In its twentieth year since its launch, FMCG-to-hotel conglomerate ITC's e-Choupal platform on agri engagement is seeing some early results from its newest version e-Choupal 4.0. The company has been at it since November 2015 by testing and deploying various prototypes of different components, although its full-fledged launch happened in August this year.
Speaking to Business Today, the head of Agri and IT businesses S Sivakumar, who is the brain behind ITC's e-Choupal initiative, says over the past three years in select pockets, this has already "delivered higher farmer incomes anywhere between 70 per cent and 300 per cent depending on the farm and its location, superior market intelligence for commodity sourcing leading to 5 per cent lower costs for ITC and creating new sources of revenue such as access fee for connecting companies to farmers". Now the focus will be on expanding this footprint over a larger geography over the next couple of years, he says.
Sivakumar describes e-Choupal 4.0 as a platform that is "more collaborative and integrated than ever before by leveraging new digital technologies. It is also about providing end-to-end and personalised services to the farmers, for example, real time information on weather and markets, on-farm diagnostics, continuous crop monitoring for building weather resilience, agronomic advisory for improving productivity and quality, farm inputs and financial products to make agriculture a viable enterprise, besides access to remunerative output markets". The platform, he says, enables plug and play possibilities for new agritech start-ups and conventional agri players alike to reach farmers across the length and breadth of the country.
E-Choupal, needs to be seen as a model, where we build the aircraft while we are flying it because it is an ongoing social experiment, he says.
While the central component across various versions of e-Choupal revolved around re-organising agriculture value chains to make it more efficient for its various stakeholders, the version 4.0 is largely about a digital network of ecosystems built by different players. Although the digital quotient was present earlier as well, its share has increased from 15 per cent to about 40 per cent now. The benefit of higher digital component lies in the much more real-time integration becoming possible and the delivery getting more precise and real time. "Earlier, generic solutions were delivered using technology in the context of weather forecast, agronomy advice and the technical support. The farmers, after discussions and meetings at the e-Choupal, used to devise their own personalised solutions; even those personalised solutions are getting delivered through technology".
Earlier, at a leadership conclave in Hyderabad, Sivakumar pointed out that despite various challenges in the agri space, there need not be room for pessimism. He was sharing his views on "leveraging technology for growth and profitability". He cited examples of various projects that ITC had undertaken as part of e-Choupal 4.0. He said: "we are currently working on a large scale pilot covering over 100,000 farmers trying to make about 900 villages as 'climate smart' in rain-fed parts of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. All of it using big data."
On 'precision farming using sensors' to measure exact soil moisture, Sivakumar averred that the real question is how many farmers can really afford sensors. "An experiment is going on in East and West Godavari in Andhra covering about 30,000 farmers. For every one farm where a sensor is embedded, 50 other farms are sensed through remote sensing and then looking at the mapping and the correlation to see how to amortise the cost over everybody who is participating to bring down the average cost for the farmer." While key to all of it is technology, Sivakumar says, it is only a single component. "There are other equally important elements as well such as the role of partnerships and the importance of trust."