startups

Can high-tech firms with actionable inputs eliminate uncertainties in agriculture? – Economic Times


Sangarmesh Talikotti has been a farmer for 20 years and is well aware of the unpredictable factors that can affect his livelihood each season. The 40-year-old also knows that he has to use a mix of the traditional knowledge acquired over the years and modern methods to minimise the risks he faces every season. So when he heard about deploying internet of things (IoT) technology in farming, Talikotti did not hesitate. In March, he spentRs 38,000 to plant three sensors on his 2.5-acre tomato farm.

The artificial intelligence-driven platform from Benguluru-based agri-tech startup Fasal regularly relays information to Talikotti’s smartphone. He gets updates on when to irrigate the field, when to reap the crops, what is the risk of pest attack and where to use pesticides. Talikotti is so impressed with the system that he now intends to install sensors across his 60-acre farm where he grows papayas, brinjals and drumsticks. He is especially happy that his fate is not entirely based on the variables anymore, all thanks to Fasal.

The startup, which has 30 employees, “tries to take the guesswork out of farming,” says Ananda Verma, founder & CEO. “We are a precision agriculture company with a focus on horticulture.” Using software engineers, pathologists, horticulture experts and AI experts, startups like Fasal, AgSmartic, CropIn and others collect farm data, analyse these and present helpful and remedial information to farmers. Hemant Wavhal, 35, is happy that he gave FasalRs 47,000 in February to deploy sensors on his two-acre pomegranate farm at Alephata village in Pune district. He claims to have already saved around Rs 30,000 on plant protection chemicals as the sensors pinpoint where to spray the chemical.

Farmer

Technology is beneficial for farmers looking to minimise risks and increase output. Talikotti and Wavhal will vouch for that. They are among a small but increasing number of agrarians employing technology to take the guesswork out of their profession. This has, in turn, birthed an ecosystem of small and big companies trying to bring about smart transformations in farming.

Basically, sensors collect temperature, light, Ph values, moisture content and other such readings. Some sensors are deployed about 18 inches below the soil to collect microclimatic readings and soil data. IoT converts these data into precise actionable intelligence for farmers. And these companies are collecting and analysing that data to help farmers.

Ripe for Tech

The ecosystem can help the government achieve its goal of doubling farm income by 2022. It can also power the rural economy, seen as an important engine that will propel India towards its goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025, from $2.7 trillion now.

These goals can be easily achieved if farming gets a tech upgrade. Harsha Razdan, partner & head of consumer markets & retail, KPMG India, says, “Low spending on R&D, low productivity and small farm holdings are the problems. These conditions are fertile for technology providers to disrupt the sector and improve yields.”

Challenges in Farming

R&D spend on agriculture as a percentage of GDP is only 0.7% in India, according to the Economic Survey 2020. It is 2.8% in the US, 2.1% in China and 4.2% in Israel. Even farm mechanisation is low in India, at 40%, when compared with 60% in China and 75% in Brazil.

Not surprisingly, tech companies and startups see an opportunity to upgrade the around $400 billion Indian agriculture sector. There are 896 agri-tech startups providing tech tools for pre-harvest, post-harvest and during plant-growing periods, according to Tracxn data as on July 1. They have attracted $560 million of venture funding, most of it in the last three years. In two years, according to Maple Capital Advisors, agri-tech ventures will attract another $500 million.

Agri

With that kind of potential, former investment banker Taranjeet Singh Bhamra had no trouble in deciding to start AgNext in 2016. The Chandigarh-based startup uses computer vision and spectroscopy for post-harvest inspection of tea leaves. “About $3 billion worth of tea trade happens annually via visual inspection — by keeping a few leaves on the ground and deciding on the quality of tea. We built a technology that analyses the leaves by checking the fibre content,” says Singh. It took AgNext 18 months and half a billion leaves to develop an algorithm to detect the quality of tea leaves more quickly and effectively.

Technology is also being used to scale up vegetables cultivation. Take, for instance, potatoes, which get destroyed by early-morning frost. Farmers generally leave water pumps on through the night as wet soil offers better protection from frost. But too much water can also be harmful. There is help at hand now as sensors can predict when there is a chance of frost and decide if the irrigation system should be switched on. CropIn, which gives agri-tech solutions to brinjal, tomato and onion farmers in Jharkhand and Orissa, claims to have helped its partners increase productivity by around 30% over the last three years by providing such information.

