Defining India's Agtech Buzz
Use of digital technology for creating hyperlocal solutions and value-added services for agriculture is no longer just a blip on the radar of startups. It is an area that is fast gaining traction with tech companies, digital entrepreneurs and startups investing money and lining up some of their brightest minds toward expanding their footprints.
The Digital India Campaign — launched four years ago when the current government took power and initiated flagship announcements for making India a leading digital economy — has spawned a number of digital startups in a wide range of sectors, including what is called #agtech.
Use of technology in India’s agriculture sector has been an integral part of its story of food self-sufficiency and green revolution. The state-run satellite imagery, weather forecasts, soil and crop advisories and agriculture extension using state television and audio broadcast were some of the highlights of science and technology-driven agricultural policy for several decades.
So, it is only logical to ask what is different about the current buzz around digital agriculture.
Customization and localization
The current phase is driven by customization of solutions: aggregation of data and information, product development and market linkages. Though the solutions developed are in most cases built around focused needs, with limited tweaking and aggregation they can be replicated and quickly scaled-up. The unit of design or user could be just one farmer, but an entire community is catered to through the proliferation of solutions. With each successive pilot and test, the platforms get more responsive to context and the customizations needed to make them successful for the farmers.
Communication for adoption
Another aspect of the emerging digital agriculture landscape is the use of communication and behavior change marketing framework. Since the early days of science-based agricultural policy making, the challenge of empowering farmers to understand and use these services has been a formidable one. Today an increasing number of digital agriculture solutions are being built around the idea of user engagement. The use of application and platforms and feeding information are driven by direct interface with farmers or communities. This makes it essential that there are elements of training and capacity building through learning by use and peer-to-peer engagement.
Mobile devices and accessible platforms
In the current phase, the digital tools and applications or simply the products being developed are far more accessible in terms of technology, content format and user experience. An explosion of mobile usage has been the gamechanger for solution providers and the end users. You just have to picture the early days of farmers huddled around radios, or much later televisions, beaming state-run agriculture advisory or information packages. It was a crucial service but it was restrictive in terms of individual customization. It lacked interactivity and real-time solutions. It is a whole different ball game now, and that is a fundamental part of the digital agriculture revolution in the making.
Convergence of stakeholders: public and private
It is all very exciting for entrepreneurs, companies, tech evangelists and civil society organizations. But what does it mean for a smallholder farmer?
For the start-ups and investors, the small-holder farmer eventually is a buyer who sees economic gains or value in using the services and products being offered. Being a small-holder farmer in India today is fraught with difficulties and tremendous odds ranging from crop failures to extreme weather. India ranks tragically high on distress suicide by farmers.
For digital agriculture solutions to become scalable and profitable for smallholder farmers in India, there is a need to follow a multi-stakeholder framework with a robust ecosystem approach that is not just driven by tech but augmented by awareness, user journey support, massive state investment and convergence of schemes, especially doubling the farmers’ income initiative.
A standalone approach will not be enough, and a realization around this is apparent in the ongoing discussions around scale and profitability. The ecosystem approach would need to go beyond the regular user and product development linkage and look at community involvement and market linkage. The private sector cannot be expected to invest beyond a point in aspects like awareness, piloting, capacity building and research. The state and corporate social responsibility sector will have to approach some of the enabling aspects with a social lens while companies and entrepreneurs work on leveraging the business aspects.