Bangalore, December 24, 2022: The agricultural sector is the main source of livelihood for four out ten Indians and contributes nearly 20 percent to the national gross domestic product or GDP according to the latest numbers available, for 2021.
On a global plane, India’s agricultural business – farming (crops and horticulture) livestock (milk, eggs, meat), forestry and fisheries -- it is second only to China in size, contributes 11.9 percent to the world’s agricultural Gross Value Added or GVA of over $ 3000 billion and accounts for 12 percent of Indian exports.
Yet, unlike most national agricultural activity, India seems to believe that famous 1970s mantra of Oxford economist E.F. Schumacher: ‘Small is Beautiful’. An overwhelming number of India’s farmers – 86 percent -- operate small farm tracts of two hectares or less. This makes for less efficiency, higher production cost, reduced access to credit and poor market access and makes it difficult for them to compete with bigger players. Till now.
In recent years a new leveller has come which may even the odds for the small agriculturist: technology. Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, robotics, drones have become both ubiquitous and affordable holding out new hope for the Indian agriculturist – and in the process bringing in a new player into the khet: the non-traditional, non-hereditary Techno Farmer.
December 23, was Kisan Divas or National Farmers Day, celebrated on the birth anniversary of India’s first farmer-Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. Has a technology-driven point of inflection in agriculture been reached?
In a comprehensive overview of the Indian agriculture sector in March 2022, India Briefing concludes: . “India stands well equipped to adapt to changing methodologies in agriculture and transition from conventional business models to various innovative business models propelled by agritech.”
Let’s do an India-focussed agri-tech reality check.
Twin forces driving agritech
The new hava that is blowing across farms and fields of India is driven by two forces:
ONE is the explosion in agricultural start-ups –estimated by India Briefing to be over 1300 – who harness AI, automation and other cutting-edge tools to assist the traditional farmer in growing produce more efficiently and finding markets more easily
TWO is the very recent phenomenon of city-bound professionals, who have discovered a new interest in farming, who aspire to own a small farm, away from their normal work, and who are keen to deploy their own learnings in Information Technology to grow food albeit in a small , organic way. They are the new breed of Techno Farmers.
The annual Krishi Mela organised by Karnataka’s University of Agricultural Sciences, at the Gandhi Krishi Vigyan Kendra (GKVK) in Bangalore, last month – the first after a 2-year Covid-induced hiatus – was an event unlike anything seen in earlier years. An overwhelming majority of the exhibitors were start-ups – and a record 7 lakh visitors turned up over the 3-day period, with a very new and interesting demographic mix. While traditional farmers still formed the majority – for them this was an annual outing to get sound advice and practical assistance from experts at the University -- a significant proportion were professionals from India’s Silicon City checking out farming options.
The scene is being repeated at agricultural expos across the country.
For a list of upcoming Krishi melas in India check this compilation by Kisan Helpline.
Here are some startups who have been drawing attention at such events
Beegle Agritech is a specialized farm intelligence company incubated at the Institute of Agribusiness Management (IABM) of GKVK offering drone imaging, remote sensing and data analytics for empowering agriculture stakeholders in enhanced decision making. Using multispectral cameras mounted on a drone, Beegle analytics help to identify crops under stress, and crops performing well. Similarly thermal images are used to study areas under pest, disease, nutrient deficiency and moisture stress for better decision making and take right measures for crop cultivation.
Megha Agrotech are pioneers in smart micro-irrigation. Their solution, ‘DripSmart’ is a precision autonomous farming platform which maintains ‘air-water balance’ at the root zone using real-time reading from embedded sensors to carry out irrigation and fertilization. Soil and water properties are sensed around the clock to automatically open feeder valves when needed.
Way2Agribusiness India is typical of a new class of facilitators who bring market knowledge on agri- commodities and trading of agricultural produce to farmers through app-based market intelligence.
Dr. Pashu.com offers AI-enabled health monitoring of livestock through a comprehensive solution aimed at livestock cooperatives and farmers. The main target is the small poultry farmer who cannot afford an onsite veterinarian. The Pashu App helps in tracking the health of the chicken by using an AI-powered health module. The farmer selects the various symptoms that a particular chicken is displaying and can upload the images of the chicken. The AI engine analyses all the symptoms and suggests the possible disease.
