The first time Amandeep Panwar, 26, and Rishabh Choudhary, 27, stepped into a farm was in 2015 when they needed acres of open space to fly the drones they had built as part of their final-year aeronautical engineering project. Today, Panwar and Choudhary — who struck up a friendship as classmates at a Lucknow college — run BharatRohan, an agriculture-technology (ag-tech) start-up that scientists at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) say could be one of the hottest prospects in the farming sector.

BharatRohan, that was founded in 2016 and began commercial operations a little over a year ago, uses hyperspectral imaging, one of the most advanced remote sensing tools to capture warning signals about pest attacks, disease outbreaks and nutrition deficiency in crops at a very early and actionable stage. “Remedial action at this early stage helps farmers eliminate crop losses. It can be one of the most important innovations in agricultural early warning systems. The potential is humungous,” says Kondapi Srinivas, CEO, Association for Innovation Development of Entrepreneurship in Agriculture (a-IDEA) at ICAR’s National Academy of Agricultural Research Management (NAARM) in Hyderabad that incubated the start-up. It is estimated that India loses a whopping 15 per cent of its farm output, or in excess of $40 billion each year to pest and insect attacks.


Filming the fields

BharatRohan’s drones are fitted with hyperspectral imaging (HSI) cameras film the farmland every week to ten days. The technology and the firm’s proprietary algorithms can decipher the miniscule colour changes occurring in the plants due to different biochemical changes occurring in different phenological conditions.

For instance, a pomegranate plant infested with bacterial blight develops red-brown spots on the leaves. To a naked eye, these spots are visible only after 7-10 days of infestation. But with HSI, the infestation can be identified in the very early stages, and the problem can be treated with precision without any significant damage.

BharatRohan not only identifies the problems but also suggests the fixes. “The early-stage diagnosis of the biochemical changes in crops helps us create prescription on maps highlighted with the critical zones. An actionable precision advisory is given to the farmers. Our executives help farmers in implementation of the advisory. With precision and early diagnosis, farmers can apply the pesticides in the tract of land. They save on inputs and gain yields,” says Panwar, CEO, BharatRohan.

Hyperspectral imaging is a technique that analyses a wide spectrum of light instead of just assigning primary colours (red, green, blue) to each pixel. The light striking each pixel is broken down into many different spectral bands in order to provide more information on what is imaged. The unique colour signature of an individual object can be detected. Unlike other optical technologies that can only scan for a single colour, HSI can distinguish the full colour spectrum in each pixel. BharatRohan can currently collect plant level and row level data at 5 cm/pixel resolution.

The power of precision

The interactions with farmers in the days of flying drones over their fields, helped Panwar and Choudhary learn first-hand about the damage wrecked by pest attacks.

They looked at ways they could use their love for drones to help farmers. With a bit of research, they zeroed in on hyperspectral imaging, but it was too complex an area for two freshly-minted engineering graduates to venture into. The duo made cold calls to several experts in the field in India and abroad. The duo reached out, via Linkedin, to Keshav Singh, an IIT-Mumbai alumnus and currently a post-doctoral researcher at University of California, Davis, specialising in the use of remote sensing technology and the use of unmanned aerial systems in precision agricultural applications.

Singh was roped in as a partner. Guidance, mentorship, and seed money came from ICAR’s a-IDEA incubator and CSIR’s Lucknow-based Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic plants (CIMAP). Manoj Semwal, a senior scientist at CIMAP, helped BharatRohan create the spectral libraries for various crops and their diseases, starting with mint, potato and paddy, the three major crops in the Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district.

The spectral library is a vast database that includes information about colour changes of a healthy plant grown in ideal conditions and those with specific diseases like the rust fungus in mint. Images from a farmer’s field can be juxtaposed with those from the library to precisely diagnose the occurrence of a disease, its stage and the nutritional status of the crop. The company’s drones can scour 7,000-8,000 acres or farmland every fortnight. With Keshav Singh, brought in as a partner in the venture, BharatRohan uses advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) based tools to build proprietary models of analysis.

CIMAP introduced the two entrepreneurs to some 300 “progressive” mint farmers in region who were part of its own network. Having won a clutch of entrepreneurship grants from Indian School of Business (ISB), Rabobank and Government of India, BharatRohan began operations as a subscription-based service for the farmers in Barabanki in 2017. Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for almost 70 per cent of the global mint production. Natural mint oil finds extensive use in pharmaceutical, food and confectionery industries.

Boosting yields

Rakesh Kumar, an aromatic herbs farmer in the Fatehpur tehsil of Barabanki, a BharatRohan partner since 2017, says he and his fellow farmers were initially dismissive of the two youngsters who claimed to increase yields with the help of drones. “After the results of the first 90-day mint crop, we had no doubt that it worked,” he says. According to Rakesh, the income from his nine acres of land where he grows mint, lemongrass, potato and paddy, has gone up 25 per cent to ₹12 lakh from ₹9 lakh in the years he’s been working with the firm. Plus, he can save around ₹3,500 per acre every crop cycle on inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides.

For the advisory based on BharatRohan’s technology, farmers would pay three per cent of their produce sales to the company. But Panwar and Choudhary quickly realised that a business that depended entirely on getting farmers to pay might not be sustainable in India. In 2019, BharatRohan changed course to become an agriculture platform company that works with farmers from the sowing stage to post-harvest sales. BharatRohan now has 3,600 farmer clients with a combined holding of 5,000 acres in UP, and 600 in Rajasthan’s Pali and Nagaur regions growing moong and cumin over 5,000 acres. The company currently has access to 350 tonnes of farm output.

As part of its advisory package, the company sells seeds and other agricultural inputs. The seed and input companies pay BharatRohan a commission on sales. It also buys the farmers’ output directly and sells it to big food and pharma firms.

Additionally, the farmers, too, pay 1-2 per cent of their revenues. In 2020, BharatRohan has clocked a revenue of ₹1.8 crore until October. Since BharatRohan has accurate data for the usage of fertilider and other chemicals in the area it covers, Panwar thinks the business of selling farm produce will become highly profitable. “Traceability of food crops is a big issue globally. We can offer any buyer access to a traceability dashboard through which they can track ongoing farm operations, crop incidences, the quantum of inputs — water, fertiliser or chemicals used, and yield forecasts. With such precise data on the food production chain, we can help farmers command a big premium,” he explains.

“In India, unlike start-ups in other sectors, ag-tech companies, even if they have a strong and scalable technology platform, find it very hard to raise venture capital funding for various reasons. Primarily, it is due to the investor fears about the uncertainties in India’s agriculture. But globally, given the stress on resources, high-tech precision farming is the next big thing. Innovations like BharatRohan will be the future,” says a-IDEA’s Srinivas.