The COVID Push for Digitization of Agriculture is Here to Stay: Rajesh Aggarwal, MD, Insecticide India Ltd

One of the biggest discoveries of our times, the internet is one of the main catalysts of continuing life as we know it despite the pandemic. That is true for agriculture as well, a sector that is labour-intensive and requires a great deal of in-person communication. Despite the push in the past decade, digitization of agriculture has been slow. With COVID-19, it has changed, and for good. Both government and private players have been proactive in reaching out to the farmers with digital interventions to address their queries and concerns, as well as connect them to the market where their produce can fetch right prices.  

Contrary to what some may think, digital is the future for all aspects of agriculture as well – right from simple digital measures such as video-conferencing and teleconsultation to high-end emerging technologies (ET) such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT), Indian agriculture has it all. Market studies suggest that even after the pandemic retreats, the global digital agriculture market is likely to grow from USD 5.6 billion in 2020 to USD 6.2 billion by 2021, recording a CAGR of 9.9 per cent.1 As a hotbed of digital interventions and prime minister’s push for a digital India, the country is poised to be a part of this revolutionary growth.  

What happened due to COVID-19? 

In the thick of kharif season, the government, facilitated by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), set up holistic digital agri advisory services.2 They collaborated with Common Service Centres (CSC) under the ministry of electronics and IT to take the 2019 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to connect the KVKs to a large network of Common Service Centres (CSCs)3 a step ahead, and provide both technical support and advice to farmers in more than 2.15 lakh out of 2.50 lakh panchayats across India, enrolling thousands of farmers. It has expanded the role of CSCs in an unprecedented manner – they have become agri clinics where using video conferencing, farmers can consult ICAR scientists on soil, seeds, crops, fertilisers and farm practices matters. These centres also allowed them to share photos of pests or other infections in the crop with the scientists for advice on action. As many as 628 KVKs were equipped for the digital advisory services through video conferences since the pandemic began. Another initiative termed Kisan e-Mart, initiated as a pilot piloted in Maharashtra (Nashik, Solapur, Pune, Jalna and Satara districts) and Bihar (Vaishali, Muzaffarpur and Patna districts) connected farmers digitally with markets and buyers with verified KYC through that CSC’s village-level entrepreneurs (VLE). These VLEs are the main drivers of the e-mart as they add the stock for sale and quote a minimum price.  

Emerging technologies and the challenges ahead 

The use of technology is as expansive as human imagination. No wonder tech giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Cisco have forayed into the agriculture market. They have collaborated with states such as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh to initiate pilots across the agriculture value chain. Microsoft has initiated a project in Andhra Pradesh that uses AI-powered sowing app to recommend farmers on date, how to prepare the land and use fertiliser based on soil test, seed treatment, and similar basic but critical inputs, leading to an increase of 30 per cent in average crop yield per hectare. The company is building an AI- and machine learning-powered pest risk prediction app as well. Kerala has also partnered with Cisco to develop the agri-digital infrastructure platform that uses IoT sensors, satellite/UAV images and non-IoT databases, to gather and disseminate real-time intelligence on soil, moisture, weather conditions, among other things. It also provides access to e-learning and advisory services to farming and fishing communities. Many agri startups are using IBM Watson and technologies like remote sensing, IoT, hyper-spectral imaging and 3D laser scanning.4  

One of the biggest challenges in this digital revolution is the limited internet access of farmers at an individual level. This makes farmers tied up with the facilities, either government or private, where they can access such information and not at a location where they wish to get it. While richer farmers may already have access to such information as they wish due to their access to smartphones, smaller and marginal farmers will continue to remain at loss, unless steps are taken to address this digital divide that may further fragment the agri market.  

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