Opinion: Technology could unleash the potential of India’s farmlands

December 11 , 2017

By Ashok Sharma – president of Mahindra’s Agriculture Sector and CEO of Mahindra Agri Solutions Ltd

Technology has transformed our lives. It has had a far-reaching, disruptive impact that has challenged convention and transformed not just the things we do but how we do them.

Consider this – the world’s largest ride-hailing company doesn’t own a single car. The world’s largest ‘hotel chain’, if you will, doesn’t own a single hotel. Google and Apple could one day rival the world’s biggest automakers as manufacturers of autonomous cars.

Technology can have a similarly disruptive and transformational impact on Indian agriculture.

Granted, the examples I’ve cited above are of companies whose business models are technology-reliant. Agriculture is not as digitally intensive. Still, the adoption of technology could spur a whole new revolution and usher in an era of unprecedented productivity and prosperity.

The way things stand today, more than 50 percent of India’s population draws its livelihood from agriculture and related activities. But, more than 80 percent of the country’s farmers are small and marginal, the size of their farms on average less than two hectares.

Due to this fragmentation, farmers do not have the wherewithal to modernize production or processing technology, nor use high yielding varieties of inputs like seeds and fertilizers.  It’s a vicious cycle of poor productivity and depressed incomes.

Added to this are complexities of government regulations, inadequate infrastructure for transportation and storage distribution. All this affects the overall farm production and lowers the value of a farmer’s produce.

The adoption of technology could break this cycle, unleashing the potential of India’s farmlands and bringing prosperity to the country’s farmers.

In many ways, it already is. Growing smartphone penetration is opening up new opportunities for farmers.

We call this paradigm shift ‘Farming 3.0’ and it is already underway. In this exciting new phase, India is actively moving towards innovative farming. Government as well as the private sector are leveraging this shift to bring in efficiencies by serving the farmers and customers in a more disintermediated way. We are seeing a lot of young entrepreneurs coming up with start-ups and path-breaking ideas, challenging the traditional way of operating.

Farming 1.0, which began shortly after Independence and lasted until the mid-sixties, was characterized by sweeping land reforms. The second phase, or Farming 2.0 which commenced in the 1960s, was aimed at making India self-sufficient and ‘food-secure’.

Just as it gave us bigger tractors, more seed varieties and better irrigation, the next giant leap forward in food production will be sustainable intensification of farming – doing more with less, on a bigger scale and with greater efficiency, which means precision agriculture will become a need. Technology is going to be a key enabler to bring about this revolution.

This phase is all about innovation, digital disruption and precision agriculture which will help the sector overcome the ‘people’, ‘process’ and ‘technology’ challenges that it currently grapples with.

Amongst our various farmer oriented initiatives, Mahindra has launched a digital platform that offers farm related topical information that can be easily accessed through the increased use of smartphones amongst the farmer community. Our MyAgriGuru multi-lingual app acts as a 24X7 advisory platform which provides farmers essential real-time information like weather data, forecasts, mandi prices and the like and at the same time allows them to interact with each other as well as agricultural experts. It keeps them equipped with the requisite knowledge, which helps farmers command better prices as well as look after their farms and produce better.

Another technology-led initiative is our tractor rental service, Trringo. Whenever a farmer needs a tractor, he can simply rent one through this service, rather than invest in buying assets. This will help increase mechanization which will further enhance output levels and the overall income.

These are just two examples of the way technology is being used to improve productivity in agriculture, and two examples which I naturally am best acquainted with.

But while this is a start, it only just scratches the surface.

Imagine, for instance, a world where drones fly over fields gathering data, satellites measure acreage under cultivation, ‘smart’ farm equipment gauges weather, soil condition and the amount of water a certain crop requires.

Precision will become the name of the game as will efficiency, maximizing output while minimizing cost. Mobile-based applications will cut down red tape, cut out middlemen and shorten the supply chain, taking wasteful costs out of the system. The farmer will get the fair and full price for his produce, while prices for the consumer will drop.

I strongly believe that initiatives like the MyAgriGuru app which aim to reduce farmers’ dependence on informal and unorganized players in terms of credit, inputs, advisory services or even market linkages, is going to be a critical factor in achieving the dream of ‘Doubling Farmers’ Income’.


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