Indian Agri-tech : Urgency for strategic interventions

by Sreedevi Reddy Oct 25th, 2019

"Earth is so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.’

In this discovery lies the secret of the birth of agriculture as an occupation. The first occupation that mankind has known, patronized and developed and that has led to civilizations, the oldest ones known to be in our part of the world. It is natural, therefore, the prime occupation of India, an India which has the second-largest agricultural landholding in the world.

Agriculture in India has come a long way. It has gained impetus through irrigation facilities, warehousing, and cold storage. No surprise then that technology has descended upon this space as well. Agriculture looks very different today with farmers using GPS and irrigation systems that are monitored over the Internet.

Lives of farmers are being transformed with the ingenious use of technology and digitization, just like every other aspect of governance and operation in the recent past. One such move has been the setting up of the National Agriculture Market (eNAM), a pan-India electronic trading portal intended to create a unified national market for agricultural commodities, which aims to eliminate middlemen altogether and help farmers realize better prices for their produce.

Some statistics that were released by NASSCOM in August 2019 throw more light on the agritech scenario in India. From USD 46 million in 2017 to USD 73 million in 2018 and USD 248 million until June 2019 itself, investments in this sector are racing and gives us an idea of the growing appetite of investors and their belief in the potential of agritech in India. Already 450 agritech start-ups crowd this space, noteworthy incude AgroStar, Ninjacart, Crofarm, Bombay Hemp Company, and Stellapps. They have tried to innovate and disrupt every facet of agriculture. After all, as Mark Kahn of venture capital firm Omnivore says, “the opportunity involves feeding 1/6th of humanity,” referring to India’s 1.3 billion population.

Look at AgroStar, a Pune-based m-commerce startup that sells agricultural inputs directly to farmers, essentially solving last-mile delivery issues.

Bangalore-based NinjaCart or Delhi–NCR based Crofarm are marketing and delivery platforms for agricultural produce, focusing on supply chain infrastructure. They connect farmers to end retailers such as grocery stores, supermarkets, and restaurants that buy fruits and vegetables directly at the source. There are some that research on the medicinal values of crops and others that facilitate easy timely loans and equipment rentals to farmers or operate 24x7 helplines for farmers where advice is doled out for free and distress calls are handled, or even guidance on alternative parallel sources of income is given. Technology adoptions are enabling many agritech startups to make farming-related advanced technological mechanisms to help local farming become a sustainable and profit-yielding enterprise.

Then what is holding back the sector from going through the roof, producing a bumper crop year after year ?

Let's check the ground reality. The average landholding in India is tiny, mechanization is minimal, use of technology on the fringes. Moreover, unrestricted use of fertilizers resulting in poor soil quality, poor infrastructure in villages, lack of access to the internet and technology, depleting access to water combined with climate change are just a few of many problems plaguing farmers. Also access to resources such as finances, credit, support expertise, irrigation solutions for a small farmer are elusive and ring true to the adage that "A farmer will become rich next year".

The Indian agricultural sector needs a technological revolution. While the foundations of these are already laid by public-private partnerships and government support, a lot more needs to be done. Some critical issues need to be addressed to effectively handle different issues of the farmers. For example, we can address the problem of climate change on crops with effective micro-insurance products that cut down agricultural risks. While micro-financing solutions are available, the real need is to make these available to the farmers by proper communication. Technology can play a big role in doing this. Similarly, using technologies like IoT and RFID, the supply chain can be improved to ensure that farmers do not get the short end of the stick. Other emerging technologies like blockchaincan be adopted for smart farming solutions that boost productivity, traceability, and lower transaction and logistic costs.

With pressure on farmer profitabilityand sustainable use of inputs and resources, Indian farmers willneed increasingly look to advances in technology to help maximise output and increase efficiency.Though advances in agri-technologies have so far been limitedbecause of the average land holding in India being small, integrating more technology into agriculture is extremely exciting and will take the sector to the next level through exploiting technological advances in other forward-thinking sectors such as space and robotics.

Strategic collaboration between various academic disciplines, and partnerships between academia, industry and farmers is critical in realising the commercial and environmental benefits of agri-tech, and ensuring the resilience of Indian agriculture.

With collaborative contributions, strategic partnerships, and application of emerging technologies, the agritech sector is at the center-stage of innovation and has bright chances to lead India’s journey towards overall transformation.