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Prasant Maroo is a vegetable farmer in Saloni village of Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh, growing chilli, brinjal and various gourds. He first came across Bengaluru startup Fasal’s internet of things (IoT) device on a nearby farm.

There were sensors and transmitters attached to a pole stuck in the field, tracking soil, moisture, plant and microclimate conditions around the clock. AI-based analytics of this data over the cloud was providing alerts to the farmer on his smartphone. This had helped him manage everything from irrigation to disease prevention better, reducing costs and increasing yields.

Maroo took the cue to become one of the first farmers in the region to use IoT in 2018. “I got a 20% higher yield in my chilli and brinjal crops when I installed the device. At the same time, I was using less water," he says. “Last year, I installed a third unit in my kundru (ivy gourd) field."

Over-irrigation is a huge problem in India where 90% of water consumption is in agriculture. Groundwater reserves and per capita availability of water have been declining. India is already classified as ‘water-stressed’ by global norms and is heading towards water scarcity. So, conservation of water has a larger societal benefit.

Optimum level

Overuse of water is also counterproductive from a farming point of view. It leaches nutrients and fertilizers away from plants and also damages roots, especially in horticulture. By monitoring the moisture content of the soil below the surface and notifying the farmer on when to water the plants, the Fasal app helps maintain an optimum level.

The soil is porous on Maroo’s farm and the water seeps through quickly. Earlier, after it rained at night, he would still irrigate the field because it looked dry on the surface. But now, he sometimes goes three days without watering the plants, because the app tells him the moisture level.

Other information provided on the app includes alerts on disease prevention. For example, observation of leaves and weather conditions can predict the arrival of mildew, a recurring problem for bottle gourd plants. Now, Maroo is able to spray fungicide a week or more before the mildew arrives in the region. “It’s like wearing a mask before getting covid instead of treating it after falling ill," says Maroo.

The co-founders of Fasal, Ananda Verma and Shailendra Tiwari, both come from farming families. They worked together at a tech firm in Bengaluru and often discussed the problems they had seen on their farms. Then in 2017, they decided to have a go at horticulture using scientific methods. Coloured capsicum was the crop they chose to grow on a farm near Mysuru.

“Being engineering people, we did a lot of research into growing the crop," recalls Verma. The more they dug, the more they discovered the complexity in horticulture. Irrigation itself involved multiple factors.

For example, the plant has a primary root that absorbs the nutrients and secondary roots for stability. Ideally, there should be enough water to reach the primary root but not so much that nutrients are leached further down and become inaccessible to the plant. The weather and rate of transpiration also determine the quantity of water required. The need also changes with each stage of the plant’s growth. Then there are complexities around soil characteristics and disease management.

Overuse of pesticides and fertilizers has become as big a problem as over-irrigation. High chemical residues are harmful to consumers and affect export prospects, besides raising input costs, but farmers just want to play it safe, fearful of losing their crops.

Seeing all this, the engineers abandoned their plan to become capsicum farmers. They decided to focus instead on digital tools to help horticulturists, who they realized were relying mostly on traditional wisdom to deal with the complexities.

Age-old practices don’t always work, because the environment has changed, from shifts in rainfall patterns to degradation of the soil. What these farmers needed were tools to take advantage of advances in tech such as AI/machine learning and IoT.

Tech revolution

From payment gateways to customer analytics, fintech and e-commerce had evolved rapidly India. The time had come for agriculture to get similar attention. That was the thought behind Fasal, launched in 2018. Agritech VC Omnivore and Wavemaker Partners led its seed funding round of $1.6 million in October 2019.

The first prototype of its solar-powered IoT device was deployed at a vineyard near Bengaluru that produces premium wine. Then they did pilots with vegetable growers in Chhattisgarh in 2018. “Within three months, they converted into paying customers because they saw the value, even though we were charging a lot more for our device at that time," says Verma.

With economies of scale, the cost of the device came down to 25,000. A new version is easier to self-install out of the box for the farmer, without having to wait for a technician to set it up. The farmer also pays a monthly subscription of 250-500, depending on the services he takes.

Fasal’s actionable intelligence is crop-specific, as each crop has its own vagaries of water, soil and disease management. So far, it has worked out protocols for eight crops, and eight more are in the pipeline. “We just started working with apple orchards in Himachal," says Verma. Coffee plantations in Chikmagalur, Karnataka, started using Fasal recently as it diversifies from vegetables into high-value crops where the investments and potential returns are higher, incentivizing the use of tech.

Regardless of the crop, water conservation remains a priority for Fasal, not only for the sake of farmers and crops but the needs of people at large in the country. “Nine out of 10 farmers we’ve engaged with so far have been over-irrigating their crops, which is a big waste of a valuable commodity," says Verma. “If you have water in abundance, you will never understand its value. On the other side, there are people suffering from drought or shortage of fresh water for everyday living."

Fasal has also come up with a ‘water credit’ to make an impact on conservation.

“We have told all our farmers that if they maintain their water level in the fields at a certain threshold for a month, based on the soil moisture detection by Fasal devices which tell us whether water is adequately available to their crops, then we will waive their subscription fees for that month," says Verma.

Fasal has calculated that deployment of its IoT devices on 10,000 acres of farmland so far has saved 3 billion litres of water. That may seem like a drop in the ocean for a country where agriculture consumes over 700 billion litres of water annually. But it’s a beginning. “We introduced water credit in November and already over 1,000 customers have signed up for it. If they are all able to meet the requirement for the credit, we’ll be saving millions of more litres of water each month," says Verma.

Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu

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