Strengthening the technology ecosystem for agriculture in India | OPINION

Dr. Abhilaksh Likhi

Experts opine that agritech, without doubt, is relooking at the way food has been grown and distributed in the country. But technological innovations are also being triggered by critical factors such as climate change, reduction in water availability, tolerance of pests, decrease in quality of soils and labour shortages. Funding, therefore, specifically for on-farm management and precision agriculture, they suggest, has to be increased.
Fasal is an agri startup that has helped farmer Sangarmesh Talikotti to install sensors and cameras in his 2.5-acre tomato farm. The startup’s Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence-driven platform regularly relays information to Talikotti’s smartphone on quantum of irrigation needs, risk of pest attack and use of pesticides. Data collected through readings is converted through ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) into precise actionable intelligence.
On the other hand, AgNext is a Chandigarh-based startup that uses computer-based vision for effective post-harvest quality inspection of crops to substitute visual inspection. Startups such as Ninjacart, Crofarm and KrishiHub are procuring fruits/vegetables directly from farmers and selling to retailers. They use myriad technologies to keep their target farmers abreast of quantum of demand and current prices coupled with optimised logistics and online payments.
Over 600 such ventures are a part of a robust agriculture technology ecosystem nurtured by several initiatives of the Government of India. The ‘Digital India Initiative’ aims at widespread adoption of technology through digital platforms, analytics, artificial intelligence, block chain, machine learning, Software as a Service (SaaS) and IoT. The objective is to raise income of small and marginal farmers who may not have the capacity or technological support to improve farm efficiency.
In the above context, the reformed Rastriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) has now been innovatively designed to promote agritech. Herein, five national knowledge partners and twenty-four agri-business incubators across the country are supporting agri-preneurship and startups in addition to institutions such as the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the National Academy of Agricultural Management (NAARM). The areas of ‘idea’ incubation are as diverse as farm inputs, precision agriculture, farm management, quality as well as traceability parameters, supply chain/output market linkages and access to financial services etc.
Besides, Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) is also a plug in to aggressively push technological innovation with its over 1000 Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) that have been set up across districts. State Governments too have begun to implement localised agritech solutions in partnership with private sector. Uttar Pradesh’s incubation network at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, with Bill Melinda Gates Foundation and Tata Trusts is an example.
Experts have opined that the onset of Covid -19 has led to aggressive adoption of automation, machines and technology. But the key issue, according to them, is still the small farm size coupled with low digital adoption by small and marginal farmers. Hence, they recommend a hub and spoke model. Herein, more than 700 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) or entities such as ITC’s E-Choupal 4.0 can be hubs in agro-climatic regions to impart digital literacy to as well as share quality data with aggregated farmers in farms around these hubs.
Four steps taken by the Government of India in conjunction with State Governments address the above concerns. One, making farm mechanisation equipment available to farmers through aggregated custom hiring, high tech centres and machinery banks. Second, initiating the electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM) in one thousand regulated wholesale spot markets for real time price discovery and quality assaying. It is further envisaged to make e-NAM a demand driven ‘platform of platforms’ to connect it to other public-private platforms. Third, launching the scheme for creation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) to bring economies of scale through aggregation and allowing existing FPOs to trade online. And last but not the least initiation of the creation of a foundational and federated national database to address the issue of information asymmetry.
Experts also opine that agritech, without doubt, is relooking at the way food has been grown and distributed in the country. But technological innovations are also being triggered by critical factors such as climate change, reduction in water availability, tolerance of pests, decrease in quality of soils and labour shortages. Funding, therefore, specifically for on-farm management and precision agriculture, they suggest, has to be increased. The creation of the One Lakh Crore Agri Infrastructure Fund (AIF) is a step in the right direction. It provides access to credit, with interest subvention, for agri-entrepreneurs, FPOs and Governments to invest in rural community assets and post-harvest infrastructure.
Another key issue raised by experts is that while agri start up initiatives such as Fasal, AgNext, NinjaCart, Crofarm and KrishiHub do empower farmers, how can they be scaled across the countryside? These entities have partially reformed the fragmented agri value chain full of middlemen and also continue to co-opt the unorganized retail industry consisting of small shops and street markets. One way to achieve scaling is by strengthening their partnership with FPOs and more importantly food processing companies. This could be further coupled with extensive cross-country collaborations to support incubators, accelerators and investors supporting agritech.
An Ernst & Young 2020 study pitches India’s agritech market at $24 billion by 2025 with the potential for supply chain technology and output markets at the highest. But this ecosystem can sustain at the last mile only when technology interventions are popular and adopted by small and marginal farmers. For this to happen the state and district administrative machinery and more importantly local self -governance institutions have to be sensitized about agri value chain technology issues. They in turn then have to perform the role of effective trainers and leaders in dissemination of the same to small and marginal farmers in the country.

(The writer is an Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Government of India. Views expressed are personal)

(Courtesy India Today )

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