The Future Of Farming

Information and communication technologies may just usher in the second green revolution in India.
 Sarika Malhotra        Print Edition: August 30, 2015
Video production of women farmers sowing paddy seedlings at Thane district in Maharashtra.
Harnessing technology: Video production of women farmers sowing paddy seedlings at Thane district in Maharashtra. The MSSRF and Digital Green initiative records best farm practices to spread the use of clean technologies (Photo: Rachit Goswami)

Kishor Jagtap, Project Manager at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), is working on a novel initiative in rural Maharashtra. His team is working with Digital Green, an international non-profit development organisation, to spread the use of clean technologies among women farmers in the Wardha and Yavatmal districts of the state.

MSSRF rolled out the Digital Green model - video-based demonstration of the best farm practices - in 2013 across 30 villages in these two districts. Buoyed by the initial response, the outfit has scaled up the programme, reaching out to almost 3,300 women farmers in some 60 villages in the region. "There is a sense of identification. The fact that they can see women farmers like themselves being featured in these videos makes them believe that they too can adopt best practices and benefit from them," says Jagtap. "Also, these model farming techniques are shared very clearly, narrated through a story in a step-by-step manner in Marathi, which makes it easier for them to replicate on their farm."

Today, Digital Green reaches 7,645 villages across Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha and Bihar. It has already made and disseminated 3,782 videos. Rikin Gandhi, CEO, Digital Green, says that they essentially work with agencies already training farmers. "We then serve as a trainer of trainers to build the capacity of their field professionals and community-level intermediaries to produce and share locally produced videos. The communities are both creators and consumers of knowledge products such as digital videos."

Indeed, Digital Green's initiative is one among the several underway in India to promote low cost, sustainable and organic agricultural practices among farmers. All this is planned with the extensive use of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The efforts are geared towards decreasing the dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, while also reducing input cost and ensuring the farmers get more yield per acre of cultivation. "This also helps improve the quality of soil and dependence on water intensive chemical-based farming," says Gandhi.

Wardha and Yavatmal, for instance, are rainfed areas and the farmers grow cotton, soyabean, toor dal and chana. Farmers in the region are heavily dependent on rain and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Here, one of MSSRF's key focus has been on promoting sustainable agricultural practices, seed management, pest and nutrient management and other post harvest best practices. "Over time, farmers have started to understand the adverse impact of using excessive chemical fertilisers and pesticides on soil fertility and crop's harvest and nutrition, and have now started using alternatives such as organic compost etc.," says Jagtap. And the impact is visible. The cost of cultivation has gone down in the project area by 20 per cent. The input cost of soybean, traditionally around Rs 10,000 per acre, has now plunged to Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 per acre while for cotton it has gone down from Rs 12,000 to Rs 8,000-Rs 9,000 per acre. In addition, judicious use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has improved the water retention capacity of the soil. "This year, despite a long dry spell in the monsoon period, the crops have survived and are still standing," says Jagtap.

MULTIPLE CHALLENGES

Rajat Wahi, Partner, Management Consulting, KPMG, says that Indian agriculture is facing multiple challenges. "On one hand there is stagnant acreage and yields. In addition, water stress is taking a toll with per capita water availability likely to fall year on year," he says. "Also, unsustainable usage of inputs, especially inputs application skewed towards urea is leading to soil fatigue and lower yields". Soil nutrition depletion is becoming a cause of concern and "so the use of clean technology in the context of India's agriculture is becoming even more relevant," adds Wahi.

Clearly, experts believe the time has come for large-scale adoption of clean technologies. Such technologies can be both basic - such as drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting and natural pesticide use - to more sophisticated - such as precision agriculture and reprocessing technologies. Experts believe that no matter what the clean technology is, ICTs would play a pivotal role in disseminating them to more than 55 per cent of India's population which is dependent on agriculture.

"As ICT becomes more accessible to the farmer, with the penetration of mobile networks and through the Digital India initiative, the potential coverage and benefits are expected to become more significant for the agriculture sector," says Wahi. It is estimated that mobile and smartphone-enabled information services alone can reach up to 67 million farmers by 2020. It would result in an additional $8 billion revenue for these farmers and a reduction of water and fertiliser usage by up to 40 billion cubic metre and 1.5 million tonnes, respectively, according to industry estimates.

Farmers checking weather advisory on their phones at Rajawas village, Jaipur
Already, innovative companies are building solutions to improve small and marginal farmers' access to timely and relevant information. Mobile phones, with their growing penetration of rural India, are becoming the fastest and most cost effective way to disseminate clean technology. Leveraging the mobile platform is Ekgaon, a Delhi-based technology and management services company. The company, through its OneFarm advisory services, is reaching out to farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya, CEO of Ekgaon, explains that farmers have customised need for information based on the soil type, local ecosystem and crop. Small farmers do not have access to latest agro-technology and hence adopt farm practices which are usually not optimal, leading to soil depletion, excess use of fertilisers and water. "Agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers impact the soil health and affect ground water or water bodies. However, the risk of that can be reduced through timely farm advisory services which can reduce the use of fertilisers, pesticides while promoting a very rationalised and appropriate use of the same," says Aditya.

