers into a big order for sourcing directly from manufacturer or dealer. "We address logistics and delivery challenges by leveraging technology. We have a dedicated e-commerce app for the farmer. A Peer app (for village-level peer partners) handles consolidated orders. We can supply a quantity as small as one-kg (seeds) through our 24 logistics partners across India," says Yadav. The platform has 1.5 lakh registered users with average holding of one acre.

Gramik is just one of the players in this expanding segment. Indore-based Gramophone calls itself an AgTech data-driven platform that helps farmers improve yields by offering information and input planning services. Pune-based AgroStar, operating in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, offers agri solutions for the entire crop cycle through its AgroStar Agri Doctor app. Patna-based DeHaat's app is a one-stop platform for multiple services, including reminders, advisories, weather reports and mandi rates, for over 1.4 million farmers in 12 states. Farmers can use the app for consultation on chemical dosage, crop health and use of inputs. The app also facilitates purchase of inputs and sale of output. Coimbatore-based Farmagain offers agronomy advice and technology for precision agriculture. Its GroTron marketplace facilitates purchase of quality seeds, nutrients and fertilisers based on crop-specific fertigation plans. Fertigation is the technique of supplying dissolved fertiliser to crops through an irrigation system. The app also offers services such as soil and water testing. It helps farmers connect with product and service providers across India.

Right Choice, Timely Alerts

Subsidies and government procurement have been influencing choice of crops for decades. Technology can help farmers diversify from traditional crops to those that are less vulnerable to vagaries of nature and more profitable and climate friendly. Likewise, timely action on weather alerts can save the crop, enhance productivity and increase farm income and sustainability. Agri-tech firms are finding this a fertile area for intervention.

AgriBazaar's real-time dashboard (developed alongside government's pilot), for instance, can provide information about nearly 4,20,000 farms owned or managed by 4,13,000-plus farmers in three districts where it implemented its pilot. It takes seconds to access all records of a farm — from ownership details & structure (single, joint, leased) and contact details to crop pattern, benefits availed through government schemes and mechanisation status. AgriBazaar can also provide weather and crop advisories and estimate yield and revenue. "We have collected the entire ground data through satellite images. We have three data sets—farm data where we have geo-tagged the farm, crop data and weather data. The three help us predict quantity and quality of harvest. Our intelligent data engine Agribhumi is digitising the farmer’s crop journey," says Amith Agarwal, co-founder and chief executive officer, AgriBazaar. The app also provides a list of recommended crops based on soil type. "Our Cloud platform has 162 crops," says Agarwal.

Timely alerts can also increase farm productivity. That's why agriculture ministry asked not-for-profit Wadhwani AI (Artificial Intelligence Unit of National Entrepreneurship Network) to scale up its AI/ML (machine learning) powered pest management solution for cotton and offer it to 50,000 farmers during the pilot. Wadhwani AI's digital solution is an AI/ML powered tool that can provide crop protection advice by seeing the image of the pests. "The farmer has to install pheromone traps to attract the pests 40-45 days after sowing as that is the usual time for infestation. The farmers have to empty these traps at least once a week, put the pests on a clean white paper, click the image and upload it on our system. The advisory is instant. The farmer can get recommended pesticides the same day. Delay in using pesticide can cause up to 20-30% crop loss," says J.P. Tripathi, associate director, Agriculture, Wadhwani AI.

The AI tool has been so successful that Wadhwani AI is trying to add features to its mobile app. It is trying to develop similar models for other pests, too. "We have started work on maize and chillies and are in discussions to include pests and diseases of paddy. We are trying to cover mango, maize, chickpea, paddy and chillies," says Tripathi. The not-for-profit entity is developing a data collection tool to understand actual versus recommended farm practices. Pilots for digital farm diary will begin in July 2023, says Tripathi.

Efficient Use of Resources

Digital technologies can make machines more relevant and precise. For instance, a drone, a tractor or a water pump can transform the farm if programmed for a coordinated response. Real-time data is the key. "Drone adoption has a significant potential to improve effectiveness of agri inputs, reduce use of water, boost farm mechanisation and drive precision agriculture practices," says Arun Alagappan, executive vice chairman, Coromandel International. In December 2022, Chennai-based Coromandel invested in a drone start-up, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems, to become strong in unmanned aerial systems solutions.

Even the biggies are interested. Global crop sciences major Bayer has announced a partnership with Bengaluru-based General Aeronautics Private Ltd. to provide DGCA-approved drone spray services for crop protection. It has been helping rice, cotton, and soybean farmers since 2022 kharif season. Simon-Thorsten Wiebusch, country divisional head, Crop Science Division of Bayer for India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka, says the company plans to add corn, potato, wheat and chilli depending on approvals and demand. "To begin with, more than 50 drones will be made available for around 25,000 farmers. This will create awareness among 1,00,000 farmers. The services (along with agronomic advice) will benefit small farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, among other states," says Wiebusch, adding mechanisation is important for advancing farming in India. "We believe agriculture in the country is collectivising, mechanising/digitising and becoming more sustainable. We remain focused on our commitment to reach 100 million small farmers by 2030 and believe creating opportunities for rural entrepreneurs and developing business models around drone services will serve this purpose."

