How Agri Businesses Are Embracing Digital Technology

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Adoption of digital technologies in agriculture has been increasing at a rapid pace. Precision agriculture technologies are changing the way farmers manage their crops, and these are being adopted at a growing rate.

Technology in agriculture, also known as ag-tech, has rapidly changed the industry. People in the industry—farmers, food producers, etc—must embrace the digital transformation trends in agriculture. By using technology as a sustainable and scalable resource, we can take agriculture to new heights. The Internet of Things (IoT) is simplifying and streamlining the collection, inspection and overall distribution of agricultural resources using sensors on equipment and materials.

Robotics within agriculture can improve productivity and result in higher and faster yields. Drones used for spraying and weeding can reduce agro-chemical use incredibly. The most innovative piece of digital transformation is the ability to use machine learning and advanced analytics to mine data for trends. This can start way before planting seeds using plant breeders.

Machine learning can predict which traits and genes will be best for crop production, giving farmers all over the world the best breed based on their location and climate. The time has now come when we need to move with a sense of urgency to apply these new tools to accelerate agricultural development.

Devan Chandrasekharan is chief technology officer at Rovonize Systems
Devan Chandrasekharan is chief technology officer at Rovonize Systems (Credit: https://pbs.twimg.com)

The world’s growing population, both in developed and developing nations, will increase the demand for fairly-produced, preservative-free and sustainable food. This change will impact the global demand and security. In India, farmers are neither equipped with latest technologies nor are they trained to adopt these fast. Digital farming is slowly entering Indian farms to assist farmers in better decision-making.

Digital technology holds tremendous potential to transform the Indian agricultural economy and impact the lives of Indian farmers. Major challenges confronting Indian agriculture include unsustainable usage of resources, declining farm productivity, rapidly growing demand for high-quality and safe food, stagnating farm incomes and fragmented land holdings. These can be overcome through sustainable and scalable deployment of digital technologies and infrastructures.

Digitalisation of agri-business, which involves leveraging massive amounts of data from agricultural equipment, soil, weather, seeds and chemicals, using modern computer science to automate agriculture, is playing a key role in meeting global food demand. Indian ag-tech startups—nearly 500 of them—in the hunt for sustainable farming solutions for a rapidly-rising population are changing the face of agriculture.

With the global smart farming market set to grow at a CAGR of 20.27 per cent to reach US$ 25 billion by 2021, India is at the threshold as it is home to one-fifth of the global small-hold farmers. Numerous farm-level applications of digital technology, including remote sensing, geographic information system (GIS), crop and soil health monitoring, and livestock and farm management, have been making their mark.

At the pre-harvest level, digital technology can recommend crop and input selection, and assist in obtaining credit and insurance, weather advisories, and disease- and pest-related assistance through data generation. Advanced analytics allow farmers to make smart decisions about farming and benefit from economical use of inputs and labour.

However, farmers are always challenged to grow more while coping with volatile weather conditions to meet the rising demand for food of higher quality. This demand for improving efficiency on inputs and outputs, and various technologies has led to improved efficiency. The Indian agri-business sector stands to greatly benefit from the numerous innovative digital technologies across farm, post farm, processing, market and logistics stages that have emerged in the recent past. This article highlights some of the key digital technologies that can truly transform India’s agri-business sector.

Biosciences

To increase yields and reduce costs, farmers are using a wide variety of new bioscience technologies and optimising inputs for agricultural production. A Bengaluru-based startup has developed a product in the bio-stimulant segment to provide growers with a reliable solution to improve crop quality and productivity. Providing inputs to farmers on crop and soil management during the cropping cycle has led to remarkable results in Madhya Pradesh, achieving increased yields of forty per cent for garlic.

Farm optimisation and monitoring services

The IoT, Big Data, cloud and mobility are increasingly being leveraged to improve farm output. A number of service providers on the farming-as-a-service (FaaS) model are leveraging digital technology to provide innovative farm-to-fork solutions to farmers and agri-businesses.

