Tech boom in India’s rural heartland helps farmers connect better with markets amid pandemic

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In the middle of one of India’s worst COVID-affected states Maharashtra, farmer Atul Takte turns to his dusty smartphone for help every time he wants to buy farm inputs or sell his produce online.

“This is great. I can even get the latest information on how best to grow papayas,” he says, referring to an online platform called BigHaat.

Until about a couple of years ago, such transactions would have been near impossible for farmers who have to deal with middlemen regularly skimming away their profits.

Only a few pockets of rural India currently have access to such technology, but a start has been made. And a nimble set of technology entrepreneurs, who have woken up to the rural potential, are ushering in these changes. With the pandemic rewriting rules, a transformation appears underway.

The country’s technological boom has largely bypassed the vast majority of India that live in rural areas and it shows as despite having one of the highest cultivable areas, crop yields rank among the world’s lowest.

New Tech Landscape

“While most of the sectors of the economy are down due to Covid, agriculture appears to be relatively stable,” said Jinesh Shah, managing partner of venture capital fund Omnivore that finances agritech startups, adding that entrepreneurs wanted to help and figure out how best to optimise the food chain. 

He said the need for technological solutions for farmers became evident when groups of them landed in consumption centres like Delhi and Mumbai to sell their produce, somehow dodging past police barriers erected during the recent nationwide lockdown.

Realizing the challenges facing farmers in buying inputs or selling their harvest, Shashank Kumar, who earlier worked in FMCG companies, decided to set up  an agritech firm called Dehaat to provide business solutions. 

Under a one-stop shop, he connected manufacturers of goods like tractors and fertilizers to farmers through an electronic platform.

“The whole hypothesis is to connect farmers to agri business for their complete agriculture requirement. They get access to a wide range of pesticides, fertilizers and seeds at the right time,” said Kumar, adding that they even provided crop management services.

Currently working with around 240,000 farmers in mainly eastern states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, the company plans to have a network of 10 million farmers by 2025.

Through a network of 22 regional warehouses, the company is also now building up a platform for farmers to sell their produce at collection centres and through a fleet of vehicles.

“We have built an ecosystem that whichever crop farmers grow they find value. The end goal is to provide everything to farmers under one roof,” Kumar says.

With the onset of the pandemic, the company’s daily purchase of farm produce has nearly doubled and crop advisory calls from farmers have risen by around 60%.

In the outskirts of Bihar’s state capital Patna, farmer Ratnesh Kumar, a resident of Wazidpur Kartar, calls upon Dehaat to pick up his produce of corns, grains and vegetables from the farm gate.

“They pay us digitally and the money is reflected in my account the next day,” he says, adding he would not have been able to manage otherwise currently.

Other tech entrepreneurs too are trying to tap different segments of the rural economy.

Sachin Nandwana and his colleague Sateesh Nukala, on an assignment with Honeywell to meet farmers, were shocked to learn that they lacked even basic information for their crops.

That gave rise to BigHaat, an agritech company.

“We realised that there is no real time data available to farmers. Only technology could have solved the problem as the marketplace is highly fragmented for agriculture,” Nandwana said.

Initially, they focused on the more educated farmers who own a smartphone to access their services online and then gradually scaled up their services to provide inputs to those who gave a missed call. Farmers can also lodge their individual complaints on a website set up by the company, which are resolved through follow ups.

Some 20 million farmers have visited their network across India, while half a million have availed of services. They plan to scale up further as soon as they get more funding.

 Eye on Innovation  

The use of technology is now expanding beyond basic tools like transparent pricing. Nandwana and his colleagues are offering services of traceability to a multitude of companies who use farm products, which enables them to zero in on which fields and farmers are supplying them crops.

Demand for such services is expected to grow in coming months amid growing consciousness about sanitation due to the Covid pandemic. When a group of grape farmers in Maharashtra’s Nashik wanted to incorporate such traceability for exports to Europe, another agritech firm Cropin came to their rescue by providing them the technology.

Krishna Kumar, founder and CEO of Cropin, said that using artificial intelligence and a historical database built over three to four years, they were now equipping farmers to predict what disease might attack their crops during a particular season.

While their crop management services are free for farmers, Cropin charges client companies who depend on supply of farm products.

“Our business has grown by 3X annually in the last three years,” said Kumar, adding that the Bangalore-based company is currently offering its service in 27 Indian states and 52 countries globally.

With a multitude of companies now homing in on the rural sector, innovation in niche segments appears to be the name of the game. After setting up an agritech firm called Destaglobal for providing farm inputs, Sidharth Choudhary found another company called Helicrofter, expanding on the same business model. 

He is now in the process of tying up with entrepreneurs who own vehicles to help out with last minute delivery of farm products — a service for which there is a shortage in rural India.  

Other tech entrepreneurs are finding their own unique niches. When her family-owned business of trucks and buses led to a request from a friend for machinery for the rural sector, Devi Murthy found a company called Kamal Kisan.

“Once I started developing Kamal Kisan, I realized that there is a large gap in commercial machines needed for farmers. We have been working on a farm process where we know that too much labour is not available,” she said.

Most of her tools are for fruits and vegetables. With the pandemic expected to create a shortage of workers, she believes that business is likely to improve in coming months.

While farmers are still getting used to buying their machinery online without visiting shops, Murthy feels that in the current environment it’s only a matter of time before they embrace the new technology environment.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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