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Imagining an Innovative Future for Indian Agriculture


The acronym GLIMPSE has been used to describe the barriers farmers face in increasing productivity. The framework was verified using Delphi interviews with 75 global experts and reviewing 1.3 million websites dedicated to the issues involved with feeding 9 billion people. However, even globally validated tools have to be considered within a local context, so applying GLIMPSE to a country represents nearly 20% of the global population, in which 60% of the population works in agriculture or food is a good test of ‘think global, act local’.

Home to more than a billion people, celebrating its 75th anniversary as an independent nation, India is blessed with an extraordinary range of climates and micro-climates, with the result that almost any type of agricultural produce can be grown. Structural problems in the agricultural sector have held back growth and development including land reform, water availability and market access.

Developing the land for farming requires investment, which in turn requires having enough land to justify the investment, which in turn implies ownership. With an average farm size of just 1.1 ha, only a minority of farmers having clear title to their land, uneven land distribution and a challenging land tenure system which frequently fragments holding, investment in land improvement is not a realistic option for most farmers. As a result, most rely on traditional farming practices: no crop rotation, poor farming techniques, inadequate use of inputs such as fertilizers, inefficient irrigation, etc. All result in lower yields and product quality.

Contributing to lower yields are water issues. Unprecedented droughts and poor rains mean farmers have to dig deeper and deeper wells to find water. Further, more than half of India’s arable land is dependent on precipitation, so the amount of rainfall during the monsoon season has a dramatic effect on economic activity in the agriculture sector (and linked industries). In turn, farmer incomes and the overall economy are affected at a level that is different than in other major economies.

Finally, the agricultural sector in India faces several market challenges. Farm prices are unstable and fluctuate for both produce and inputs. Also, agricultural input markets are disorganized, as are those for outputs, and access is a real challenge

One of the results of these challenges is high suicide rates for farmers in India. Poor conditions for agricultural laborers, credit challenges due to farm indebtedness, low income and low margins, and increasing expectations driven by social media and television are all cited as causes. Although there is some dispute about the relative weight of these factors (in particular, regarding debt), there is no doubt that the farming community is under stress.

So how can the GLIMPSE framework clarify these challenges, and how are India’s digital innovativeness and startups stepping up to help farmers overcome them?

G: Government and Policies

India’s governing party (BJP) has a stated goal of doubling farm income by 2022, and is using subsidies, investment and incentives aimed at the rural economy to help achieve that goal. 

Addressing the land issues noted above (ownership; subdivision and fragmentation of farmland; how land is passed from one generation to the next; selling land to pay debt; consolidation of uneconomic holdings) is a critical challenge. In addition to subsidies and investment, Government sponsored policies on land reform are an important piece in moving India towards a modern agriculture system.

An example of innovation that could help increase farm income, Farmizen offers people in Bengaluru the option to rent out a small plot of land for roughly €33 a month to grow their own food, which they can harvest themselves or have it done for them and delivered to their doorsteps. 

Of course, there can be unintended consequences of government policies. The recent ban on cow slaughter in certain states combined with cattle rustling issues (estimated at $1bn/ year) have made the cattle industry challenging. One innovative effort to address cattle rustling is SaveCow has launched a GPS chip & Mobile App that connects cattle with government, farmers and the police. The microchip raises an alarm & alerts the police when the cow is moved outside from its normal area.

Government actions in India can have unintended effects on smallholder farmers. One example is the ‘demonetization’ (removal of the 500 and 1000 rupee notes) which impacted them disproportionately but also forgiving loans and improve transparency in pricing.  

L: Losses

Losses come in several forms in the supply chain, particularly through perishability, but also through inappropriate transportation and storage. Innovative storage solutions can reduce losses in transport, as in the example of the solar powered portable cold storage by EcozenEcofrost can store perishable commodities on farms such as fruits, leafy vegetables. It does not rely on the electrical grid (which can be unreliable), and has a power backup of over 30 hours. Another example is Tessol’s patented “PlugnChill” thermal energy storage process, which offers low cost cold storage that does not rely on fossil fuels. It is already being used in poultry, horticulture, dairy and frozen foods by fruit and vegetable vendors, food processing and seafood companies, with reported operational cost savings of up to 60%.

