March through May, at the peak of the lockdown in India, farmers across the country had to abandon their fields. But those who had been savvy enough to invest in technology were better off. “We have farms in Himachal, and I’m still unable to go there. I was worried about the ground realities but thanks to technology I have been able to manage remotely for the most part,” said Saurabh Singla, a farmer from Punjab in our interaction with him. Singla used digital tools to check on the condition of his land from monitoring the weather to regulating crop irrigation and even tracking mandi prices.
Unfortunately, a large section of the over 600 million farmers in India have not yet been able to reap the benefits of technology. Farming communities across the country are still grappling with rising debt, dropping productivity due to poor market access and inefficient cropping techniques. The recently released National Economic Survey 2019-20 shows that growth has remained static for the last six years. Smallholder farmers – those with fragmented land holdings – are most vulnerable, and the recent series of lockdown has made the situation dire.
Pandemic exacerbates challenges for Indian farmers
The imposition of the lockdown restricted farmers’ access to markets and production inputs, especially in mid-March, when it was first announced. Non-availability of labour and supply chain bottlenecks meant that normal sowing and harvesting operations in states like Punjab, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh were stopped, almost overnight. Those with access to mechanized harvesting equipment were relatively better off as labour costs soared. The vast majority of Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis across the country remained closed, forcing some farmers to take the extreme step of dumping their produce on the streets.
COVID-19 has underscored the need for better farm-gate procurement and expansion of logistics and storage infrastructure. “In India, 86% of farmers hold an acre or less of land, and most times, these farmers take credit at interest rates of 25-30% from local lenders towards buying seed, labour costs, harvesting, transport of produce to the mandi, etc. They don’t even make 80,000 INR from their holding since there are 4-5 middlemen involved. The price the farmer gets for the crop is very different from what the consumer pays,” Singla observed.
State governments in regions like Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have taken it upon themselves to buy produce directly from farmers besides providing rent-free farm inputs to prevent the crisis from precipitating further. As India eases into its fifth phase of lockdown, the reverse migration of labour seen in several parts of the country is expected to cut labour costs. This move is sure to help growers increase the acreage under cultivation. This bodes well for the upcoming Kharif (summer-sown) season as restrictions on the movement of agricultural inputs are eased further. Nearly 60% of revenue comes from the Kharif season for Indian farmers.
The arrival of COVID-19 has squeezed rural incomes further and contraction of demand has made matters worse. However, a solution may have already been found in the form of digital technology. The recently announced Agriculture Infrastructure Fund can be multiplied exponentially by leveraging digital technology. It can level the playing field for the smallholder farmers, helping them get better returns on investment.
Adoption of Smart Technologies and its benefits
The adoption of technology is now imperative. Although the time and energy invested in the fields are crucial for a productive yield, the same when done through technology can yield better results. “We believe it is time for farmers to be more progressive and adapt to the changing environment,” said Amith Aggarwal, Co-Founder and CEO, Agribazaar. Low levels of digitalization across the agriculture and allied sectors is one key challenge and opportunity, according to Om Routray, VP, SourceTrace.
StarAgri, for instance, is focused on using technology to better the lives of farmers. This includes plans to coordinate with farmers and other stakeholders to support the country’s Public Distribution System and procurement of agricultural commodities under the minimum support price scheme. According to Routray, the availability of e-mandis services to farmers will ease the entire process, and getting the right price will provide huge relief to farmers.
But given the fact that India’s agrarian economy comprises largely of smaller farmers having fragmented landholding, the use of smart technologies on cultivable landmass is not feasible. According to the National Economic Survey 2018, the average size of individual farms in India has shrunk to 1.15 hectares. On the upside, research conducted by agencies like the FAO has found that smart technology could help Indian farmers make better use of limited resources and improve yields substantially. Singla, who is also the founder of Draper University-funded Himikara Technologies, claimed that his company has allowed farmers to increase yield 5x times through technology. Himikara provides a full-stack agronomy solution – farm inputs, farm intelligence, advisory, and finance – to the greenhouse farmers in the network, improving yields and standardizing output quality.
One of India’s largest seed companies, Seedworks, has been working with over 2.2 million farmers to engage them in a scientific approach to farming. This includes E-sampark, a digital tool that helps the company’s extension officers communicate with farmers remotely and educate them about new products and solutions. According to Venkatram Vasantavada, CEO, Seedworks, these initiatives helped them stay connected with farmers even during the lockdown. The company is also using a 3-level barcoding that uses data analytics to accurately predict and assess plant/crop breeding. “Going forward I expect to see a lot of deep learning and artificial intelligence in the Indian agricultural sector. Digital tools are the way to transform agriculture here since it will help in cost optimization, and making accurate future predictions and decisions,” Vasantavada said.
Pace and scale of Digital Transformation
However, there are several challenges to be overcome. The degradation of soil quality, lack of irrigation, and the resulting stagnation in per capita productivity has precipitated the marginalization of all but the top 5% of the country’s farmers with large landholdings. The disruption caused by COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown will likely lead more farmers to explore technology in boosting farm yields as well as market access. Leveraging cutting edge AI/ML-driven agri-tech solutions are introducing holistic farm-to-market processes to the Indian market that are both sustainable and cost-effective.
Digital aggregation portals are now putting farmers directly in touch with buyers, both local and international. Privately owned Indian agri-tech players are offering solutions encompassing the entire value chain, from pre-production to post-harvesting, logistics, credit, marketing, and payment processing. Web-based and mobile apps, capable of assessing and reporting crop damage to source tracing, are now enabling farmers and businesses to make better long-term decisions in terms of sustainability and growth.
In the post-COVID world, the agriculture sector will likely witness a transformation across touchpoints including farm management, certification, advisory services, traceability, and supply chain management.
As we move ahead, the rate of technology adoption is only going to grow, enabling the Indian agricultural sector to become a thriving, self-sustaining, profit-making business segment. Public-private participation has the potential to bring about lasting ground-level changes that could well usher the next food revolution in India. And digital transformation is a sure way to catalyse this change.