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Dhruv Sawhney

COO and Business Head, nurture.farm

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Why Farmers Need To Embrace AgTech Start-Ups

Several Indian AgTechs are operating to support the farmers and equip them with solutions that empower them and their fields.

Today, several AgTech startups are taking on Indian agriculture's most challenging problems. While the country has progressed and rapidly adopted technology in almost all walks of life, its most elementary breadwinner stands neglected. Especially the smallholding and marginal ones who own less than 2 hectares of farmland but represent more than 86% of all farmers in India. This lack of investment in the continuous development of the Indian farmer has cost them – by way of degradation of soil, depletion of underground water resources, low yields, and low incomes. Indian farmers need to be guided, informed and directed towards adopting sustainable agricultural practices and linked to better markets and post-harvest services to ensure better yields at significantly lower input costs. Digitisation and tech-enabled solutions are the conduits to fastrack agricultural productivity, potentially transforming India into the world's farm, delivering food security to the globe 

Conversely, any delay in adopting tech-enabled agricultural transformation would cost farmers their livelihood and the country - its strategic position as a leading food producer. This can be well understood by the fate of Indian cashews, where India's Kollam region used to be the world's cashew-growing region, but has lost out to Vietnam due to its failure to adopt modern technologies and mechanisation. While Vietnam's processing cost for 80 kg of raw nuts is the equivalent of ₹800, it's around ₹2,500 to ₹3,000 in Kollam because it failed to modernise. In just two years, 80% of cashew processing units closed in Kollam, leaving thousands of people jobless and bankrupting the processing units. 

In the absence of technological boosts, easy access to innovation and information on sustainable practices, the average Indian farmer can be the next to fall. Several Indian AgTechs are operating to support the farmers and equip them with solutions that empower them and their fields. But transformation cannot be achieved in silos; rather, an outcome-oriented approach must be adopted that carefully looks at each agriculture-related parameter - from pre-sowing to post-harvesting, in detail. AgTech startups are helping farmers to break down their operations into individual components to iron out the deficiencies and bottlenecks from each of them, as explained below: 

Determining Soil Health And Aiding Seed Selection – The Green Revolution helped farmers increase their yields, but unchecked use of fertilizers cost them their soil's health. According to the Vision 2030 report prepared by the Indian Institute of Soil Science, between 1970 and 2005, soil fertility has dropped to a third of what it was in just 35 years. In such a scenario soil testing acts as an intervention which the farmers direly need. It acts like a diagnosis of the soil's health, its microbial activity, whether its structure is sufficient to allow air and water to flow, etc. This helps determine the exact amount of nutrients needed to support crop growth, thus reducing costs incurred in pumping unhealthy amounts of chemicals into one's land 

After soil testing, the farmer needs to be guided to play to its strengths and cater to its weaknesses by choosing the right products, seeds, and irrigation patterns. Today, tech advancement has led to agricultural solutions that increase productivity at lower input costs and are environmentally sustainable. Grassroots level implementation of such solutions by farmers at the planning stage would ensure significantly higher outcomes whilst maintaining soil health and lower irrigation requirements. Choosing the right seeds and the right nutrition plan for the cropping season is half battle won and would lead to up to 30% higher yield at 30% lower costs. 

Mechanization and Tech Support – Technological advancement has led to farm mechanisation which helps farmers save time, money, water, and labour. For sowing, precision seeding equipment is designed with smart technology which combines geo mapping and sensor data detailing to maximise the chances of seeds having the best chance to grow. An example is the DSR (Direct Seeded Rice) method, where paddy seeds are directly drilled into the field with the help of a seeding machine, while the herbicide gets sprayed simultaneously. Through this method, paddy planting is faster, uses 10-15% less water, and cuts down on labour requirements as well as GHG emissions. 

Mechanisation also brings down their costs during the crop’s life cycle. For instance, access to spraying equipment brings down their cost of spraying per acre, ensuring around 50-60% cost saving for them. A yield increase of 10-20% is reported by adopting mechanisation while showing 20-25% better efficacy of the crop protection products used. All of this helps their bottomline and builds resilience. 

AgTech startups are helping farmers with easy access to high-cost machinery by leveraging the shared economy. Farmers can book these services via an app on a per-day cost basis, lowering their agricultural input costs significantly. Apart from this, AI-based weather alerts and sowing advisories through these apps also ensure timely delivery of scientific information, helping them make informed choices and preventing crop damages throughout the crop cycle. 

Harvest & Post Harvest Services – The harvesting quality often determines the success of a farmer's hard work, making separating the grains from the chaff - mission critical! However, using technology, data and AI, can ensure optimal output from the field.

After harvesting, farmers have a difficult time managing the crop residues. In many instances, they burn the stubble as it is the cheapest option available to them. This burning has severe negative impacts on health, soil fertility and the environment, as is evident from the awful haze that smogs up Delhi during the October - November months when farmers from the adjacent states of Punjab and Haryana are burning their paddy stubble. AgTech startups are today finding sustainable alternatives to stubble burning while also incentivising farmers to adopt these measures.

But once food travels from farms to forks, the benefits do not flow back to the farmer or the farm. With meagre incomes, agriculture is one of the least romanticised forms of employment in India. This has to change, and change can only happen if the farmers are adequately supported with post-harvest storage and market linkage facilities. To improve this, AgTech startups support farmers with systematic cataloguing of the inventory, proper storage-based processing, access to pricing intelligence, and direct access to buyers. 

Today, AgTech startups are stepping up to start the Smart Revolution in agriculture by supporting the Indian farmer, building their resilience, and improving their outcomes. They are educating farmers about the benefits of regenerative farming and tech adoption and are encouraging them to leverage the shared economy. If the collective efforts of AgTechs and other public, private partnerships are fully embraced, India, with the second-largest cultivable land in the world, can become an agricultural superpower on the global stage. It is our collective responsibility to ensure Agriculture as a form of livelihood survives and continues to nourish us and the coming generations.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house



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