Precision agriculture

It is being adopted by farmers to optimise their use of resources, be it water or fertilisers, to bring efficiency to the farms in terms of cost, yield and more. Further, precision agriculture supports decision-making in irrigation, crop management, water optimisation and the like.

Precision agriculture technologies, ranging from robots, sensors, drones, satellite imagery, Big Data and the IoT, among others, are being employed in various stages of agriculture, from environment analysis, irrigated landscape mapping, soil analysis to crop health analysis. These technologies bring in reliable quality data that help in timely crop damage assessment, crop planning, diversification and contingency planning. Given below are a few examples of technologies being used in precision agriculture.

  • Weather forecasting and monitoring is being applied to provide high levels of accuracy in short, medium and long terms.
  • Numerous innovations with solar-powered phase-change-enabled materials are being used for irrigation and cold storage, with the aim of catering to small-holder farms and regions with limited or no electricity.
  • Eco-friendly crop-protection methods have the potential to minimise a significant proportion of the damage caused by pests and diseases without overdosing crops and plants with chemicals, thus preventing soil and water contamination.
  • Sensors that can provide farmers with information about crop yields, rainfall, pest infestation and soil nutrition are being used. These are invaluable for production and offer precise data that can be used to improve farming techniques over time.
  • The IoT is being applied to sensors that can detect soil moisture, crop growth and livestock feed levels, to remotely manage and control smart connected harvesters and irrigation equipment. It is also being applied to utilise artificial intelligence (Al)-based analytics to quickly analyse operational data combined with such third-party information as weather information to provide new insights. This is helping in decision-making in terms of crop selection, crop outputs, etc.
  • Drones are helping farmers scan fields, monitor crops, seeding and analyse plant health, among others. Drones with advanced sensors and image-processing capabilities can capture highly accurate images of the fields, and expose everything from irrigation problems and soil variation to pest and fungal infestations by seeing crops from the air.
Traditional method (left) versus drone application
Traditional method (left) versus drone application (right)

Drones are also being used to spray micronutrients on crops while being careful not to penetrate groundwater. Recent studies have shown that drones can increase the speed of spraying by five times compared to other types of machinery.

India has recently unveiled its Drone Regulation policy. These guidelines will foster technology and innovation in the development of drones that have an extensive range of applications ranging from disaster relief to agriculture. A Kerala-based company and a leading drone manufacturing company in south India are working together with Kerala government on a precision agriculture project to monitor farms and crop health using drones.

Data-enabled agriculture combines application of sensor connectivity, drone, drone storage and aggregation, optimisation hardware, software platforms, Big Data analytics and the IoT, converting traditional farming into smart farming.

The Indian government is serious about leveraging new-era digital technologies for agriculture. In May 2019, NITI Aayog, the government’s main think-tank, signed an agreement with one of the big software firms to develop a model for crop yield predictions using AI so that farmers can be provided real-time advisories.

The number of people who will be using the Internet by 2020 is expected to be 700 million. This would be the inflection point for the ag-tech market in India. Agriculture startups can unleash umpteen opportunities to strengthen the supply chain in agriculture.

Common barriers to the commercialisation and scaling up of technology are access to finance, cash flow management, gaps in technology infrastructure, limited access to institutionalised farmer networks and others. For innovation and entrepreneurship to be effective in transforming agriculture in India, it is important to address these issues and create an enabling environment.

Summary

Uptake of technologies at market prices in a sector that has traditionally been heavily subsidised remains challenging, but farmers are prompt to identify what works in their interest and are ready to pay for it. Digital technologies offer the potential to achieve necessary conditions for scale, with distributed low-cost and customised delivery, thus attracting private investments in agri-innovation.

The challenge before India lies in balancing high growth with inclusive growth in agriculture, which can be achieved by an effective policy framework, innovative financing and enabling a technology ecosystem, which can empower Indian farmers and make agriculture sustainable.


 

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