Why India sits at the cusp of a remarkable opportunity to make technology work for the country’s small farmer. It must now grab this moment with both hands.
At the core of the ongoing disagreements on the farm bills is the issue of returns on farming activity, which continue to be dismal. This is, in part, because Indian agriculture is still, unfortunately, plagued by issues of information asymmetry, lack of access to markets and institutional credit, price volatility and fragmented holdings.
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We believe that a ‘digital infrastructure’ approach could help pave the path forward on these hard issues.
From Aadhaar based direct benefits transfer (DBT) subsidies to Unified Payments Interface (UPI) for financial transactions, from a DIGIT platform for urban services to a National Health ID in healthcare, the promise of open digital ecosystems (ODEs), anchored on shared digital infrastructure, can be seen all around us. A common enabler across all of these services are interoperable digital platforms that facilitate access to data from siloed databases and allow for service provision by both private and public players. The next frontier for ODEs is Indian agriculture.
Let us explain. India has created valuable farmer relevant datasets over the last few decades. For example, valuable soil health data, that provides a read on the soil fertility of farms across India exists (and is made available to farmers through a soil health card programme). This data is sitting in a digital database, as a silo, separate from weather data, cropping patterns, and other valuable data sets. Imagine the power if all this data could be combined. A National Agri Open Digital Ecosystem (ODE) – that could bring together data across soil, rainfall, cropping patterns, irrigation, as well as land records; use big data and IoT to provide accurate recommendations; deliver precise advisory to farmers on what to do in their farm and when, and ultimately provide integrated services to them throughout the agri value chain including financing, crop insurance, input procurement, market access etc.
The good news is that this is not a pipe dream, but a vision that is imminently achievable in the next few years.
In keeping with the demand for digital reform in agriculture, the Government of India is creating the India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) framework to digitise the agricultural value chain, that uses the ODE approach. IDEA is visualised as an ‘Agristack’ based on a federated architecture with authenticated and verified data coming in from all players in the value chain, including farmers, agriculture research institutes, weather agencies, agri start-ups and government databases.
Given the complexity of the task and the potential risks involved, building Agristack needs to be a collaborative effort among all these stakeholders. Developing robust governance and data privacy/ data sharing frameworks will be important to ensure that the benefits of such a platform truly flow to the farmer.
Based on our experience as investors, we believe that the Indian agri-startup ecosystem is today ready to contribute to the IDEA ODE vision. There are two critical ways in which agri-startups need to plug in:
First, defining protocols and architecture: A majority of agri start-ups have built their own mini-agristacks by creating data layers containing information about farmers, the crops being sown, the soil quality, the farm acreage, location of the nearest mandi, etc. These stacks have been painstakingly built over the years and carry a lot of learnings, which can be used for building IDEA. Start-ups have also experimented by developing applications over these data layers, building linkages and drawing insights on-farm productivity. In addition, start-ups’ experience in continuously updating data (through satellite imagery, sensors, IoT, smartphones and ground-truthing) can be helpful in building guidelines for dynamicity (days, months, seasons, crop cycles) and granularity of data (lat-long, farm, village, tehsil, district, agro-climatic zones) for IDEA.
Second, demonstrating use cases: Use cases are critical for the success of this massive digital powerhouse that we are trying to build for Indian agriculture. This requires skills in modelling data and use of techniques such as AI/ML, image processing, blockchain, etc. These facets of data science can make the stack many times more valuable. Many start-ups have demonstrated modelling capabilities with reasonable accuracies and if the IDEA ODE can facilitate their access to large public data sets, it will not only help reduce their data collection cost but will also enable building of models with high levels of accuracy.
The central government’s engagement with agri start-ups to get their inputs on the IDEA framework needs to be further institutionalised to build pilot cases across crops and geographies and tested in sandboxes. There is also interest from state governments like that of Telangana, Bihar, and Karnataka in jointly working with start-ups to drive the innovation agenda in agriculture in the service of farmers. Such collaboration between stakeholders will energize the efforts to operationalise the idea of IDEA. The ultimate goal is for the farmer to have access to a bouquet of services ranging from precision advisory to data-based credit, and to market linkages that can drive sustainable increases in their incomes.
India sits at the cusp of a remarkable opportunity to make technology work for India’s small farmer. It must now grab this moment with both hands.
—Hemendra Mathur is an investor in agritech startups. Varad Pande is a Partner at Omidyar Network India, an investment firm focused on social impact . Views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)