It’s alarming that protests due to agrarian crisis in India doubled in 2016. As per the latest NCRB report, last year, farmer protests resulted in 4,837 riots across the country while only 2,683 such incidents were reported in the previous year. Apart from protests, farmer suicides, drought, crop failure, and debts add to the agrarian distress. This is ironic in a country like India where 70% of the population still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood.
Shomu Shekhar, 60, is a famer who lives in a small hut close to his agricultural land in one of Karnataka’s villages. He has smoky grey hair, wears a moth-eaten tattered shirt, and speaks with a trembled voice. Shekhar is one of the farmers from his village who often looks at the sky with sparkling eyes to be able to predict the optimal time to sow his seeds. He wants to ensure there is just enough moisture in the soil but no excess rainfall in the coming days. He also wants to ensure the weather conditions will not be too hot or too cold and wants to be confident that harmful pests will not kill the crops.
In that context, for someone like Shekhar, technology can sometimes be that precious drop of water on a deserted land and a beacon of hope on a dark night. As agriculture contributes 15% to India’s GDP, climate change presumably causes about 1.5% loss in GDP. In India, it’s imperative that technology is made more inclusive. The good news is, today, many technology companies are focussing on enabling “digital agriculture” where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, machine learning, satellite imagery, and advanced analytics are empowering smallholder farmers to increase their income through higher crop yield and greater price control.
For instance, tech giant Microsoft in collaboration with ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), developed an AI Sowing App that uses machine learning and business intelligence from the Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite. The app sends sowing advisories to participating farmers on the optimal date to sow. “The best part – the farmers don’t need to install any sensors in their fields or incur any capital expenditure. All they need is a feature phone capable of receiving text messages,” a Microsoft India report stated.
Today, thousands of farmers across Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka wait to get a text message before sowing the seeds. The SMSes, delivered in their native languages, tell them when to sow their crops. As per the Microsoft report, in a few dozen villages in Telangana, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, farmers receive automated voice calls alerting them whether their crops are at risk of a pest attack based on weather conditions and stage of the crop. Meanwhile in Karnataka, the state government can get price forecasts for essential commodities such as tur (split red gram) three months in advance for planning for the Minimum Support Price (MSP).
In October, the government of Karnataka signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft to empower smallholder farmers with technology-oriented solutions that will help them increase income using innovative cloud-based technologies, machine learning and advanced analytics. As a testimony to the state’s seriousness in agri-tech, Dr. T.N. Prakash Kammardi, Chairman, Karnataka Agricultural Price Commission said, “We are certain that digital agriculture supported by advanced technology platforms will truly benefit farmers. We believe that Microsoft’s technology will support these innovative experiments which will help us transform the lives of the farmers in our state.”
India is in fact in the middle of an agri-tech revolution as such technology initiatives are not just limited to the likes of Microsoft, but various Indian startups are also taking up the cause. Rather seriously. Take the case of Bengaluru-based Krishna Kumar who left his rising career at General Electric (GE) to set up CropIn Technology Solutions to address the pain points of millions of farmers across the country. During the agrarian crisis of Karnataka in 2010, local farmers were facing a gamut of problems ranging from non-availability of finance, climatic vagaries, soil degradation, pest infestation and diseases, operational inefficiencies, and non-predictability of yield. Taking a resolution on doing his bit to prevent farmer suicides and avert the agrarian crisis, Kumar launched CropIn that provides SaaS-based services to agribusinesses.
SatSure is another startup which is on a mission to evolve crop insurance products and provide accurate risk assessment of crop yield by integrating climatic variables with geospatial and economic datasets. Founded by Abhishek Raju, SatSure aims to help the Indian farmers who are dependent on rainfall for agriculture and are at the risk of weather-related losses which inhibit their socio-economic development. The risk of climate change and weather shocks also limits their willingness to invest in measures like better seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides that might increase productivity and improve their economic situation.
Madhya Pradesh-based startup Gramophone (Agstack Technologies) is trying to create a difference in farming by bringing timely information, technology, and right kind of inputs to achieve better yields for farmers. Gramophone is one-stop solution for all kinds of inputs for the farmers, says Tauseef Khan, co-founder of the startup. “Gramophone’s Agronomic Intelligence provides the best farm management solutions to farmers by leveraging the power of image recognition, soil science, and personalised information led cropping system. Our technology platform uses AI and machine learning to predict pest and disease, forecast commodity prices for better price realisations and recommend best products to the farmers,” Khan told The Startup Observer.
Internet of Things (IoT) in agriculture is emerging as one of the fastest growing areas of technology innovation. IoT devices can be used to monitor various parameters such as moisture, soil quality, fertilizer level, climate control, and weather forecast.
In a step towards nurturing the ecosystem, Nasscom Centre of Excellence (COE), under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), has been silently building a cohesive ecosystem to address the fragmented ways of current working procedures in this sector. Nasscom COE acts like a central repository to provide the knowledge base, tools, and techniques. Its IoT lab in Bengaluru is being leveraged by startups, enterprises, institutions, and government departments for testing and developing the technology solutions.
“The next step is to build the end-to-end solution with open platform and APIs for hundreds of connected systems to work together and share the information collaboratively for the benefit of the end user (farmer) and provide the decision-making recommendations at their figure tips from a simple to complex issue, as on demand,” Nasscom said.
Some of the IoT-based startups incubated at the Nasscom COE are Spoors, QTlomics, Infratab, and Jivabhumi. Spoors is a field force management solution while QTlomics helps breeders develop better hybrids. Infratab makes and sells smart sensors and software to monitor, track, and trace a perishable’s condition. Jivabhumi.com is an online marketplace for agri produce including food grains, spices, and processed food like sugar, jaggery and oils. The company forms farmer groups comprising of farmers and/or farm cooperatives who can list the products. It also allows consumers to order products from the portal and schedule a pickup.
Given that their lives depend on agriculture, over the years, Shekhar and many other farmers across India have become firm believers of folklore about rain and clouds. For instance, when small clouds join and thicken, they expect rains. They are also superstitious that if it rains before seven, it will clear before eleven. But none of them have mastered the art of predicting the unpredictable – be it weather conditions or the threat from pests. It’s humanly impossible.
This is where India’s agri-tech startups and technology companies are playing a major role in solving the agrarian distress in the country. And, that’s the silver lining in the cloud for all the farmers. Today, India is leading the global technology wave in many ways with several world-class IT companies, startups, and top-notch CEOs emerging from the nation. But technology is only as good as it serves humanity and agriculture is certainly one of the high-priority sectors that need to be addressed, at least in India.
Suicides in farming sector in 2015