The lack of storage options has secondary, but still significant losses for the farmer as well: asymmetric knowledge and power relative to buyers. Buyers know that farmers have gluts of perishable produce coming into the marketplace, and that, without adequate cold storage, the farmer has little choice but to sell while the produce still has value in the marketplace. Effective storage technologies allow more time to look for alternative buyers, or to hold stock back, and release it when prices improve.

Another source of loss is not knowing how to anticipate or prevent loss from weather or disease. mKrishi provides farmers with access to partner experts from various agricultural universities and companies, and experts access to information about the farms. Mobile phones with built in camera and specialized software are provided to the farmers to send photos of their crops and queries to experts which is accessed via web application. Sensor networks and a weather station in the village provide relevant data that is factored in by the expert before giving a solution which is received by the farmer as a text or voice message. mKrishi also sends out automatic alerts to the farmers of crop disease if the risk exceeds a certain threshold.

I: Infrastructure/logistics

Infrastructure and related logistics are also critical to farm profitability. For example, the Ninjacart platform connects farmers directly to businesses, and can get produce from farm to stores in less than 12 hours. Farmers drop off their harvest at the local collection centers and are paid within 24 hours. The produce moves to distribution centers and is packed to meet customer orders. The system enables better prices for the farmers, and reduces costs by removing unnecessary trips to the market to try and sell the produce. Across India there are many similar platforms, some general and others focused on sectors For example. FarmLink is a Mumbai-based agritech startup that specializes in end-to-end supply chain for fruits and vegetables. They are in the process of creating a B2B analytical tool to allow customers to track the location of produce from farm to shelf, with a secure payment mechanism for the farmers. Another firm, Gramco Infratech, focusses on the grain supply chain, offering a range of services in rural areas. Their services cover the full value chain from inputs and contract farming to finance and procurement. 

A challenge for many rural Indian farmers is reliable access to electricity. Patpert Teknow Systems uses the process of gasification to convert agricultural waste to syngas (synthesis gas). which in turn can be converted into electricity. This technique also cuts the cost of waste disposal and management of waste landfills.

Power, and its unreliability in India remains a huge opportunity.  Supernova is an example of a solar powered aerator for shrimp farms but other innovations focus on providing continued power supply to farms, processing plants, cold storage and supermarkets since all parts of the food supply chain suffer from variable and intermittent power.

M: Market access

Improving market access, largely through communication platforms, is one of the most active areas of agritech innovation in India. These initiatives are found throughout the value chain, connecting input suppliers with farmers and farmers with logistics, markets and consumers.

Many of the platforms aim to facilitate information sharing among farmers attract large numbers of users through Facebook and WhatsApp. The largest organization is Olam, whose Facebook-based AgriCentral offers farm and market information to nearly half a million farmers.

Another examples include:

  • Agrostar, which provides agronomy consultation and takes orders for farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, farm implements, etc. via phone;

  • FarmGuru, which works to form communities for the farm inputs required for a particular crop, enabling small farmers to avail of volume discounts;

  • Gramophone, an Indore-based startup, which provides assistance to farmers on farming related problems via toll-free helpline number;

  • Ugaoo.com, which focuses on gardening and landscaping, and works closely with farmers to provide high quality organic seeds;

  • SourceTrace, which helps small farmers get paid quickly and connect directly to buyers.

  • AgriApp (Jayalaxmi Agrotech), is an app to help farmers find useful agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry apps in Google Play through a one-click link. Available in English and regional languages the start-up aims to empower farmers with information and help the decision support system in crop management.

  • SmartMoo (Stellapps) collects information on the production, procurement, and cold chain of 2 billion liters of milk a year in India.

