Digital to usher in second green revolution
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The first green revolution, helmed by visionary scientists like Norman Borlaug and M.S. Swaminathan, born of a near-death food crisis, turned around Indian agriculture through an increase in farming land, development and use of grains hardened against pests, use of fertilizers and pesticides, multiple cropping, higher farmer credit and better irrigation techniques.
While it rescued India from starvation in the 1960s, there are dark clouds over Indian agriculture again. Over the years, our gross domestic product (GDP) has grown by 7.5% annually, but agricultural growth has severely lagged at 3%. In another 30 years’ time, India will have 1.5 billion people, with growing incomes, and the demand for foodgrain is expected to almost double to 450 million tonnes. Moreover, our farmers are dying; 8,000 of them committed suicide last year, that is 22 farmers every single day. Moreover, in the first four months of 2016, 100 farmers committed suicide every month in Marathwada alone.
Why is this happening?
Our farmers do not earn enough to feed themselves and repay their debts. Calculations show that the average farmer household in India makes Rs6,426 a month, and needs to have at least 1 hectare of land to make ends meet. However, 65% of farmers have less than one hectare, and so must take debt to make ends meet. More than 50% of farmers are indebted, and the average outstanding loan of a farmer is Rs47,000, usually at a usurious interest rate.
Our current farming practices are not going to solve it. To feed our population, we need to double agricultural yield, store and transport it better, and enable it with the right insurance and credit. And to make this next quantum jump happen, what we need is a second green revolution—one not based on land, chemicals, or water but on data, digital technologies and drones. Agriculture technology, or AgTech, will fuel the digital transformation of this most ancient of all industries.
I believe the second green revolution will be based on five transformative digital agri-technologies:
Technology-enabled advisory: Information is power; for the farmer, it is gold, and can mean the difference between a bountiful harvest and a disastrous crop. When to harvest, where to sell the produce, how much to sell it for, what to sow next, which inputs (seeds, fertilisers, etc.) are needed, where to get them at the best price, when is it likely to rain, when will the water come—for all these questions, answers traditionally have come from a farmer’s experience, or the neighbouring farmer’s, and sometimes, an extension worker provided by the government, or a private service like Mahindra Shubhlabh.
However, the new advisor for the farmer will be his mobile phone. Imagine a tech-enabled advisory app on the phone, with image-recognition, speech-enablement, vernacular languages, and powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, and cloud databases. Think of a farmer who sees a diseased leaf, clicks its picture and sends it to a cloud, where the image is analysed and the details of the leaf disease sent back to the farmer, with suggested remedies, places to procure these services, and possible government subsidies available for the same. An advisory service which can answer a farmer’s questions on the go will be the single most powerful tool to drive up yields and productivity.
Precision farming: This is a data-driven approach to raise farm yields by using GIS (geographical information system) data, soil information, and weather and environmental conditions for a specific small piece of land, by optimising the choice of crop, the use of pesticides, water and fertilisers, and the decision as to when and how to spray, till, and harvest the crop.
The precise nature of this technology is especially useful for India’s very small farm holdings; 65% of land holdings are less than 2 hectares (the average in the US is 180 hectares.) It is estimated that precision farming has been responsible for more than 80% of total increase in yields of wheat, rice and maize over the last 50 years.
In fact, a large pilot in India, the Tamil Nadu Precision Farming Project, raised crop yields by 60-80% for 23 different kinds of crops. Precision farming works with the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) and GIS (global information system) data, cheap IoT (Internet of Things) sensors in the soil which track moisture, Nitrogen levels, etc. and feeds the data back to an analytics engine in the cloud, which then recommends the right timing and techniques of inputs.
Real-time market information: The Indian farmer sells most of his produce to a middleman for price lower than he can get, because he does not have the right, current market information.
He cannot make the right decision on what to plant, since he does not know the patterns and forecasting of price.
Mobile phones and cheap data plans can change all that. The e-Choupal network of ITC, for instance, has created more than 6000 e-Choupals and networked four million farmers, who exchange information with each other. A query-able content repository in the cloud can make real-time market information and analytics available to individual farmers.
Tech-enabled supply chain: The farm supply chain in India is broken; we can store only 10% of the fresh produce we grow—30% of it rots. Building more warehouses and cold chains will certainly help; however, technologies like IoT, bar coding and blockchain can help monitor the produce from farm to market and cut down the extent of spoilage and loss.
Tech-enabled insurance: While crop insurance exists, an overwhelming majority of crops are not insured, leaving the farmer severely indebted when his crop fails.
Technology and information, from sources like IBM’s Weather Company and Skymet, can be used to predict weather patterns and therefore derive more precise premiums and insurance covers for small farmers. Smart contracts on blockchain-based technologies can be used for automatic pay-outs, discouraging on-ground field assessment.
There are a bunch of startups and large companies operating in the AgTech area. Before Monsanto bought an AgTech company called Climate Corp. for close to $1 billion, no one paid much attention to this part of the digital wave.
Climate Corp, set up by two ex-Googlers, is a digital agriculture company that examines weather, soil and field data to help farmers determine potential yield-limiting factors in their farms, and then suggests ways to ameliorate them. In India, too, scores of AgTech startups are coming up.
Agrostar and Bighaat enable e-commerce and doorstep delivery of seeds, chemicals and accessories; Ninjacart, FarmerUncle and MeraKisan enable e-commerce of produce for a direct farmer-to-doorstep delivery. Cropin and Airwood are making the ‘enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management of agriculture’; Stellapps makes dairy management tools integrated with IoT, cloud, mobility and analytics; Flybird is in precision farming while Trringo, from the Mahindra Group, is building an ‘Uber for tractors and farm machinery’. AgTech specific funds and accelerators like Omnivore Partners, Villgro and Village Capital are coming up, reflecting the bullishness in the sector. The government, too, has stepped into the act with the Prime Minister launching eNAM (electronic National Agricultural Market), which aims to link 200 wholesale markets or mandis to achieve the ambitious goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
Data is the new soil
For these tech companies, data is the new soil—to be mined and analysed. There is a new mathematics of farming—what was measured in acres is now measured in square foot, enabling more micro-farming and precision agriculture. Agriculture is being platformized, with platform models being applied to create market places and on-demand models for machinery, inputs and produce.
As the digital revolution rolls across India, agriculture is its last, and most important, frontier. Today, we are seeing perhaps the dawn of the second green revolution. While there is a long way to go, the true success of Digital India will be if it helps 70% of our population—agricultural workers and farmers.
The archetypal impression of the Indian farmer has been a wizened, gnarled man sitting in his parched field, shading his eyes from the merciless sun and gazing at the clouds, willing them to rain. Perhaps, soon, that will change to him expectantly looking at the data cloud through his mobile phone, waiting for it to spew out the information and knowledge, to add to his wisdom. That is when we will know that the Second Green Revolution has arrived.
Jaspreet Bindra is senior vice- president of digital transformation at Mahindra Group. Views are personal.