Pune startup Kisanserv is helping to bring a paradigm shift in the Indian agritech landscape with its network of tech-enabled collection centres, strengthening the inward supply chain, solving backend problems and helping e-commerce companies to deliver products in record time. The company has by converting its retail partners into mini dark stores which help its partners to gain extra revenues and serve more customers. Whenever an order comes, the company maps it with the closest dark store, and delivers to the end customer quickly. It has more than 200 retail partners in Pune and has become the backbone of hyper delivery apps in major Maharashtra cities.
On a larger scale are online marketplaces for farmers like Patna-based DeHaat which claims to be India’s largest full-stack agri-tech organization, ‘from seeds to marketplace’ and focuses on providing tech enabled solutions throughout the crop lifecycle. Its AI-enabled technologies aim to revolutionise supply chain and production efficiency in India’s farm sector, using a single integrated cloud platform At present, the company offers services to 1.3 million farmers across 11 Indian states.
Noida- headquartered Arya.ag, is arguably India’s largest integrated grain commerce player with an integrated PAN India platform enabling access to high-quality produce, products, and services. Stretching across 425 districts in 21 states, 10,000 warehouses, Arya.ag offers quality supply to buyers and on-time fair payment for their produce.
Bangalore-based digital grain aggregator Ergos has created 'GrainBank', an Agritech platform, connecting farmers to end buyers at real time to execute transaction in ‘one click’ for selling its produce, avail loan directly from partner bank whenever they are required, based on the grain digitized value in his account. The company operates across 26 districts in Bihar, 10 Districts in Karnataka and 17 Districts in Maharashtra with 1,45,000 farmers actively engaging on the technology-based platform.
From local to global
Pune-headquartered FarmERP (for Enterprise Resource Planning) is a trailblazer in farm business management, since 2001, when the agriculture industry started seeing a sea change with adoption of technologies. It now serves agribusinesses in 25 countries with its digital farm management platform. It uses Internet of Things to Automate and modernize farming activities with smart software, harnesses drones to keep an eye on crop growth, monitors soil health with AI-powered technologies and offers Speech Recognition technology to provide farmers with agricultural assistance.The future of agritech in India is Digital Mandis, says FarmERP founder Sanjay Borkar, proposing a simpler national, warehouse-based trading module, which puts the power back in the farmer’s hands. A local producer can upload his inventory to a digital portal, which can be accessed by interested buyers all over the country.
Going beyond the India market, CropIn is a leading AI and Data-led agri-tech organization that provides SaaS solutions to agribusinesses globally. Founded in 2010, the company is a pioneer in the Agritech space, building the first global Intelligent Agriculture Cloud. In May this year it set up its own AI Lab, with 30 members comprising Earth Observation Scientists, Data Scientists, Agronomists and AI and Machine Language.|
Its flagship tool is the SmartFarm which was successfully used at the bottom of the pyramid, by the Tata Trust's Collective for Integrated Livelihood Initiative ( Cini) to help over 40,000 tribal households in central India by providing best farming and livestock practices.
If the change from manual or animal assisted agricultural operations to tractors, was a revolution, another huge change is in the offing. Farmers today are able to till the soil, sow seeds and harvest crops, using a driver-less robotic tractor. Indian companies are among the world's early movers in developing a driverless tractor. The Mahindra group unveiled its version in 2018. The farmer can sit in the shade, and control the tractor and its tilling pattern, from a tablet computer. He can also set a geo-fence using GPS so that the tractor does not stray into an adjoining field.
There was a time when only the rich and famous in India aspired to own a farm house. The great cinemactor Raj Kapoor set the trend when he bought a farm-cum retreat in Loni-Kalbhor village near Pune. It came in handy for shooting key scenes of his 1978 opus, “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram".
In the 1980s, Delhi’s well-heeled, well-connected Beautiful People vied to acquire a farm house on the outskirts. These were society showpieces – not serious agri-ventures.
That has changed in recent years when professionals in cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, began investing their surplus cash in farm houses, inspired by the hype about organic farming. Grape vineyards ( some with mini breweries), mango groves, kitchen vegetable gardens, even fields to grow marigolds have seen urban owners invest time, money and technology.
Indeed so sustained is the rush to own a farm that Bengaluru-based Hosachiguru has launched a ‘gated community of farmlands’. They offer to manage or co-manage farm plots, using state-of-the-art technology and relieving owners of the hassles of managing staff, inventory and sowing-reaping.
They have over a thousand gentlemen-farmers on their rolls today each owning about an acre of land. And yes, the owners get to build a farmhouse as a bonus… a vision of the future when any Indian can be a farmer – and a tech-enabled one at that!
This article appeared yesterday in Swarajya
For images for this article see Image of the Day