Innovators within the supply chain (infrastructure, logistics, processors and retail outlets) include:

  • NaPanta, whose mobile app allows farmers to book agri-equipment rental and sales from their own farm, and help farmers sell farm produce directly to customers. The app also allows farmers to access real-time information on market prices and three-year price trends.

  • RainbowAgri Market, (Coimbatore) connects buyers of producer and sellers of inputs with farmers within 2 minutes. Farmers list farm produce, set a price, add text description about the product, view potential buyers list and be notified when someone is interested in the product.

  • Lawrencedale Agro Processing (LEAF) procures produce from farmers, sorts, grades, packages and supplies to retail stores.

  • Crofarm provides retail stores with direct access to fruit and vegetable farmers.

  • MeraKisan connects agricultural buyers with local organic farmers.

Internet kiosks are popping up in rural communities all over India to enable farmers to check grains, sugar cane and rice pricing and better market their products.

P: People

Illiteracy and old-fashioned work practices are significant challenges for Indian agriculture, and are ripe for digital disruption. Literacy rates in rural areas of India are notably lower than in urban areas: 67.7% vs 84.1% with a strong gender element as well: men in rural areas are more literate (77% vs 58.9%) whereas the urban gender divide is smaller (88% vs 79%). Low literacy rates makes the use of use of digital platforms difficult, and creates challenges in educating farmers in new practices. 

ITC’s e-choupal was the pioneer in addressing farmer access to market prices for wholesale products, allowing them to better negotiate prices (addressing market challenges, above), but has moved into addressing work practices and skills. Local volunteers run centers that provide weather forecasts and education about new farm practices, risk management, and better-quality farm inputs- all in local languages. Farmers share best practices and can consult with an agronomist by e-mail to seek crop assistance. Currently, e-choupal serves over 4 million farmers.

Technology that can make traditional work practices easier can be found in both plant and animal sectors. Using traditional methods, pomegranates and vineyards require up to 12 hour per day of manual dipping (up to 12 hours/day), but a Nashik-based startup, MITRA  has automated the process by developing sprayers for plant growth stimulators, reducing the time to about an hour.

About 70% of India’s 100 million farmers still use animals as their main source of draft power (plowing). Bullocks are inexpensive and work well in small field. On the other hand, they are also, incompatible with modern tools and high maintenance. A joint venture between a leading tractor manufacturer and Tata Center for Technology and Design is developing Bullkey, a tractor architecture that mechanizes cattle power.

Making equipment available to farmers with limited capital resources, EM3 Agri Servicesoffer pay-per-use farm machinery and services for each step of the cultivation process, from land preparation to post-harvest field management. Farmers can access the equipment and ancillary services through a mobile app and local “Samadhan Kendra” or fulfillment centres. Trringo, developed by Mahindra, also provides rental tractors and other farm machinery.

There is a surplus of supply of labor so the adoption of automation such as robots has been slower than in other parts of the world, especially the BRIC countries, because of access to cheap labor.

S: Science

Agriculture in India can use science-based innovation to leapfrog generations of agricultural evolution, leveraging technologies such as wireless sensors, the IoT, predictive analytics, machine learning, machine vision, image processing and multi-spectral analysis for planning and operations in open field farming, livestock and aquaculture. 

An example from the government sphere is the support for the use of agricultural drones. Aarav Unmanned System, a startup incubated at IIT Kanpur, uses drones to optimize irrigation, fertilization and pesticide distribution. Drones can provide farmers with accurate information about the condition of the soil, crops, excessive dampness or erosion, pest related problems etc.

Intello uses a combination of computer vision, deep learning, AI and IoT to rapidly grade agricultural commodities. Through the Intello app, photos are taken of product samples, and the image analyzed to estimate quality parameters.

Cropin (Bengaluru) provides a full suite of farm management, monitoring and analytics solutions. The company has invested $5 million developing a new AI product called SmartRisk. Essentially a digital platform for microfinance, banking and non-banking institutions to identify and minimise the risk in lending and insurance business SmartRisk currently assists over five million farmers with farm management, crop cycle monitoring, harvest and produce traceability from farm to fork.

