Currently, Food and agriculture represents a large untapped sector for the Ag Tech Start-ups to disrupt it. While this trend started a decade ago in India, it’s only in the last couple of years that we have seen reasonable sized investments and an uptick in the volume of Ag-Tech Start-ups
Given that India is a global agricultural powerhouse, our Ag Tech investments are negligible – with cumulative capital flows up to 2019 being $1.9 billion ($657.5 million in 2019, 6.6% of the global investments – as estimated by Think Ag). Even here, data indicates that early stage start-ups are often not getting funded with most of the money flowing into previously funded and mature companies.
A majority of the Ag Tech investments have been for building “marketplaces” and branding to support direct consumer access and organic produce. Very little investment has percolated down to areas like Agri Biotech or food alternates.
Regardless, this is an appropriate time to be an Ag-Tech entrepreneur. Having a deep understanding and precise articulation of the problem area is a natural prerequisite. A word of caution – we need to specifically focus on the small or marginal farmer while designing solutions to enhance farmer profitability, resilience and agricultural sustainability – e.g.: raising farm yields; securing better prices; access to low cost, micro-sized loans; risk management solutions, solutions for weather impact on commodities, augmenting income and profitability, reducing natural resource consumption and reducing wastage and food spoilage.
Below are some problem areas to fix in agriculture and enable India’s 5 Trillion $ economy.
1) Sustainable Agriculture:
- Reduce water consumption. Indian Agri uses ~90% of India’s freshwater, which is unsustainable given global warming. Focus on automated Micro Irrigation, Fertigation.
- Avoid wastage of produce. Currently worth Rs 92,000 Crores (~ $ 13 Billion) of which 2/3rd was fruits & vegetables (45%) and cereals (23%).
- Reduce pesticide residue. This precludes Indian produce to be exported to high-value western markets and as a result India remains a marginal 2% of global Agri trade.
2) Farm mechanisation and automation. Even though half of India’s workforce is dependent on agriculture, there is a huge labour shortage brewing leading to farmers skipping crop cycles. Need efficient crop planning to ensure 3 crops annually. Also, men have migrated to the cities in large numbers, leading to a rapid feminisation of Indian farming hence women friendly farming automation is needed.
3) Agri Biotech and Foods Alternates: Farm yields in India across most commodities are significantly lower than global averages. Hence, we need a strong presence of Ag Techs in areas like:
- Agri Biotech (innovative agrochemicals, biological products, hybrid seeds, biofortification etc.)
- Foods alternates (bio-tech applied to food technology, plant-based proteins, etc.)
- Biofortification, Plant Genomics, etc.
Since most of the ~500 Agri Tech start-ups were led by “techie” founders with inadequate Agri experience or education, there was a surfeit of business models replicated from other sectors like retail. One suggestion was to encourage Agri University graduates to become entrepreneurs by collaborating with deep tech co-founders.
4) Financial resiliency for the Small & Marginal Farmer (SMF): Almost half of our 120 Million farmers are “financially excluded” – due to lack of proper land records or other collateral, hence unable to get small sized credit of 50,000 to 90,000 Rupees for just-in-time fertilizer, pesticides, seeds etc.
Explore options that improves access to innovative finance / risk management and overcomes reluctance of formal institutions to provide credit to SMF – e.g. farm risk profiling based on farm-level data, lower lending costs by exploring peer to peer models, defray capital expense through “uberisation” models for farm mechanization.
5) Precision Agriculture: Most Indian farmers depend on their gut instinct when making critical decisions. Precision agriculture techniques remove the guesswork by leveraging:
- Drones / UAV (e.g. real-time monitoring of farms enabling mapping, surveying, 3D modelling)
- Satellites and remote sensing (e.g. providing direct farmer advisory on yield estimation, early pest warning etc )
- Robotics (e.g. nutrient injection, harvesting, high precision weed removal)
- Automated Material Handling (e.g. harvesting equipment, grain/food processors)
- Farm sensors and management (for soil moisture, water and nutrient injection)
- Mobile cameras (e.g. for identifying pest, nutrient deficiencies)
Precision agriculture tools have a strong potential to transform Indian agriculture – raising yields, increasing profitability, optimising resources and environmental sustenance. Large landholders would pioneer this and the adoption will then slowly spread into the rest.
6) Integrated, Agricultural data interoperability:
The availability of Agri Data-sets from multiple sources (government, enterprises, start-ups), in an integrated manner is essential to allow composite decision making – across Govt, public research organisations and private sector. Multi-year information, aggregated from the subacre local farm level up to taluk / district / state / national levels will greatly assist evidence based tactical decision making as well as strategic policy intervention and a holistic and integrated approach to Agriculture in India.
This kind of domain and application integration, requires seamless data interoperability across the Agri eco-system. Currently there is a vacuum with respect to Agri Data standardization, calibration and certification. Disaggregated and non-standardized data is deemed un-trustworthy and rendered ineffective for further processing. Standardization will help improve “data-trust” furthering automation using AI models.
While there are several well understood challenges faced by Agriculture in India – there is also a rapid growth and availability of innovative solutions as well as a willingness to confront these challenges holistically – to make Indian Agriculture sustainable, profitable and resilient.
In several countries, resultant to the adoption of new and innovative technology, there is a resurgence in the positive perception of Agriculture as a career domain. While we are far from that in India, technology-driven innovation is very key for growing Indian agriculture and the broader economy. On a note of optimism – there is sufficient investment available along with active mentoring and support from the Agri eco-system including the Govt. – provided we are building truly innovative and world-class solutions.
The author is Nipun Mehrotra, Founder, The Agri Collaboratory (Former IBM Chief Digital Officer IS/A)