The role of agritech, and why size shouldn’t matter!
Dr Rakesh Sharda, Principal Scientist, Punjab Agricultural University, highlights that the role of agritech companies is crucial in keeping Indian agriculture sustainable, provided they focus on small landholdings that make up the majority of the ecosystem. While they are a recent phenomenon, he is confident that the impact of agritech startups will be quite visible a decade from now.
Around 70% of rural India’s population depends on agriculture as its primary source of income. Therefore, agriculture growth has a strong multiplier effect. Many models show that the modest incremental growth of 3% in agriculture will lead to another 2.6% growth of manufacturing, raising the overall GDP growth by 1.7%. However, the use of technology in India’s agriculture industry has been limited till date. It is picking up of late and as a result, the agriculture industry in India contributes nearly 17-18% towards GDP. This increased to 20% during the pandemic, maybe due to sluggish growth of other sectors.
On the other hand, total operational area or agricultural area has decreased from 159.59 million hectares to around 157.82 million hectares. We have almost 66% of holdings less than four hectares and only 31% under medium and large holdings. The average size of operational holdings as per the last agriculture census in 2015-16, has decreased to 1.08 hectares from 1.15 hectares a decade ago. This means that any technology that is developed must target the majority of agrarian community having land holdings less than 2 hectares.
Issues affecting Indian agriculture
The challenge lies in producing more under conditions of diminishing per capita arable land and irrigation water resources as well as expanding biotic and abiotic stress. There’s a lot of ground to be covered in production and marketing. Farmers are still irrigating with obsolete flood irrigation systems. Almost four times the volume of water required is applied and the average rate of application of NPK is 6:4:1 instead of the standard 4:2:1, which means imbalanced application of chemical fertilisers to the soil, resulting in excess vegetative growth and increased cost of production.
Digitized markets are in nascent state in public and private sectors and though platforms like eNam and NeML have become operational, digitized access to these market sources is yet to take root. The need of the hour is to address these issues and eliminate these road bumps with the help of technologies like IoT, big data, artificial intelligence or machine learning. This is essential not only to have a competitive edge in the market, but also to create seamless trade channels. This need was strongly felt during the first COVID-19 lockdown. It is necessary to develop a unified level playing field for all B2B buyers and vendors across India.
In theory, technology can reduce transaction costs, help overcome information asymmetries and improve product targeting for financial service providers. In practice, rural India is not equipped enough with access to the internet and smartphones. And even during the 75th round of National Sample Survey, just 14.9% rural households had access to internet against 42% in the urban areas and the gap in access, digital literacy level and usage, which can be jointly called the digital divide, is still enormous in rural India. We have to improve on this for agritech to play a major role.
Further, the regional disparity in computer and internet access within rural India ranges from around 5.9% in Odisha, to 9.9% in Telangana, to 39.4% in Punjab and almost 46.9% in Kerela. Of course, it is also highly skewed within each state as well. While the peri-urban farmers in the plains are quickly gaining access to digital technology and applying it in day-to-day agriculture, those in tribal areas and remote villages are still digitally marginalized and there is a need to mainstream them.
Affordability of the digital technology is also a point of debate, as this keeps it beyond the reach of a majority of the small and marginal farmers. Farmer producer organisations, which are coming in a big way, can become harbingers of digital architecture, if provided with the right support systems. Thankfully, this is being done at the government level.
We must be cognizant of the natural resources we are using, particularly water. Digitized groundwater mapping can help farmers avert huge losses in sinking unproductive bore wells. Artificial intelligence is to be applied to forecast pest resurgence, suggest season-specific pest-based control measures, and of course, deploy natural pest management practices. Digital technology can empower farmers access livestock protection services.
The rising role of agritech
In the last few years, India has seen a rising number of agri tech startups that are not only making technology more accessible, but also helping the farmers to improve their lives. As indigenous agritechas are seeing activity in the last 3-4 years only, we have to wait for another five to six years to see a real impact on the ground.
The impact of technology is, however, already reaching the small farmer. I give you an example of a place in Punjab, where we have put up automated solar powered micro irrigation systems. Earlier, these areas practised rain fed farming. The smallest landholding we have is around 500 square meters, and even farmers in this category are enjoying the benefits and improving their incomes. They are not migrating to the cities for doing labor anymore. It is so encouraging to see people from all sectors coming forward and experimenting with various business models in the space. A lot of these agri startups are coming from the IITs, university systems and of course, the government is also playing a big role.
We are working on quite a number of technologies like IoT- based devices, particularly for flooded rice fields. We are promoting a technology called alternate wetting and drying. This IoT-based technology senses moisture and helps the farmer to economize, thereby saving around 20-30% of water. This technology costs around Rs 10,000 and we are testing this technology on almost 200 farmers across the state of Punjab.
And of course, we are also working on drip irrigation in rice. In Punjab, the lands are flat, and there we are using low pressure drip irrigation systems, particularly in rice, because that reduces the cost of drip irrigation systems to almost 1/3rd .
A decade from now, you could expect to see automated drip irrigated farms across the board, irrespective of size. A farmer will have a mobile phone in his hand with all kinds of information, right from going into the field, measuring or taking images, getting decisions on issues like pest management, biotic and abiotic stresses, etc. I know a particular system where they are measuring the stress in the, biotic stresses in corn by just clicking an image from any kind of mobile. It goes back to the servers who guide the farmer on the situation. This level of empowerment of farmers, led by technology, promises a paradigm leap towards agriculture that is both profitable and environmentally sustainable in India.
Dr. Rakesh Sharda is Principal Scientist (Plasticulture) cum Principal Investigator, Precision Farming Development Center, Department of Soil and Water Engineering, Punjab Agricultural University. Views expressed are personal.