Making India a leader in agri innovation

Nipun Mehrotra | Updated on August 11, 2020

Facilitating integration and collaboration in agri practices via technology will organise the sector and boost productivity

Let’s face it, Indian agriculture is a mess. A quagmire of complex challenges and policy neglect laced with vested interests have resulted in daunting demographics. The agriculture sector employs more than half of India’s workforce, consumes around 90 per cent of its freshwater resources and uses nearly half the available land; yet, it generates barely 13 per cent of GDP and around 10 per cent of exports. With more than half of all farmland rain-fed, small-size farms disincentivising mechanisation, nearly half of all farmers lacking access to credit, rapid soil degradation and a staggering ₹92,000 crore-plus of produce lost to spoilage annually, the path forward is long and difficult.

It’s not all bleak, though. Production has outgrown population for decades, catapulting India to one of the largest global producers of wheat, rice, sugarcane, cotton, milk, pulses, fruits and vegetables. Going forward, India must balance volumetric targets with efficiency and sustainability while moving up the value chain to enhance farmer and national income.

Encouraged by crucial policy announcements recently, can we now dare to envision a reality wherein led by bold policies, mega-scale innovation and a foundation of new-age skills, Indian agriculture becomes profitable, resilient and sustainable? By 2030, can India reposition itself as a world-leading agricultural innovator?

More specifically, can we envision higher production, but consume half the water, land and labour used presently; ensure negligible pesticide residue; triple, not just double our, farmer’s earnings; rethink agri-biotechnology; and reduce endemic malnutrition? We can, within the decade.

The Agricultural Collaboratory (TAC) aims to strengthen our national foundation of agricultural innovation and technology, including creating an integrated Indian agriculture platform.

TAC is focussed on building a holistic ecosystem to achieve the national agricultural vision. This can play a critical role in making India a $5-trillion economy. It will also reignite agriculture as a career-choice for the youth and reposition India as a world leader in agricultural innovator.

Given the long-term neglect of agronomics, the only way to make progress within this decade is to ‘pole vault’ deficiencies by injecting technologies and innovation on a massively parallel scale and building a collaborative national approach across private and government institutions.

Relatively tiny countries have achieved much in agriculture, using precisely this approach. The Netherlands is the second largest exporter globally of fruits and vegetables, with twice our yield. Israel pioneered technologies to grow produce in harsh, arid conditions. China’s agricultural economic output is thrice ours, with lesser arable land and similar small-size farms. How do we get there? By focussing on three aspects:

Scale agricultural innovation

India’s agricultural achievements since the late 1960s, initially triggered by importing 18,000 tonnes of high-yielding Mexican wheat, were supported by strategic actions, research investments in high-yielding disease-resistant crops, and propelled by mega-irrigation projects and chemical fertilisers. These investments have since plateaued.

Since 2015, approximately 500 agri-tech start-ups have raised ₹5,000-6,000 crore of funding, mostly (around 60 per cent) for enabling direct consumer access, building marketplaces and branding. Little investment has percolated into deeper areas like agri-biotech. One reason for this is that most founders have inadequate agricultural experience or exposure.

We must reinvest in agricultural research institutions, insisting on a collaborative approach with agri-tech start-ups and corporates as equally valuable partners, blending technology with domain knowledge, forming a “smart agri ecosystem”. Innovation and precision technologies (for instance, IoT, sensors, weather forecasting, satellite, drones, and cameras) yield a multi-pronged impact across the value chain.

There is a visible need for an open, scalable, integrating agri platform that democratises access to information and markets, encouraging innovation and better decision-making. An Indian agricultural platform (IAP) created by the ecosystem and overseen by the government is envisioned as an enabling framework of data and services (applications) centred around data exchange. It helps composite, fact-based tactical and strategic decision-making, leveraging multi-year, multi-source information aggregated from the farms to the State/national levels. The IAP, powered by artificial intelligence, reduces duplication by integrating data sources and applications — new and existing (eNam, eChoupal, TraceNet, etc) — and incubates innovative business models, with a transformative impact to agriculture, similar to Aadhaar and UPI in digital banking/payments.

This will require clearer rules on agri data — ownership, usage, monetisation, inter-operability standards — especially for IoT and satellite-generated data.

Outcome-driven collaboration

We need to incentivise private-public institutions to collaborate for mutual benefit, besides realigning dozens of national programmes linked to research and subsidies. Within the government itself, the subject is poorly coordinated through several ministries, departments and entities; we need an integrated, holistic approach.

Integrated programmes: We have a plethora of National Missions related to agriculture, like National Food Security Mission, Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, Mission on Integrated Development for Horticulture; Mission on Agricultural Extension & Technology; Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana etc. By rationalising and merging overlapping ones, creating a hierarchical structure wherein niche programmes feed into and support progressively broader ones, we can save 15-20 per cent of subsidies (government subsidies are estimated at ₹30,000 per hectare, much higher than a farmer’s earnings) while driving better outcomes. Competing vested interests often stop broader programmes from subsuming others, whilst new ones are created and budgets allocated.

Public-private research: While funding is low, research output is disproportionately lower due to poor institutional structure for external collaboration, which could magnify impact and licensing revenue.

Inter-State collaboration: Agri-tech start-ups conduct 25 pilots on average, repeating similar experiments across States, delaying deployment by years. A ‘national database of agricultural innovation’ could reduce duplication and accelerate implementation.

Private-FPO links: Partnerships between farmer producer organisations (FPOs), corporates and start-ups will make agriculture competitive. FPOs can link start-ups with farmers, identifying problems and accelerating project rollout.

Agri universities: Revitalisation of agriculture is unsustainable without cutting-edge skills built through independent research, field experience, incubating agri-tech start-ups and partnerships between universities.

Bias for action

A crucial priority is “thematic”, mission-mode project execution. Existing mechanisms under-deliver because of an overdependence on the motivation, knowledge and bandwidth of one institution. Rarely is external expertise considered, or attempts made to commercialise project elements for self-sustenance.

The recommended alternative is open-source agile execution, leveraging the principle that the “cumulative knowledge and experience within the external eco-system is significantly broader and deeper than what any organisation can hold within”. Leveraging the collective agricultural ecosystem for national benefit through a governance mechanism yields improved quality, scale and speed, often at lower costs.

Aarogya Setu demonstrated the efficacy of agile co-creation, it may not be perfect, but the rollout speed was impossible with a traditional approach. UPI is another example.

In conclusion, while Indian agriculture faces complex challenges, diverse innovative solutions are available. A greater political willingness to confront challenges holistically, working across stakeholders, can help achieve results.

The writer is former Chief Digital Officer, IBM India and Chief Catalyzer, The Agri Collaboratory

Published on August 11, 2020

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