Eruvaka Technologies works specifically for aquaculture farmers to remotely monitor farm conditions such as water quantity, levels of dissolved oxygen and pH levels remotely on smartphones to allow healthy maintenance of growing fish. The farm is monitored by floating buoy sensor which alerts farmers of changes by text or phone call.

An example that addresses the water issues noted above is the “Greenhouse-in-a-box”, designed by Kheyti. A modular greenhouse, it is affordable and provides farmers with a steady income source year round and grows 7 times more food with 90% less water.

E: Environment

According to a UN report, climate change will have a significant impact on agriculture in India and West Africa. India is already focused on achieving the UN’s sustainability development goals, but farming yields are still forecast to drop by 2.6% by 2050. Other environmental factors affecting Indian agriculture are soil erosion and the water issue of dependency on rain. Other initiatives addressing the water issue include:

  • Micro-irrigation systems that make stored water available in a cheaper and more effective manner. Jain Irrigation is the leader in drip and micro-irrigation through their technology and financing solutions.

  • Khethworks, which focuses on the 30 million farmers in Eastern India whose small plots can be farmed year-round with appropriate irrigation by building reliable, solar-powered irrigation systems that enable their customers to farm through all three seasons.

  • Avanijal Agri Automation developed an automated irrigation system using IoT and wireless technology to control irrigation motors and valves in the field according to the electricity schedule, volume of water available and soil moisture. The system offsets the intermittent and irregular nature of the rural electricity system.

India’s water requirements and the influence it has on farm profitability has led to the daming many of the major rivers, and these investments have become a political bargaining chip within state and national governments.

The larger issue of weather is being addressed by IBM, which is making weather predictioninformation available to rural farmers, and Fasal provides forecasts focused at field level, not the usual kilometer-wide spatial scale. As Fasal uses IoT to collect data and an AI-based forecasting algorithm to allow farmers to benefit from real-time, actionable information.

Examples of efforts to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides include:

  • Anulekh Agrotech offers an alternative to chemical fertilizers made from biochar called Biosat to farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

  • Sea6 Energy is a Bangalore based company has raised $2 million to grow and converts sea plants into biofuels and soil nutrients.

  • Barrix Agro Sciences is a Bangalore-based startup that helps farmers increase pre and post-harvest yield by developing cost-effective eco-friendly pest control.

  • SatSure uses satellite images, big data capabilities and the IoT to analyze what irrigation or fertilizers are needed, or when it is time to harvest, and delivers the information via an app.

Conclusions

Agriculture in India employs 40% of its workers, generates 15% of its GDP and has the largest area under cropping of any country in the world, ahead of the US and China. Land, Water and Market issues all hamper the development of a modern farming and food supply system. When looked at through the GLIMPSE lens, between government initiatives and support and a vibrant entrepreneurial culture, India can become a leader in agritech solutions to increase agricultural productivity and addressing the challenges facing the agricultural sector in India.

Many thanks to Vinny MadhuriIsha MundeKate Phillips Connolly and SriRaj Kantamnenifor valuable content, contributions and editing.

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More reading..

http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/agriculture/10-major-agricultural-problems-of-india-and-their-possible-solutions/20988

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/308675

https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/agriculture/how-new-technologies-can-raise-farm-productivity.html

https://www.analyticsindiamag.com/top-6-indian-agritech-startups-that-are-revolutionising-agriculture/

http://www.businessworld.in/article/Reimagining-Indian-Agriculture-How-technology-can-change-the-game-for-Indian-farmers-/24-11-2018-164502/

https://claroenergy.in/top-10-apps-revolutionizing-indian-agriculture/

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/agriculture/how-whatsapp-facebook-are-helping-farmers-prosper/articleshow/70298823.cms

 


K H Phillips Connolly