Can An ‘Agri-Stack’ Help Solve Indian Agriculture’s Age-Old Problems?
Thirty-year-old Bhushan Kumar Singh is a third-generation farmer who grows vegetables such as brinjal, bottle gourd and okra on his five-acre farm at Mahua in Bihar.
His ways may be more modern compared to his father's, but ask him if technology has made a difference to his life and you'll get an answer equivalent to a shrug.
Technology has helped us in many ways, say for checking soil quality, getting weather updates, drip irrigation and mulching to improve productivity, he tells BloombergQuint over the phone. But I rely more on my practical knowledge of farming because what we get online is plain theory, he said.
That’s not to say Singh doesn’t see the benefit of better information flow and technology in farming. He does.
I go online mainly to find seeds and fertilizers that are not available in the local market and then buy them from nearby stores, he explains. But for crop consultation and selling my output, I use a different app, he said.
It would help if one app gave all the solutions, from forecast to crop planning to what I should buy and where I can take credit from, he said.
Here’s An IDEA...
On June 1, the government’s Department of Agriculture put out a concept paper for a platform labelled as “IDEA” or the “India Digital Ecosystem For Agriculture”. The paper lays down the building blocks needed for a national-level digital ecosystem for agriculture, intended to help India’s nearly 14.5 crore farmer families.
The first, and perhaps most challenging part of the program, is to provide unique farmer IDs to every farmer across the country. This unique farmer ID will be used to validate details of the user for any services provided via the platform. Transaction data will not be stored using this identifier, the concept paper specified.
Alongside these unique farmer IDs, registries would be created of entities providing agricultural goods and services. There will be standard codes used for different locations, different services etc.
Eventually the idea is to create a single repository of information on users and providers of farming goods and services.
The second part of the plan is to create a platform on which all kinds of transactions can take place. This platform would be the “Unified Farmer Service Interface”. Once again, the idea is borrowed from the Unified Payment Interface, which allowed for a plethora of digital payment options to be built atop public infrastructure.
Since agriculture is a state subject, the government concept paper suggests a “federated architecture”.
The states will have the option of joining the national Unified Farmer Service Interface to meet their data exchange requirements or establish their own Farmer Service Interface and federate the same with UFSI.IDEA Concept Paper
Once the Unified Farmer Service Interface is in place, a host of service options can be built atop it since the platform will be built using open-source software.
From service portals to app stores, from call centres to weather services, from real-time prices to DBT transfers. These services can be offered by the central government, state governments and private sector firms.
From IDEA To Implementation
In theory, the concept could help bring higher levels of efficiency and productivity and “improve the welfare and income of farmers”, as the IDEA vision statement says.
“Something like this has never been done before,” says Shashank Kumar, co- founder and chief executive at DeHaat, an online marketplace for agricultural products and services.
UFSI is a brilliant concept and will help different stakeholders in farmers’ acquisition. There are different service providers, there are different companies, the business innovation is ready but one of the common biggest challenge is that there is no efficient way to onboard a farmer for all stakeholders. This unified platform will be a single API (Application Programming Interface), and the information can be used for respective business cases.Shashank Kumar, Co-Founder, DeHaat
The biggest challenge in running an agri-tech company is that primary data on farmers, their households, borrowing patterns, land parcel records, and even on fertiliser allocation is not available in public domain, Kumar said.
And even if the data is available, according to Karthik Jayaraman, co-founder and chief executive of WayCool Foods—an agriculture supply-chain startup, it exists in lots of pieces at disparate sources. “The idea is if all of it’s made available on one platform, different companies can use it to build different use cases.”
If primary data on farmers is available at a single source, it will also help companies scale up faster by expanding their offerings and geographical presence.
“This could help businesses like ours provide a wider range of services in more locations, as data will be available on farmers across India,” said Sateesh Nukala, chief executive and co-founder at BigHaat, an online agriculture inputs marketplace. “It will also reduce marketing and operational cost for startups.”
While a robust data architecture could translate into faster growth for agriculture companies, for farmers it may mean better solutions.
Manjunath CV who has been farming for the past three years, grows cabbages, carrots, tomatoes and some other vegetables on his eight-acre farm in Chakvel village at Chikkaballapur in Karnataka. He has seen some of the benefits of technology.
He uses an app that gives him suggestions on what crops to sow based on different parameters such as rain forecast, humidity and temperature data, soil quality, and market prices. The platform also helps him sell his produce.
My profit has gone up by up to Rs 5,000 per acre by making use of this one app, he tells BloombergQuint via a translator.
Like Manjunath, many farmers in India, today, are looking for such solutions. “Farmers are looking for integrated solutions— advisories linked to inputs, and inputs linked to credit,” said Kumar.
Besides an integrated solution, the availability of landholding data for farmers could also improve access to credit and insurance, as presently credit scores or exhaustive crop insurance data is not available for most farmers.
“The biggest beneficiaries of this initiative will be lending and insurance firms, as it will greatly improve their reach and underwriting in rural areas, making it a big step in ensuring financial inclusion,” said Nukala.
From Paper To Farm
But taking the concept from paper to farm will be a challenge and the concept paper admits that itself.
“Implementing IDEA is a challenging task, given the wide scope, multiple dependencies, and complexities in coordination across the country,” it says. “A federated implementation structure is best suited with a clear definition of roles and clear division of responsibilities between the Central and State Government.”
And that’s only the first level of challenge.
For the concept to deliver gains for farmers, the private sector has to push adoption and implementation, along with innovating on services that can be offered.
“From production to harvesting to distribution to procurement and to e-commerce, everything till the last link needs to be digitised for this idea to work on a large scale,” said Ashok Gulati, agricultural economist and chair professor of agriculture at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
Providing data is one thing, making sure it is accurate, reliable and useful is another.
“Accuracy of public data is questionable because those capturing it on the ground do not have the right tools and technology, making it difficult to rely solely on government data,” said Kumar, adding the data also comes with large lags.
But in Gulati’s view, the platform-level digitisation could help in "triangulation of data", which will help prevent leakages in subsidy disbursements, and reduce inaccuracies in data collection.
“I agree that a big issue with agriculture data is that it’s usually unreliable, but if we have several data points coming together, it could help narrow down where the inaccuracies lie,” he said.
Having the states come together with the central government will be an equally big challenge.
“This is a big piece in the puzzle that needs to get solved if data has to be brought on a single, central platform,”Nukala said. “There needs to be uniformity in data, which would require more alignment between centre and states.”
Lastly, the digital approach needs to work in tandem with improvements in physical infrastructure.
“Agri-commerce, by its very nature, is a phygital business,” said Jayaraman. It involves cultivation, harvesting and post-harvest management of sensitive and perishable goods, as well as interaction with stakeholders who are less oriented towards using digital platforms on both ends of the supply chain, be it farmers or the retailers, he said.
Does Singh from Bihar think schemes, purely based on technology, will work? He’s sceptical.
“Kisan zameen par kaam kar raha hai aur sarkaar aasmaan se yojana bana rahi hai. Bas yahi wajah hai kee yojana ka laabh kisan tak nahee pahunchta,” he said.
Translation: We work on the ground, while the government makes schemes in the air.