Centuries after the industrial revolution, we are in the era of digital transformation. So evidently, information technology has spread its roots in almost every sector. The culture shift is visible not just in essence but even in the terminologies; “Agritech” being the classic example. FICCI reports that there are more than 450 agritech start-ups in India as of today and are growing at the rate of 25%p.a. The evolving digital ecosystem is presenting exciting opportunities for innovation in agriculture and the young technocrats are constantly breaking new grounds to create new possibilities.
As the advancement in machineries helped in bringing efficiency and scale in Agri sector, the new age digital technologies are attempting to bring better connectivity, whether it is with nature or within the value chain. Key challenges that most agritech start-ups are attempting to resolve are around providing market access to the farmers, technology that can give quality inputs to plan the crop cycle, institutional credit, adequate crop insurance cover, water conservation techniques, and so on. Some of the areas we need to focus on are the ways and means to enhance crop yields, importing more species especially those having significant medicinal utility and cultivating it domestically, and increase the acceptability of Indian produce in the international market.
Traceability is one of the best solutions to assure quality and thus attracting the demand in global trade. It also allows the consumers, whether in B2B or B2C segment, to make informed decisions while purchasing. Traceability is a big challenge in the agriculture supply chain as there are multiple points between the crop produce and final consumers. Every crop has multiple final produce possibilities. It gets exported and consumed in multiple geographies, and has various production touchpoints involved. All these add to complexities and hence, end-to-end traceability is critical. With sensors, readers, and scanning technology, it has become relatively easy to create a complete record of every product as it moves through the value chain. RFID Tagging, Blockchain, and Distributed Ledger Techniques (DLT) lead the way in technological solutions for traceability. Apart from quality assurance, traceability offers many benefits like capturing data from remote, scattered, and multiple locations, facilitating quick course corrections by monitoring the produce at every single step and spotting the contaminated basket more accurately amongst others.
GPS enabled technologies also have huge potential. They enable weather prediction, crop tracking, identifying disease potential to crop, and soil condition analysis. Farmers can also give manufacturers more accurate crop size estimates. This in turn helps them decide better on the other supply chain decisions like truck size, consignment booking, loading-unloading labour requirements, and in turn enabling huge savings in cost.
Technology should also be utilized to improve Agri infrastructure. Fragmentation of holdings, erosion of top soil, and dependence on rain water irrigation are some of the reasons for the low crop yields. We need to harvest enough rivers to develop canal irrigation, rehab the deforested land to restore soil fertility, develop and promote terrace farming that prevents soil erosion and helps in water conservation, invest in more research labs to identify combinations for intercropping that can help both the marginal holdings as well as soil conditions. And all these in turn helps in improving crop yields.
Many such areas are still relatively unexplored and potential exists for further innovation and expansion. Water table mapping solutions, mechanised harvesting and plantation, warehousing, cold storage, temperature control systems, robotic movements, automated picking tools, inventory management through tagging, all these tools and solutions presents promising opportunities for the agritech companies. Another important aspect is awareness. For all these solutions, it is of utmost importance to educate farmers about the need and importance of these tools. It will enable acceptability from the farmers and ease the adaptability. Agritech companies should think about having a separate advisory vertical that can either reach out to the farmers directly, through FPOs, or through the industry players and create awareness to increase penetration. They can even provide solutions in advance so that the farmers can experience the real benefits.
Over the last 50 years, we have seen the agriculture sector going through a major shift. The economy at the centre has taken a growth-oriented approach and if we want to walk along, we will have to advance ourselves with these technology-enabled solutions. There are technology driven success stories in India, e.g. farmers adopting new crops and species beyond their usual produce, horticulture production doubling in last 2 decades and India becoming the 2nd largest producer after China, success of grapes, pomegranates, milk, potato making marks in India and so on. We need to extend and replicate these both in terms of geographic reach as well as for more varieties. Extensive and efficient use of AI, ML, IoT becomes imperative to expeditiously move towards Agri 3.0 and 4.0.
While the government has launched initiatives like eNAM to promote the agritech ecosystem, we are yet to learn our lessons and build a robust agritech policy framework. Increased collaboration between all market participants such as farming communities, agritech companies, food processing organizations, technology providers, research institutions, and industry players is a must. We need workers and trained tech assistants to deliver technology to the bottom pyramid and deliver the technology to them. The change in culture is imperative and offers significant opportunities to tap.
Mr Sanjaya Mariwala – Executive Chairman and Managing Director, OmniActive Health Technologies, and Founder-president of the Association of Herbal and Nutraceuticals Manufacturers of India.