Mumbai-based Carnot Technologies has made tractors more efficient. Its AI-enabled IoT kit transmits data to a mobile app and helps farmers track performance of tractors — acreage covered, fuel status, etc. It also offers pay-per-use solutions to those who rent out tractors. Mahindra & Mahindra is a strategic investor. Carnot is also a service contractor for Mahindra’s Krish-e app that provides personalised crop calendar and information about land preparation, crop sowing, crop planning, fertiliser management, seed treatment, pest/disease management, diagnosis and treatment of crop issues, weed treatment and irrigation.

Assured Markets

Once crop is harvested, the farmer's objective is getting best value for his produce. In spite of government-regulated markets, private market yards, private procurement channels and government procurement systems, a significant number of India's marginal farmers do not get remunerative prices. The situation is worse for perishable crops. Agri-tech firms are bridging the gaps.

For instance, agribusiness major ITC, one of India's biggest buyers of agricultural produce, has launched a super app called ITCMAARS (Metamarket For Advanced Agriculture And Rural Services). ITCMAARS, building on ITC's e-Choupal platform, has created a phygital (physical plus digital) ecosystem that gives small farmers hyper-local advisories, access to quality inputs, market linkages as well as allied services like pre-approved loans. ITCMAARS also enables precision farming through phygital tools like online soil testing and customised crop nutrition services. A company spokesperson says ITCMAARS covers 1,105 farmer producer organisations (FPOs) in nine states—Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and West Bengal (next year) with 5.1 lakh farmer registrations. "Under ITCMAARS, 10 FPOs are planned in 2023-24 in Bankura, Howrah, Midnapur and Hooghly districts of West Bengal. It has developed a potato module (crop calendar, package of practices specific to West Bengal) and regionalised the app in Bangla. The aim is to reach 10 million farmers. The range of products and services will continue to evolve over time," she says. ITC is also a bulk procurer of commodities like wheat and potato.

The pilots by NCDEX e-Markets and Ninjacart centered around digital marketplace platforms that can be scaled up. Ninjacart claims to be India's largest fresh produce supply chain company—it sources fresh from farmers and delivers to businesses within 12 hours.

NCDEX e-Markets looked at procurement data base of farmers, digital land records and other public data to create a tool to understand which crops can be grown in a particular area during a particular season and alert buyers for entering into advance contracts with farmers and FPOs. NCDEX e-Markets mapped farmers of Nasik in Maharashtra, Guntur in Andhra Pradesh and Davangere in Karnataka. The focus was on maize in Davangere, chilli in Guntur and onion in Nasik. "If we know what a crop in a region is likely to be, we can direct buyers to that region. Some state governments have already taken this initiative forward. So, people have picked up from here, and if they can use this database, it will be very meaningful," says a senior NCDEX e-Markets official.

The Road Ahead

Agriculture ministry's decision to engage private players to develop digital tools that can read and analyse data sets are central to its plan to make its schemes more effective and accountable. The government's India Digital Ecosystem Of Agriculture framework relies heavily on a national Agristack that integrates all databases of farmers who are beneficiaries of various schemes. Central government expects to see Agristack being used for various activities aimed at increasing farm productivity and incomes, targeted disbursement of subsidies and payments, farm insurance payouts, etc. With more than 7,000 start-ups coming up in agri and allied sectors in India in last eight years, initiatives to increase the pace of digital interventions will only gather pace.

Apex industry body CII and global consulting firm Bain & Co say investments in agri-tech start-ups have grown significantly in last five-six years and penetration of smartphones and internet has put India's agri-rural ecosystem at an inflection point with companies that address inefficiencies across the agri-value chain seeing explosive growth. A recent CII-Bain report titled, 'Innovation in India's Rural Economy: Disruptive Business Models Are Stimulating Inclusive Growth In Agriculture And Rural Finance,' states that in past decade, India’s rural ecosystem has evolved and created an environment ripe for innovation, allowing start-ups and traditional players to introduce disruptive business models that reduce inefficiencies in agriculture and finance sectors. "Disruption in India’s food and agriculture will evolve from traditional agriculture to new farming models, advanced agri-tech services and new food products," says Parijat Jain, partner and leader of Bain’s Agribusiness practice in India.

The CII-Bain report also notes that ₹6,600 crore worth of private-equity investments went into Indian agri-tech space during 2015-20. "As newer generations of farmers and FPOs become digitally savvy, new business models are emerging across the agriculture value chain, from inputs and harvesting to processing and distribution. Information and transparency initiatives are addressing existing inefficiencies and formalising a traditionally informal sector," it says.

India has seen digital technologies transforming its communications, banking, payment, travel, healthcare, taxation and governance landscape over the years. Agriculture is next. And impact of technology in agriculture could be much bigger as Indian agriculture sector accounts for about 15.9% of the country’s $ 2.7 trillion economy employing 49% of India's workforce.

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