OneFarm advisory service is based on facilitating information on 'when I need' delivery model, thus hand-holding the farmers during the cropping season. A farmer is charged Rs 150 for a crop in a season and is provided services such as weather forecast, crop management, soil nutrient management, disease alert, and market prices in local languages on their mobile phones. The advisory is customised for every farmer. Interactivity is enabled in the system to monitor usage of advisory by the farmers - a farmer confirms using advice provided by sending an SMS. "Our impact studies show that the services have improved livelihoods of farmers by helping them reduce agri-input costs by up to 30 per cent and increase productivity by 15 per cent, thus cutting down on wastage at every step," says Aditya.

BETTING ON MOBILE APPS

With smartphone sales surging, mobile apps too are expected to playing a vital role in spreading awareness about clean technologies in agriculture. Karnataka-based Jayalaxmi Agrotech Pvt Ltd is developing apps to bridge the information gap among farmers. "Due to the information gap, farming has become 'input intensive' and 'less knowledge intensive'. Illiteracy and language diversity are major bottlenecks in information dissemination," says Anand Babu, co-founder of Jayalaxmi Agrotech.

The company has developed 30 mobile apps for agricultural crops (such as pomegranate, banana, potato, onion, etc.) and even for animal husbandry, and these apps are being used by 20,000 farmers since their launch last year. "Our applications are crops specific. Farmer can choose a crop of interest and download on the android phone either from Internet or from peer to peer transfers. This makes the app very light weight and hence can work on any basic android phone, says Babu. "These apps have audio visuals and are designed to break the literacy barrier. Once downloaded, they can work offline and hence there is no recurring data or Internet cost." While smartphone penetration is good in rural areas, Internet penetration is still quite low. Hence, they get very few downloads from Internet. Maximum downloads come from farmer to farmer transfers.

Once downloaded, the farmer gets information about the varieties of a crop, seasons to grow them in and the optimum quantities of fertiliser, water and pesticides to be used. Babu says that 90 per cent of farmers are not aware of fertiliser dose calculation procedure - it leads to erratic use of chemical fertilisers spoiling the soil fertility. "The app has inbuilt intuitive fertiliser dose calculator. It recommends the optimum use of fertilisers. It also helps farmers in measuring important elements such as sunlight, altitude, etc using their mobile." The apps also educate farmers on symptomatic diagnosis of crop diseases and managing pest emergence along with early precautions. As a result, overall usage of pesticides has come down.

According to a preliminary survey conducted by the company on app users, overall agri-input cost was pared by 14 per cent and productivity increased by 17 per cent. Indeed, superior quality of sugarcane has been reported by some of the sugar factories in North Karnataka region (where they have highest number of app users). "Our analytics platform tracks the farmer app usage patterns," says Babu.

Interestingly, these ICTs are also introducing farmers to new crops. They were not being grown earlier due to lack of information. For example, in Belgaum and Bagalkot districts of Karnataka farmers predominantly grew sugarcane but things are gradually changing with the growing popularity of the apps developed by Jayalaxmi Agrotech. "Despite friction between farmers and sugar factories, farmers were not able to switch to other crops due to lack of knowledge," says Babu. "Since we launched our agriculture apps, we have been noticing a gradual shift. Several farmers in two districts are not just downloading other crop apps but have also started growing them."

Jayalaxmi Agrotech's apps are reaching one new farmer every eight minute, according to Babu. Clearly no agri-extension programme can ever spread at this rate. No wonder then, experts believe that a second green revolution in India will be facilitated by ICTs and revolutionise Indian agriculture. Even in the case of precision agriculture, which uses modern technologies such as geolocation and remote sensing, ICTs will play a key role in disseminating best practices. "Karnataka State Agriculture and Horticulture Department has 10,000 plus field staff who are equipped with smart phones. If they include our agriculture mobile app dissemination as a part of their agri-extension programme, and even if each staff transfers the app to three farmers a day (through Bluetooth), 30,000 farmers across the state will become digitally literate every day. This will lead to the next green revolution," sums up Babu.

THE GOVT STEPS IN

The Indian government too is waking up to the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is keen to use them extensively to reach out to the nine crore farm families. It has, in partnership with the states, zeroed in on a host of ICTs to introduce clean technologies in rural India. These include Internet, touch screen kiosks, agriclinics, private kiosks, mass media, Kisan Call Centres, and integrated platforms in the departmental offices.

However, the government is most enthused by mobile telephony. With over 38 crore mobile telephone connections in rural India, officials believe it is the most effective medium to ensure the spread of clean technologies. It is trying to leverage mobile messaging in a big way. An SMS portal was launched in July 2013 and since its inception nearly 210 crore messages have been sent to farmers across the country.

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