Leveraging Tech to Empower Farmers
Notes on charting a new course for the future of Indian agriculture
From a handful of mavericks taking on complex challenges in 2011, today India has over 1000 agritech startups, all striving to iron out inefficiencies in agricultural value chains. The profile of entrepreneurs driving agritech innovations has also changed over the years. We are increasingly seeing co-founders with elite engineering/MBA pedigrees and prior experience with unicorn startups joining the swelling ranks of agritech entrepreneurs. Families no longer balk at the idea of their IIT/IIM-educated child marching off to work with the bottom billion in Bharat. This new wave of agritech startups has begun to identify and solve multiple, chronic pain points in Indian agriculture.
Information asymmetry in rural India has always been one such pain point. Around 2016, rising rural smartphone penetration, ubiquitous 4G connectivity, and the plummeting cost of mobile data provided the backbone for full stack digital agritech platforms to scale massively. These platforms found cost-effective ways to help farmers improve their yields, lower their operating costs, and ensure that their produce gets the right market value. DeHaat is a prominent example here, with its full-stack offering across inputs, advisory, market linkages, and fintech. Younger startups like BharatAgri and Krishify are also working to empower the farming community with actionable information that augments their incomes. BharatAgri provides farmers with affordable and accurate scientific crop advisory, and Krishify is building a multilingual social media platform that can revolutionise information, trade, education, and entertainment for Indian farmers and rural communities.
Indian farmers also find themselves struggling on the front lines of climate change. Plummeting water tables, depleting soil fertility, and erratic monsoons are only the beginning of a complex web of challenges they will face in the next decade. Fortunately, there has been a rapid development of precision agritech solutions over the past few years, which help farmers reduce expenditures, solve the labour shortage, and navigate erratic climatic conditions. A case in point is the steady adoption of Fasal’s technology, on-farm IoT devices which help horticulture farmers achieve higher productivity, improved yield quality, and increased profitability. As for automation, TartanSense is developing robots for smallholder farms, which reduce chemical usage by 45 per cent, increase weeding efficiency by seven times, and significantly reduce expenditure and drudgery.
A more recent development in the agri space is the buzz of startup activity in white spaces, parts of the value chains hitherto untouched by innovations. For example, farmers have always struggled with making informed decisions when it comes to investing in tractors. Tractor Junction’s marketplace is a welcome respite from the prevalent information opacity. Similarly, ReshaMandi is spearheading a digital transformation in the unorganised sericulture sector. Despite India being the world’s second-largest producer of raw silk, unscientific methods of farming, improper storage facilities, inadequate market linkages, and poor access to credit are a few of the challenges that inhibit the potential profitability of the industry. ReshaMandi’s AI and IoT-led digital ecosystem is streamlining the silk supply chain and seamlessly connecting farm to retail.
As of 2022, India has the third largest startup ecosystem globally and ranks third after US and China in agritech funding. However, agrifood life sciences (AFLS) as a category is yet to experience the same vibrancy in talent and funding. When we say AFLS we refer to four broad categories: agricultural (Ag) biotechnology, novel farming systems, bioenergy and biomaterials, and innovative foods. Globally, $6 billion was invested in AFLS startups in 2020, while their Indian peers, in aggregate, raised slightly over $10 million. It is especially baffling given India’s vulnerability to climate change, as innovations in AFLS can be the most effective weapons in our arsenal. BioPrime’s work with ag biologicals is proving just that. Derived from organic matter, these tools can protect the crops from climatic stress, pests and diseases, all without any harmful environmental side effects. The path ahead for Indian agrifood life sciences is long and arduous. However, it is a journey that needs more participation from entrepreneurs, scientists, venture capitalists, and policymakers as the future of Indian agriculture and food systems might very well depend on it.
Over the last few years, there has been a paradigm shift in how we measure development in agriculture. From the metric of productivity, we are now tracking and working towards doubling farmer incomes. This human-centred approach is a significant change as we can now measure the direct impact of development efforts and agritech innovations on the farming community. To conclude, the transformation of India’s agricultural sector will not stop because of temporary economic slumps, and the outlook for agritech remains strong.
This article was originally published in The Hindu BusinessLine on the eve of India’s 75th Independence Day. Please click here to read.