Why last-mile innovations focused on smallholder farmers is key for India's agri and allied ecosystem
In the 2021-22 Union Budget, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation, and 'Farmers' Welfare was allocated Rs. 1,23,018 crore – a 14 percent increase from the 2019-20 budget. India is primarily an agrarian economy, with almost 60% of the country's population reportedly working in the agriculture sector. However, reaching smallholder farmers - particularly those in the remote areas of the country, where a substantial number of farmers come from - remains a huge challenge.
These smallholder farmers, who comprise 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, operate on less than five acres of land, and often face challenges with produce and market risks. The fact that these smallholder farmers come from marginalised and less literate communities pose further challenges to enablement. Therefore, the need of the hour is to plug these gaps, understand the roadblocks at each level, and offer them technological innovations for their small land parcels, along with quality products and services.
Talking about the need for greater innovation in improving the livelihoods of India's smallholder farmers, Ganesh Neelam, Executive Director, Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI) said, "Innovators need to invest a good amount of energy towards understanding the ground problems faced by smallholders, which are holding them back from moving towards economic security".
The challenge of increasing agricultural yield
Smallholder farmers are persistently plagued by low productivity. The challenge, for them lies in accessing relevant information and the right agri-inputs, real-time pest and disease diagnosis – all of which have a direct impact on productivity.
Farmers usually rely on traditional methods of farming – inherited from their family or older members in the community. Many of these techniques are unscientific, unreliable, and often out of sync with newer and improved practices. Zoning in on this problem, Satyukt – a satellite data analytics startup- created Sat2Farm, an Android-based app that provides customised crop advisory based on real-time satellite and weather forecast data. Although India has more rural internet users, thanks to smartphone penetration and lower data costs, the organisation has also ensured that this information is made available through SMS.
On how the app addresses the roadblocks faced by smallholder farmers, Yukti Gill, the co-founder of Satyukt, said, "For a tech solution to be effective for smallholder farmers, it needs to be affordable, easy to use, and the information provided should be actionable. Sat2Farm ticks all the three boxes. In addition, these advisories are available for free in many vernacular languages for farmers to enable easy access.”
Reducing produce losses at the farm-gate
The gaps in the agricultural ecosystem don't end with a low yield. Industry data and statistics indicate that post-harvest losses can climb as high as 40 percent. This is due to the long distances between harvest and distribution points, lack of cold storage, and poor transportation, leading to high levels of wastage. Additionally, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns greatly impacted the logistics sector, reducing their access to rudimentary cold chain solutions.
At the heart of the matter is the lack of portability of cold chain solutions. "The centralised cold storages in India are a bit counter-intuitive to the requirements of marginal farmers, given that they are primarily designed for bulk, single-temperature and long-term warehousing of crops and mostly for potatoes,” says Shiv Sharma, the co-founder of Tan90, a startup that provides affordable, energy-efficient solutions for storage and transportation of perishables to smallholder farmers.
"The need of the hour is a decentralised infrastructure, through cold storages, solar dryers, and processing units. This can help decrease post-harvest losses and increase farmer income," he adds.
Through passive cooling technologies, a storage structure of up to 1500 litres capacity can be used to house fruits and vegetables at different temperatures. These storage units are coupled with a freezer that runs on grid and solar energy, which keeps the cost of the project at just Rs 1 lakh for a storage capacity of one tonne.
A transparent supply chain to incentivise all stakeholders, including customers
A decentralised infrastructure can also help farmers move their produce from the farm to the shelf of a supermarket. This is important to the customers who value food traceability, where information of all the steps that the food has taken from its origin, through the supply chain, to the plate is available. Corporates and customers are, in fact, willing to pay a premium for good quality organic products whose origins can be easily traced.
