When the Ashok Dalwai Committee on Doubling of Farmers' Income sat down to finalise its report on the role of extension services in increasing farm incomes 18 months ago, it faced a technical problem. It found that the definition of "agricultural extension" was outdated - it was "too production-centric", prepared during the days India was struggling for self-sufficiency in foodgrains, particularly cereals. It decided to redefine "agricultural extension" as "an empowering system of sharing information, knowledge, technology, skills, risk and farm management practices, across agricultural subsectors and along all aspects of the agricultural supply chain, so as to enable the farmers to realise higher net income from their enterprise on a sustainable basis". The definition, the committee said, brings into focus the all-important issue of farmers' empowerment through information, knowledge and skilling. The committee, predictably, recommended a bigger role for private sector players. The focus is on using information, knowledge and skilling to empower farmers, something that a clutch of start-ups from various parts of the country - Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka - are already working on.
"If there is one area where the Indian farmer can mostly be in control, it is sowing (and subsequent stages of cultivation). If the farmer does the right thing, he can produce the best out of his land, unlike the final price of the produce, which is not in his hands," says Tauseef Khan, Co-founder and CEO of Indore-based agritech start-up Gramophone. His focus is "crop advisory and supply of quality inputs". Khan, a qualified agriculture engineer, says the relevant farm-specific information around Gramophone's service is helping farmers increase productivity by 15-30 per cent and reduce costs. "We help farmers improve productivity by working with them and supplying inputs. We have built a knowledge repository around agronomy and automated that. So, farmers get a personalised advisory at their plot level. Doorstep delivery of agri inputs (seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, agri hardware) is also part of the package," he says. Gramophone also helps farmers identify the problems, suggests the most suitable solution or product and supplies it from genuine sources. "We can work anywhere in the country on any crop. For every crop, we have parameters such as the soil it grows on, the region where it grows, the weather condition needed at different stages, etc. We have defined pest and disease problems also. This is the backend work that adds value," he says.
Gramophone has a toll-free number, and also works on a smart phone app. "You give a missed call, we call back, ask for details, and slice down all the problems into solutions. This is the dosage, this is the mix, this is the product? over 2.5 lakh people, mostly from Madhya Pradesh, have got in touch with us in the last 12-18 months," he says. Gramophone handles about 40 crops such as soyabean, cotton, chilli, vegetables and wheat.
Fasal, a Bengaluru-based start-up, also provides crop advisory services, but mostly to horticulture farmers. But unlike Gramophone, it does not make money by selling inputs. Fasal's advisory is mostly around the microclimate within the farm. "We found that advisory services, especially related to weather, were mostly generic in nature. The microclimate inside a farm could be different from the one mentioned in the general climate advisories that you get. The result is that a generic advisory a farmer gets today, like a rainfall prediction covering a 35 km x 35 km block, may not be accurate," says Shailendra Tiwari, Co-founder, Fasal. "We get all farm-level data in terms of temperature, pressure, and moisture, above the soil, below the soil, by using a sensor at the farm level. It addresses critical issues in agriculture. We produce irrigation recommendation for specific farm and crop needs. It optimises irrigation," he explains. Tiwari calls his product an actionable intelligence platform that is farm-specific, crop-specific, in a language that farmers understand, on a medium that is available with the farmer (SMS or app). "We produce farm-level, crop-specific, irrigation recommendation, pest recommendation, disease recommendation. We also try to provide operational recommendations on a daily basis." Depending on the size of the plot, this service is offered on a monthly subscription basis after the farmer pays for the sensor. "Fasal is at present tracking 3,000 hectares spread over 60-70 farms.
Catering to Credit
Over a year ago, BT featured farMart, a Lucknow-based start-up. Today, farMart is an agri-fintech platform which also offers agri-machinery hiring as a service. "The shift in focus was a result of the realisation that farmers are heavily dependent on credit and need more leeway in repayment," says Alekh Sanghera, Co-founder and CEO of farMart. "We offer something like a virtual credit card using which the farmers can buy different inputs based on their credit limit from offline retail channel partners. We partner with financial institutions on one end, and on the other side, we underwrite customers. So, we do the match-making, and our service providers, the retailers, become the pickup points for our services," says Sanghera. In the last two seasons, farMart has been instrumental in disbursing about 4,000 loans of about Rs 3.5 crore value to farmers in four districts around Lucknow. "We provide end-to-end services in terms of customer on-boarding, including KYC, loan disbursement, tracking and risk mitigation, through our platform. That is the technology we have built. Repayment is not monthly but at the end of the crop season. We are in the process of bundling a microinsurance product into this," he says.
Mumbai-based Jai Kisan is another rural fintech platform. Arjun Ahluwalia, Co-founder and CEO, Jai Kisan, says his aim is to help India's rural population build credit history and show suppliers of capital (lenders) that they are an asset class and not living on doles. "The entire world today is running after the next billion users of India and they don't live in urban India but in rural India. So, our effort is to build a good credit-quality product. We are doing farm equipment loans and all types of loans that are backed by pre-purchase agreements. The technology play comes in on-boarding the farmer within 30 minutes instead of the three months that a lender takes today," says Ahluwalia. In the first three months of the current financial year, 1,520 loan applications worth Rs 4.4 crore were sanctioned through the Jai Kisan platform.
There are dozens of other firms in this space but given the low scale at which these companies operate, there is enough space for hundreds of such entrepreneurs to provide tech-based solutions to each of Indian farmer's pre-harvesting problems. With 85 per cent of Indian farms having a size of one hectare and less, such services can only be provided by an enterprising breed of private entrepreneurs. India seems to be luring more of them with tech-driven ideas.