Home / Brand Stories / Digital Agriculture - Catalysts & Challenges

Agriculture has occupied centrestage in the media and among opinion shapers over the last few years. Be it conversations about farm bills, tenancy rights or BT crops, agriculture has garnered a significant share of newsprint and airtime. This is belied by the rather low efficiency that plagues the entire sector - while 17-19% of the country’s GDP is derived from agriculture, nearly 45% of our workforce is engaged in it. Unlike Brazil and Argentina, Indian farmers have been unable to monetize adequately and continue to face a variety of constraints. Decreasing farm health, poor access to seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation are often quoted ailments. In this context, Digital agriculture promises to be a critical catalyst for transforming this sector if one is willing to look beyond buzzwords and catchphrases. As part of the Digital India programme, India can potentially unlock $50-70 billion through digital agriculture by 20251. Over the last 17 months, Indian Administrative Fellowship program has had the opportunity to appreciate first hand how this can be a reality.

Agriculture is a complex and multi-disciplinary system and a data driven approach can increase farmers incomes while ensuring the sustainability goals of water, soil, and climate. Advancements in AI and machine learning have made this possible with localized and accurate predictive models which enable monitoring, pest & disease detection and yield prediction. Agritech startups raised $636 million2 in 2021 (up from $155 million in 2020) pointing to the rapid growth and potential of this sector. The digital agriculture approach depends on data driven decision making and market intelligence to increase the farmer incomes. The Digital Agriculture initiative announced by the Govt of India for the next five years3 is a step in this direction. With the scale of government, relevant datasets can be digitized for easy access to government schemes and advisories.  The availability of anonymised datasets on weather, remote sensing images, crop yield can lead to innovative and scalable solutions by companies and startups. 

The IAF program fellow from the Karnataka cohort has been working on the thematic area of Doubling Farmer income by bringing innovation to the farmer's field and increased market access. As part of this he is aiding the adoption of digital agriculture and public private partnerships within the Department of Agriculture, Government of Karnataka. The/Nudge Institute launched the first batch of the Indian Administrative Fellowship (IAF) in 2021 in Karnataka and an upcoming cohort in Punjab. This unique opportunity provides a strategic platform for leaders across government and corporate ecosystems to augment state capacity through technological innovation, process redesign and data integration to solve structural barriers to scale. Having enabled the onboarding of agri-tech companies like Origo Commodities, Boomitra and AI Wadhwani, the IAF program fellow is augmenting the formulation of an AI Innovation Cell within the Agriculture department. The backbone of this work is the potential of digital agriculture and smart farming. 

Comprehensive agricultural data sets and market intelligence coupled with a unique farmer identity can provide farmers with a plethora of advantages. These include advisory services on crops and inputs, traceability of farm inputs (like seeds) for increased transparency, access to affordable credit options and relevant government schemes.

There are some challenges standing in the way of digital agriculture and smart approaches. Machine learning algorithms require large, indexed and standardized data sets which are currently scarce. For example, if one is developing an early pest detection solution using an image, then a large data set of images are needed. Second, this approach requires sensors, mechanization for precision farming and connectivity none of which are viable for a majority of Indian farmers. Finally, concerns of farmer data privacy and safeguards over who can access personal data need to be addressed in the solution architecture.

A variety of policy and legal frameworks along with ecosystem enablers are required to break through this deadlock. A comprehensive data management and protection policy can resolve privacy concerns. Policies enabling private sector partnerships with governments in digital agriculture are the need of the hour as this can leapfrog innovation and provide immense benefits to farmers. Coupled with sandboxes where agri-tech startups can quickly test products, this would greatly accelerate innovation. Finally, agri data exchange initiatives that connect various data providers, consumers and service providers can unlock the power of data and solve for availability and quality of data.

Digital agriculture has excellent potential in India to resolve many of the existing problems that farmers face to realize value and provide strong competition in national and global markets. Its success will depend on policy and legal enablers along with significant public private partnerships. Given the direction that the union and various state governments have taken in recent times along with the booming growth of agri-startups in the country, India is on the right path to transforming its agricultural sector and providing accelerated value to all farmers. 

(Authors: Ravi Trivedi, Indian Administrative Fellow Designate; Nappina Sampath, Indian Administrative Fellowship, State Lead; and Selvi X, Indian Administrative Fellowship, Senior Associate)

Disclaimer: The opinions shared in the article represent personal views of the authors, and they don’t represent the views of the organizations they work with. This article is a promotional feature and does not have journalistic/editorial involvement of Hindustan Times. Hindustan Times does not endorse/subscribe to the content(s) of the article/advertisement and/or view(s) expressed herein. Hindustan Times shall not in any manner, be responsible and/or liable in any manner whatsoever for all that is stated in the article and/or also with regard to the view(s), opinion(s), announcement(s), declaration(s), affirmation(s) etc., stated/featured in the same.

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