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Can Digital India revamp India’s parched agricultural sector?

Can Digital India revamp India’s parched agricultural sector?

By Prashansa Srivastava

For years now, the agricultural growth rate in India has failed to breach the 3% mark. As incomes and population continue to grow, this rate will fail to meet the national foodgrain demand which is expected to double in the next thirty years. However, recent technological innovations in the agricultural sector have begun addressing this challenge.

Agricultural technology or AgTech enables farmers to access tech-enabled advisory, supply chain, insurance coverage and real-time information on weather and even market prices. The inclusion of technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain technologies, bar-coding and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has been expanding the data-driven approach towards precision farming in India. By optimising land and resource usage, such innovations can prove to be powerful tools in improving farm yields and overall agricultural productivity. This form of technological penetration in the sector can potentially usher in a second green revolution — one based on data, drones and digital analytics.

How tech tackles the operational lags

AgroStar, a Pune-based m-commerce firm, is one of the startups and large companies working towards this transformation. This firm sells agricultural inputs and products to farmers with the aim of eliminating multiple layers of intermediaries in agricultural markets. The entire purchase cycle is initiated by a simple missed call on the company’s number – 1800. An AgroStar customer-care executive returns the call and takes down the purchase order. State transport systems then deliver the required order of seeds, nutrients or hardware products to the doorsteps of farmers, thereby, addressing problems such as product unavailability, adulteration and substandard raw materials.

At present, farmers buy inputs at exorbitant prices and sell their produce to middlemen at a price lower than the market price. With the help of such interventions, direct transactions with the merchants can help improve profitability for small and marginal farmers. Moreover, real-time information on prices and market functioning can allow farmers to maximise returns by planning sales at the right time.

The AgTech industry, of late, has also been involving artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to revolutionise agriculture. Innovations applying platform models to create marketplaces and on-demand models for machinery, inputs and produce have cropped up. Interestingly, none of these technological changes is labour displacing. In fact, they aim to empower farmers with information and aid decision making.

Treading the technological path to glory

Since its launch, AgroStar has served at least 7,00,000 farmers across Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. “We are looking at building the app technology further by adding image recognition software, to make it easier for farmers to pick up the right products, find solutions to problems, and send pictures to agronomists”, said Shardul Sheth, co-founder and CEO of AgroStar.

AgroStar’s “Agri Doctor” provides farmers with expert agronomy advice for their crop and farming needs through their mobile app. The AgroStar app claims to be the one-stop solution for all agricultural needs and is complete with advisory articles and agri-tips. AgroStar has proved that information in the hands of farmers, is not just a powerful tool but the whole difference between a bountiful yield and a disastrous harvest.

AgTech Industry: Anything but a cakewalk

Since its inception in 2012, AgroStar has faced several roadblocks in its way. These challenges range from generating adequate demand for raw materials, managing timely supply to handling last mile delivery to remote villages. Currently, most farmers procure inputs on credit from local vendors; it is an uphill task to make them switch to cash payments. Due to the diversity of Indian agriculture in terms of soil type, availability of water and prevalent local agricultural practices, AgroStar must cater to region-specific needs during expansion. There should also be a multi-lingual focus to ensure easy understanding.

Farmers have a tendency of being risk averse. The longevity of such tech-savvy solutions thus seems questionable. Innovations in the AgTech field need to ensure accessibility so as to avoid alienating of poor and marginal farmers. Providing services that are digital by default might exclude those on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’. Moreover, it may overlook the need for facilitating measures like provision of broadband connections, digital literacy and electricity access. There is also a possibility of a widening of socioeconomic gaps among the farmers as these innovations may cater to farmers in the richer band of the community.

Road to be taken

AgroStar recently raised $10 million in a series B round of funding reflecting positive sentiments towards the AgTech sector. These developments signify the demise of the archetypal image of the Indian farmer as a weather-beaten old man in his parched land staring dismally at the sky willing the clouds to rain. The advent and hopeful success of AgroStar and other AgTech startups will mark the birth of a new farmer — one who looks at his smartphone for knowledge and advice.

The AgTech industry is a major player in making India truly digital. Digital India campaign will be successful only if this technological advancement is inclusive. It is essential to arm the most marginalised and neglected 70% of our population – the agricultural workers and farmers, technologically. The government must aim to digitalize agriculture in order to revitalise it.

Feature Image credits – Medianama

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