The World Economic Forum (WEF), in partnership with the Government’s think-tank Niti Aayog, is focusing on putting emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain and drones, to better use to ensure they benefit farmers, particularly small and marginal.

According to Purushottam Kaushik, Head, Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR), WEF, India, the C4IR was set up three-and-a-half years ago to help core sectors such as agriculture, health, urban transformation, urban space and environment using the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

“We launched our initiative in the agriculture sector two years ago. Initially, our engagement was with the Telangana government using AI for agricultural innovation. Parallelly, we also started working with the Union Ministry of Agriculture to launch India digital ecosystem for agriculture (IDEA),” Kaushik told BusinessLine.

Major opportunities

These were the starting points for WEF and it subsequently began working with various States with the Agriculture Ministry trying to build various programmes around it. 

The World Economic Forum sees “three buckets of challenges” that need to be solved to improve the economy of small farmers. “We are working with the Agriculture Ministry and a few other States looking at major opportunities and challenges, and how to capture the opportunities in the short-and long-term. We are in discussions with the government on the programmes and on policy level,” the WEF Indian C4IR head said. 


On the “three buckets of challenge”, he said the first was one of inclusivity. “Small holding farmers have no credit history. Women farmers are challenged as they have no land holdings. Both are challenged by credit availability. They are forced to borrow at 10-15 per cent higher interest than what banks offer. The 35-40 per cent interest for the credit they avail of privately is not sustainable,” Kaushik said. WEF focuses on financial inclusion and insurance to meet this challenge as banks today face the biggest problem in providing loans. Therefore, the forum tries to ensure that remote sensing satellite for crop imagery is used to know the crop conditions and looks at various ways to cover the gap in funding, he said.   

“We look at drone data, weather data, soil health data, potential default or risks and build credit-related data with AI for better decision-making. We can help reduce the interest rate up to 10 per cent and intermediaries can still make money,” he said. 

Digital data can also be used to help farmers, who are unhappy with the settlement of insurance claims, through better analysis on the ground.

“There is $15-20 billion opportunity across agriculture given that 70 per cent of the farmers do not have access to finance and insurance,” Kaushik said. 

Sustainability, efficiency 

The second is solving the sustainability challenge. Farmers use excess fertiliser, pesticides, and draw excess water besides facing the challenges of floods. The WEF helps in looking at providing better technological services to improve sustainable farming and reduce costs.

The third is the efficiency challenge where farmers face post-harvest wastage of over 40 per cent. “The surplus produced by farmers does not give the revenue. It gets wasted. WEF looks at how to plug these leakages through market places. We try and provide a source of improved revenue through better markets, quality and traceability. We also help them overcome warehouse challenges,” the C4IR head said. 

For the marketplaces, WEF looks at the digital payment of inputs and sales data to know the cash flow, credit history and the market situation.  

Tackling issues  

WEF would want to put science and technology to better use in providing digital advisories. This will help in ensuring proper fertiliser and pesticide inputs. “For example, cotton farmers are struggling with higher pesticide usage. WEF initiative will help them give the right advice on which pesticide should be used at what time and the best method to use it,” the C4IR head said. 

Wadhwani Institute of AI has worked with 70,000 cotton farmers in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana and it has been demonstrated that digital advisory can help reduce pesticide use by 17 per cent while improving yield by 9 per cent, he pointed out. 

“The digital advisory can help in buying the right input at the right price point at the farm gate. There is no need to depend on intermediaries or the recommendations they make. The digital advisory is a science-based mechanism for farmers to buy what they want,” Kaushik said.

The WEF is keen on using the digital marketplace to help buyers know the quality of the crop, using the warehouse and providing logistics.  

For example, Meghalaya produces the world’s best turmeric — Lakadong. About 30,000 farmers produce the spice but the Lakadong turmeric gets mixed with other varieties. Traceability and quality measurement using AI will help in finding the right price for the product,  the C4IR head said. 

“If quality and traceability of a produce can be ensured, then there will be a 15 per cent improvement in price, while spectroscopy can look at issues such as moisture. All these buckets are inter-related,” he said.

Pilot projects

Kaushik said WEF is carrying out a pilot project “Sagu Bagu” in Telangana partnering the State government. The project uses AI for agriculture innovation. “In this, private institutions have been invited to work on crop value chains and deploy a complete portfolio of solutions across the three buckets of digital advisory, digital market and providing financial support. The whole crop value chain process will be studied for two years to find the impact on the ground,” he said. 

The pilot project was launched in October 2020 in chilli and groundnut covering two districts. In Meghalaya, an initiative is likely to begin in turmeric with WEF having given the expression of interest and the framework is being studied, he said. 

WEF has also approached Karnataka to leverage the latter’s data platform “FRUITS” which has 15 data sets. “The data has been done for enabling financial support and transactions such as subsidies to 7 million farmers. The platform curated by 35,000 independent entrepreneurs working at the village level,” Kaushik said. 

WEF wants to connect with the “FRUITS” platform and upload the data for the private ecosystem to deliver services such as banking or loans or offer digital advisories. The biggest challenge is that it is public data and a policy has been created with the State’s consent to get farmers’ e-consent to use the data. 

PPP consultations

WEF has also launched a food innovation hub in Madhya Pradesh and is looking at public-private partnerships (PPP) in select value chains. The State government has proposed a few horticulture crops and millets as it feels they are high-value chains. 

“We are in discussion with the Ministry of Agriculture to work as its extended arm for PPP consultations on the India digital ecosystem for agriculture (IDEA). We have signed a partnership agreement with regard to the budget announcement on PPP for digital agriculture. We have submitted a high-level concept paper on IDEA  and are now looking at holding consultations with startups and industry to create a framework or playbook for each of these digital services,” Kaushik said. 

On the problems in Telangana chilli crop, he said under the pilot project, a consortium of companies is doing complete benchmarking on the ground, measuring the challenges faced this year and previous years. 

“It is visiting the villages to see how much support could be offered through technological advisories. It will select geographical boundaries and then measures again to launch technological solutions after 3 or 6 or 9 months after the benchmarking is done.” he said. 

Framework to unlock data

Kaushik said AI for agriculture innovations is being adopted by every state in its own way in a different name. The objective of IDEA is technological and value transformation and we are creating a framework to unlock farmers’ data and share with private institutions. 

WEF is also trying agri hubs or “sandboxes” where major agricultural universities will consider working on co-innovations with start-ups. While the start-ups will bring in the technology, the universities will provide domain knowledge and ground-level support on farms. Nabard is also involved in helping co-innovations and validating the solutions, he said. 

The third initiative is to help start-ups collaborate their work with field institutions at village levels to help in running huge flagship programmes such as kisan credit cards or agri infrastructure funds. 

“Any start-up can roll out its programme in the village. It can be the biggest enabler, trying to initiate proper engagement with farmers,” he said.

Targeting 1 million farmers

The WEF is looking at 5-6 States to demonstrate the impact of its fourth industrial revolution initiatives, the C4IR head said. It would try focussing on impacting one million farmers through its programmes in the next two years so that it can be scaled further. “We are only bringing the stakeholders together and not taking up any project implementation,” he said. 

There is no financial outgo for WEF in this as it is only enabling institutions to focus on fourth industrial revolution technologies. For example, it has look at the opportunity of how small farmers can use drones and leverage it for spraying pesticide, plant seeds or look for crop innovation, Kaushik said. “The cost of using this technology is only one-fifth of manual labour and many rice farmer communities are looking at robotics to clear weeds on their farms. Economically, the assumption is how can small farmers pay for these but they collaborate and look at the using technology through model of using drone as a service,” he said.