Hi-Tech Eyes & Ears

“IoT and agriculture are tied to each other,” says Alok Bardiya, head of IoT, Tata Communications, which had rolled out a low-power wide-area network protocol in India in 2017. This basically allows long-range transmission of data using less power, making it suitable to connect sensors deployed over a vast area. This data from the ground makes sense for farming only when juxtaposed with satellite data, which is collected by companies such as SatSure. “We look for proxy indicators,” says Prateep Basu, a former ISRO scientist who started SatSure in 2016. “For example, water in soil has a different signal than just soil. We can predict droughts using such technology.”

The most challenging aspect of agri-tech ventures will be understanding the vagaries of monsoon. Skymet Weather Services, India’s first private weather forecaster, understands how testing that can be. It has 7,500 sensors and 100 crop cameras across the country collecting data, which is used to create actionable information.

Leafy Greens

“Technology can help agriculture by minimising weather risks, pest risks and input risks,” says Jatin Singh, CEO of Skymet. Sensors and cameras can keep tabs on pheromone traps and relay relevant information to farmers. Noida-based AgSmartic Technologies uses autonomous systems to provide early pest detection warning. Abhishek Sinha, CEO & cofounder, says the company has deployed sensors on 570 acres of farms at three locations in Punjab.

India Yield

Apart from acting as a pest monitoring system, these also collect soil temperature and moisture levels. This information can show stress in water demand, which can trigger autonomous irrigation. Jagdish Mitra, chief strategy officer of Tech Mahindra, says, “Cre-ation of an agri stack which will connect all stakeholders across the ecosystem is the next logical step.” As companies harness technology to do more with less, some startups are offering a way to grow vegetables without soil.

Chennai-based Aqua Farms, for one, hydroponic home kits that are plug-and-play solutions to grow leafy greens. The kit comprises a nutrient filling technology and costs Rs 6,000-45,000 for output of 2-20 per month. Since starting the sales in January 2019, the company has sold 1,000 kits across India. This trend could pick up as cities are built and people opt for home-vegetables. The technique could find more land-scarce urban hubs.

Drones

Hyderabad-based UrbanKisaan uses hydroponics to grow vegetables at a commercial scale. Started in 2017, UrbanKisaan grows 70 varieties of crops, including tomatoes, potatoes and onions, in indoor farms that are no more than 2,500 sq feet. “We grow 30x more vegetables than what can be done in soil farming, using 95% less water. 2,000 sq feet equals 2 acres of farm output,” says Vihari Kanukolla, CEO & cofounder, UrbanKisaan, which sells its produce online. As indoor farming tries to mimic the outdoor environment, the reliance on tech gets higher. Sensors continuously monitor temperature, moisture and humidity, among others.

Tech is especially useful in these closed and confined settings. Another system being deployed is aquaponics, which uses nutrientrich water from fish tanks to feed vegetables before circulating the water back into the fish tanks. Here, again, technology has made the technique sustainable. If the Ph levels in water is high, plants will die. If it falls, fish will perish. So there is heavy dependence on sensors and IoT to maintain the right balance in the ecosystem.

Farming

Anubhav Das, 46, became so fascinated by this system that he decided to plunge into it, despite having worked as a photographer and brand strategist for almost two decades.

After learning aquaponics system design at the Aquaponics Institute of Australia in Melbourne, he set up Red Otter Farms on an acre close to Nanital in Uttarakhand. “There is consistency in quality of the output, soil contaminants are removed and there are no impurities.” He grows lettuce, kale, rocket leaves, swiss chard, arugula and other leafy greens and sells them directly to at least 100 subscribers in the Delhi-NCR region. Despite agri-tech having many benefits, issues like erratic network and high costs could slow the rate of adoption.

Diary Farming

Besides farmers have to see savings and growth in their incomes before they decide to go all in — which would be easier said than done in a country where they still face economic hardship regularly.

But if a concerted push from the government and the companies succeeds in ensuring a wider adoption of agri-tech, farms in India can become more profitable in three to five years. Even if monsoon threatens to hurt farmers, data from clouds could save them.

Tech will bring revolution only when farmers see profits: Ashok Gulati

Ashok Gulati



Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati says 90% of technology is tackling production issues when the focus should be on creating markets. Edited excerpts:

There are over 400 startups that bring technology to farms. What difference will they make?

There are 146 million farms. How many have adopted technology? These are interesting showpieces. Unless there is money for farmers, these technologies will not scale up. These are experiments. Out of 100 startups, not even 10 scale up. Technologies bring revolution only when there is profit for farmers.

