It is a Sunday evening and you are picking up a packet of kale from the organic food section at your local supermarket. You promptly flip it around to check the details on the packet — the date, where it comes from, decipher its shelf life and drop the packet into your cart silently resolving to yourself that you will actually make the salad this time. Hope. It is what the universe runs on.
Convenience is an unintelligent word, honestly. Its parameters change quite often. Till a few years back, convenience was the local kirana or the store right around the block selling bread, eggs and sugar. Today it extends to easy access to organically grown exotic vegetables, delivered right to your doorstep. What changed?
Agriculture in India is still unorganized to a large extent, characterised by fragmented landholdings, excessive reliance on erratic monsoons, inadequate credit and financial cover for farmers, and poor infrastructural facilities. A lot of this appears to be changing in recent times with the help of technology in agriculture. In the last couple of years, we have witnessed an increased technology interest in agriculture with multiple startups and companies offering a range of solutions tailored towards solving different challenges encountered at various stages in the cultivation and distribution of agricultural produce. The Indian government, posed with ambitious goals such as doubling farmer income and increasing agricultural produce to $60 billion by 2022, has also introduced a number of incentives to boost innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture.
The impact of agriculture technology spreads throughout the entire life cycle of agricultural production. From adopting sustainable cultivation practices and improving crop quality to re-engineering the overall supply chain with greater efficiency, agriculture sets to make big gains with the infusion of technology in the sector. But all this conversation around better food, and enhanced food production intrigues us to question what is a viable business model for the startups that are attempting to disrupt the space. In other words, whose problem is technology in agriculture really solving?
Our Earth will be home to 9.8 billion people by the year 2050. When you look at the food problem from that angle — being able to feed that many mouths, while fighting dwindling resources and the reality of climate change — it becomes a pertinent issue that impacts everyone involved. Starting from the farmers who cultivate our food to the supermarkets that stock and sell them, everyone is impacted by efficiencies in the agricultural supply chain. Rather, the lack of it.
The amount of investment in the sector is reason enough to believe that the world is sitting up and taking note. Data suggests that in the year 2018, at least 13 AgTech startups raised total funding of around $65.6 million. When you take into account the worldwide investment in the same year in the agricultural and food technology space, the figures have touched $17 billion, which is a 40% increase from the previous year.
But what makes technology in agriculture an interesting case to solve is that while cultivation is common to every single part of the world, the challenges faced by each geography are uniquely local. The problems solved with agriculture technology in China would be different from the ones in Africa. This unique combination of utilising emerging technology and trends, customized in a manner that suit the needs of the market and geography is what makes the agri-tech sector so exciting to follow.
The first step towards a more sustainable future lies in empowering our farmers to utilise technology in a manner that helps them cope with their current challenges. This goes from using remote sensing technology and mobile advisory solutions for improving current agricultural practices to facilitating farming-as-a-service offerings in areas like infrastructure and machinery.
You have probably booked more cabs on Uber or Ola than you can count. But how about booking a piece of farm equipment ahead of the harvesting season? There are farm equipment rental companies that go by the same principle of bringing easy accessibility and affordable solutions to farmers. By connecting farm equipment manufacturers with farmers who need the machines when they need it, on a pay-for-use basis. With a suite of services set throughout every step of the cultivation process they tackle everything from land development and preparation to harvesting and post-harvesting field management.
But food production is not just about having the right tools to cultivate. It depends just as heavily on what comes after it. The biggest problem faced by unorganized agriculture is insufficient knowledge on the part of the farmers about what they should produce when. Agri-tech solutions like CropIn offer a range of comprehensive solutions that touch every stage of cultivation. It starts with identifying the right plot of land for cultivation, choosing the optimum seeds that would give the best yield for a certain crop followed by monitoring throughout the cultivation process and ultimately deducing the right time to harvest. CropIn’s solutions are relevant to every stakeholder involved in the process of food production. Products like SmartFarm® digitize the entire farming process building efficiencies into each step from sowing to harvesting. The data gathered through the app, along with inputs such as weather information, satellite imagery, and other relevant data points fuel SmartRisk® which offers predictive intelligence about current crops under cultivation and their projected yield potential.
There are direct-to-farmer m-commerce platforms that combine analytics with technical expertise to offer real-time solutions to farmers right on their mobile phones. While there are others who use videos as a primary channel of communication and training. From opening up markets that connect farmers to places where they can fetch a better price for their produce to training front-line workers on sustainable cultivation practices that combine quality with increased output, startups are focused on making a global impact in sustainable food production. One where every stage of the farming process is strengthened with technology.
Offering advisory knowledge and technical muscle during the process of cultivation helps the farmers cultivate better quality produce that can fetch a higher price in the market. This brings us to one of the biggest problems of food production post harvesting — fixing the broken supply chain. Consumers today are more aware than ever before and want to be able to easily access fresh, organically grown produce. However, with a long winding supply chain with a middleman eating a big chunk of the profits, neither does the farmer end up making a profit nor is the consumer aware about where the food is coming from. This is where startups that connect farmers with retailers become important. Their business model is built around finding the right market for fresh produce that comes straight from the farmers with no wastage. Some of them also focus on eliminating the need for middlemen between the farmer and the market. Their premise is quite simple — using technology to solve supply chain problems and connect demand with supply.
We began this discussion with a statement of hope. Technology’s interest in the agricultural sector reflects the same sentiment. It brings a level of optimism into a sector that has been dogged with chaos and unpredictability for so long. The most interesting aspect to note is that all stakeholders throughout the agricultural value chain are welcoming the influx of technology in the sector. From the farmer to the end consumer, everyone benefits from the transparency and efficiency that technology brings into the system.
The increased investment in agriculture technology indicates that this is not just a good social problem to solve, it is one that holds significant potential for growth as well. Combined with increased participation from the government and an accelerated pace of innovation on the part of startups and other companies, the stage is set for change. At the end of it all, the question to ask isn’t whose problem are we really solving with technology in agriculture but understanding what we stand to lose by the lack of it. Because let’s face it, humanity’s survival pretty much depends on it.