However, this is hampered by the fact that most farmers rely on selling their produce at mandis. When pandemic struck, the mandis became inoperable, resulting in the disruption of the supply chain. No wonder, huge amounts of produce could not reach the customer. Trace X, an agritech startup, identified that farm digitisation, traceability, and connected supply chains are essential for cutting down on wastage and improving market linkages and the quality of the produce. Their idea is to create a credible network of farmers, FPOs, processors, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers who would transact for goods and services. This platform will be built based on blockchain architecture, giving buyers full visibility of the produce and its quality, thereby incentivising all participants in the supply chain.
Income diversification by taking up allied activities
For small farm holders, income from cultivation isn't enough to sustain their families and livelihoods. There is also the need to supplement their income through the allied agricultural sector, which includes livestock, goat-rearing, or fisheries. This is the core of the Lakhpati Kisan initiative, which strives to improve the lives of families in the tribal belts of Central India by providing a variety of life choices.
However, the allied sector in India as a whole 'hasn't seen sustained innovation, especially in nutrition, market linkage and animal health.
"With over 535 million livestock, largely owned by marginal farmers, the sector has been a large source of cash income to these people," says Sanjeev Kumar, Founder, Pashu Bajaar, a Lucknow-based startup.
The trade of livestock products often depends on processes that are largely informal, inefficient, and archaic. Neelkanth Mishra, Founder & CEO, Jaljeevika, another startup working on innovations in the allied sector with a focus on aquaculture, echoes similar sentiments. In the fisheries sector, farmers need more hand-holding by experts. Unfortunately, only a handful of colleges offer such courses, thus limiting the availability of qualified professionals. Furthermore, the infrastructure (cold chains and technological facilities) is located around the marine areas, while the freshwater regions remain untapped and underdeveloped.
Both Pashu Bajaar and Jaljeevika are working towards addressing these gaps in the allied sector. 'Pashu Bajaar's focus is on partnering with livestock farmers to build a supply chain that links village and cluster level livestock centres for bulk marketing. Jaljeevika is working with small, marginalised farming communities to create a culture of micro-entrepreneurship across the fisheries value chain. They have also developed an IoT sensor-based water quality measurement toolkit to provide location-specific aquaculture advisory to farmers. Innovations like these can provide new sustainable and diversified sources of household income to smallholder farmers.
Cisco – powering an inclusive future for all
As agritech startups like Satyukt, TraceX, Tan90, Jaljeevika and Pashu Bajaar step up to provide innovative solutions to India's smallholder farmers, they require collaborations with ecosystem partners to power these solutions. These startups are backed by Cisco India CSR and Social Alpha's scale-up accelerator programme, Krishi Mangal.
Speaking about how these technology-led innovations can help the farming community in India, Mr. Harish Krishnan, Managing Director & Chief Policy Officer, Cisco India & SAARC shared, "At Cisco, our vision is to power an inclusive future for all. From IoT sensors for soil quality, weather mapping patterns, water level disparities to stock management, the impact of technology can be transformational for those who need it the most, thus elevating living standards and fostering economic development. The startup ecosystem has the ability and the drive to innovate and play an essential role in solving some of the biggest challenges in the sector."
To empower these organisations and smallholder farmers, Cisco has provided remote sensors and data analytics tools to optimise the agricultural supply chain. Additionally, Artificial Intelligence tools can help optimise irrigation plans. When combined with Machine Learning, farmers can then assess crop details and water levels and estimate crop yields, empowering them to make insight-driven decisions with confidence.
Furthermore, tools like these can equip farmers with accurate, scientific data to handle demand-supply irregularities, help reduce wastage and create better incomes for some of 'India's most vulnerable farming communities.
A similar drive motivates 'CInI's Executive Director, Ganesh Neelam. "The emphasis on technology adoption for smallholders needs the agritech enterprises to engage and work hand in hand with them, along with building the local micro-entrepreneurs to deliver the tech to all the farmers in a systematic manner. Timely delivery of quality and affordable technology is the key for the smallholder to flourish, which will also build business for the agritech social enterprises," he says.