But tech will help increase yield, reduce wastage.

Who will bear the cost of digital technologies, including AI, IoT and ML, is the issue. The government can’t give subsidy for everything.


Is there a market for premium produce like good-quality potatoes, tomatoes, onion, etc?


The question is, is the customer ready to pay for it? The whole process has to start at the farmers’ level. Aggregation has to be done: let 50 farmers come together, let them wash, dry, put barcodes on produce to identify which place it has come from for traceability. Then it should be graded in terms of quality — A, B, C. Are we getting that type of thing?

Will hydroponics and aquaponics work in India?

These have not scaled in India. Will customers be ready to pay, say, Rs 200 for a kilo of cherry tomatoes from hydroponics, when regular farm tomatoes are available for Rs 40 a kg? In the last three months, tomato prices have fluctuated — from Rs 12 per kg to Rs 80 per kg (at Azadpur market in Delhi). How will farmers recover costs in technology when there are such wild price fluctuations? The question is, when tech comes from lab to land, what is the cost involved and what is the price farmers will get for the output? Farmers says, ‘the more I produce, the less I get’ — they are unable to recover their costs.

What is the future of technology in farms?

There is no dearth of technology to increase production. We have to look at where it will be absorbed and at what price. Recently, in Rajasthan, farmers blocked a road in Jaipur because mustard price was 25% below MSP. Unless you can ensure profitable cultivation, technologies can never take off. And you can’t run it on a subsidy model.

Will these remain experiments?

Digitisation tools are cutting down costs. But give farmers a costbenefit analysis. Just showing that a tool can increase productivity by 20-30% is not enough. Show when cost will go down and profits will go up 10%, or 20%, or 30%.

What is the future of these startups bringing new tech to farms?

If you plan to double the output in the next 5-10 years, you can do it. If the market collapses (due to oversupply) and farmers can’t recover the cost, then forget it. Focus on developing the market. Create demand. Otherwise, these are white elephants. I am not totally against tech — but 90% of tech focusses on production and that is where the problem starts. If you look at the history of revolutions — green, white or poultry — there were markets for them.

We are only in the second season of tech experiments: S Sivakumar

S Sivakumar



S Sivakumar, group head-agri & IT businesses, ITC, spearheaded the e-Choupal initiative almost two
decades back. He discusses the technology-led transformations underway in Indian farms. Edited excerpts:


What is the extent of technology adoption in Indian farms? There are broadly

There are broadly three kinds of technologies: for seeds and nutrients; machine technology like tractors, irrigation pumps and sprinklers; and information technology. There is a fair amount of interplay of all three. Interestingly, Covid-19 has led to increased automation. There has been a more aggressive adoption of machines and technology after labour moved back home because of Covid-19 and lockdown. The last few quarters have seen the use of sensor technology and data analytics in farms. There are around 500 startups offering agritech — all of them have good tech ideas.

How viable are these tech ideas?

Technologies have to translate into specific action and more income for farmers. If you say, I can bring micro local weather forecast, that by itself does not mean anything. It has to be combined with soil data, farm data, what was planted last season and combined with the data of the farmer, like investment capacity, labour availability, credit availability and so on, before being used to make a crop recommendation. Aggregators who are stitching all of this together will be essential in the ecosystem. E-Choupal 4.0, our current version, is one such aggregator. The second challenge is in developing a profitable business model. You make water-saving devices and precision farming tech, but water and power are free. You will be competing in a distorted market.

How can this be overcome?

Look at demand signals. What to grow? What varieties within crops? Then use technologies that help save money. Like those that check for pests and give weather forecast and soil reports. Third is marketplace of inputs — seeds, nutrients, crop protection, equipment for hire, etc. Last is access to markets with links to warehouses, derivative markets, F&O. Aggregators integrate all of these and offer a complete solution.

Can tech address the problems of small farm holdings?

Putting sensors and doing IoT are expensive for small farmers. It will work better in a hub-and-spoke model. Put sensors in one farm (the hub) and share (the data) with other farms so you have 150-200 farms around this hub. This can be provided to farmers as a service. We are only in the second season of these experiments. We can’t just say it worked in one season, so let us now expand it to a million acres. Because some mistake here could mean a huge impact on farmers. The experiments need to be properly validated.

How do you see technology use in farms in the next three to five years?

The government has data of soil, weather, etc. this can be put as a foundational digital stack. the government can build appropriate apis and offer this data to tech companies. once the government’s digital agri stack is built, it will help scale much better.





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