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BW Businessworld

The Technology Driven Farmer

The advent of data analytical tools and the Internet of Things in the Indian countryside spells higher yields from the land and a future free of hunger

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Flight To The Future:
It is a wet afternoon in Katihar, a district in the state of Bihar in the August of 2030. Farmer Rakesh Bahadur has just harvested his maize crop and is now braving the steady drizzle on his barren field to wait for the collection wagon. The wagon will carry the bumper corn (maize) crop to some food processing units.

 Thanks to aerial monitoring and a host of technological tools, his maize yield is massive and his crop is unblemished of blight and other pests. Bahadur’s crop sends a deluge a produce to both the corn flour and corn flakes processing units and the nearest wholesale commodity market. Bahadur’s ancestors, who had been growing maize for generations, had never had it so good. But then, they did not have a great many things that he has, either.

Katihar is criss-crossed by four rivers, the Ganga, Kosi, Mahananda and Righa and has since time immemorial been a prosperous part of Bihar, which till a few years ago had been a part of a notorious club of under-developed northern states, labelled BIMARU. All the BIMARU states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, were provinces where the majority of the population were once occupied in agriculture and were mostly poor.

The onslaught of technology has changed all that. Farm yields have catapulted and steady mechanisation has weaned away a vast majority from agriculture to associated industries like food processing and services. Katihar never was typical of the BIMARU region because of its rich alluvial soil and always had a bountiful harvest of paddy, wheat, sugarcane and maize.

Till 2018 it had some flourishing rice and flour mills and a large and defunct industrial area, which has now evolved into a bustling food processing hub. Bahadur’s produce will be carried to this hub, where the corn-on-the-cob will be shredded and metamorphose into packaged corn flakes and corn flour.

The food and agriculture industry has experienced increasing disruption in recent years. Consumer behaviour trends have evolved continuously and influenced markets. For instance, calorie, protein, and oil intake per capita are continuing to grow and have been linked to rising incomes in developing regions.

India is now a super power, taking on the world on its own terms and on the strength of an empowered population that is hovering around 1.5 billion.

In that empowered group are Indian farmers, who were once at the mercy of nature and either dying of hunger in droughts and floods, or taking their lives when unable to repay their debts. Today in 2030, a set of monitoring tools hedge the farmer from disaster.

 Aerial monitoring tools like drones, satellites and airplanes reveal patterns in irrigation, soil variation, deforestation, changes in livestock, soil erosion, pest and fungal infestations and other phenomena that may not be easily apparent at the ground level. Airborne cameras take multispectral images, capturing data both from the infrared and the visual spectrum. These images can be sequenced to show changes in agricultural fields.

Ground-based monitoring tools take images via ‘In- or on-ground sensors’ that are deployed to detect crop conditions, weather data, and many other details, which can then be transmitted to decision analytics platforms via the Internet of  Things (IoT), which as every village child now knows are computing devices embedded in everyday objects and connected to the Internet to facilitate analytics.

CropIn, a firm that began as a startup in 2010, has designed sensors powered by solar energy, that are  fixed to the ground. The sensors can gather data on crop stress, air pressure, humidity, temperature, rainfall and other information that can then be analysed on its platform to improve precision farming. The firm has many competitors in the market now.

Partnerships between balancing input players, like fertiliser, pesticide and seed companies have meanwhile, strengthened the agricultural supply chain and helped bring down input costs of farmers. All of these developments over a decade and a little more, have helped improve the yield from the farm field.

That is how Rakesh Bahadur, who trudged to the village school in rubber slippers as a child, now plods to his field in branded sneakers. We leave him now, leaning against his tractor at the edge of the maize field of his ancestors, brushing off drops of rain from his Denim jeans – and fly you back to the past in April 2018.
Cut To The Present:

The BW Businessworld flight to the future is not sheer fantasy. It is actually based on projections of hard-nosed economists and statisticians. A  PricewaterhousCoopers (PwC) study says 2.5 million of roughly 120 million farmers in India have begun practising precision farming. This tribe of farmers is likely to swell to boost agricultural productivity in the years ahead. “Yield improvement is one of the major factors that help achieve the highest benchmarks in production,” says Ashok Dalwai, CEO of the National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), “we have kept an eye (on yield improvement) to raise our bars, to be at par with global standards and will be competing with the best in the world in the coming years.”

The increased yield from agriculture will be absorbed by a growing market. A mature and strong middle class market is attracting multinationals in food products to India, who are now competing neck-and-neck with emerging giants in India. “The way China was rising in the 1990’s - this decade is India’s era,” says Kurt Shultz, Senior Director of Global Strategies at the US Grain Council.

The market for agricultural produce is growing with overall economic prosperity. Simultaneously, the scope for higher crop yield is expanding with technological developments. Very soon satellite imaging, now used to forecast weather, will enable the government to assess crop losses and farmers will be compensated instantaneously.

Kenya already uses technological innovations to compensate farmers for crop loss within days. India will be able to do so too before too long. The monetary compensations will obviously flow to the bank accounts of farmers through the direct benefit transfer  mechanism that now enables them to access government subsidies for both food and cultivation of food.

In their 2016 book, Development In India, Founder and Director of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Kirit S. Parikh, along with Hans P. Binswanger – Mkhize and Probal Ghosh (Springer), have predicted that poverty could be wiped out in India by 2030 with high Total Productivity Factor Growth (TPFG) in agriculture and a speedy increase irrigation facilities. In a chapter titled, ‘Agriculture and Structural Transformation 1960-2040’, they have provided a model projection on per capita consumption.

The economists predict that with increase in disposable income, Indians would spend far more on food and specifically, nutritious food. The per capita consumption of food would not only increase, but tilt towards a more nutritious diet by 2030. The per person consumption of cereals would decrease, they say, but consumption of fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, along with poultry and the meat of livestock would go up steadily. (Please see graphics, ‘The Indian Thali in 2030’.)

Other studies that have aimed to peer into the future, have pointed toward rapid progress in agriculture spurred by rapid transfer of computing technology to agrarian India. When automated machines are connected to the Internet of Things and other analytical  tools, precision and efficiency in operations is inevitable, leading to high yields from the land and bumper harvests. A joint study by PwC and the World Bank says that the yield of foodgrain would increase from four tonnes per hectare in 2012 to 5.4 tonnes per hectare in 2024 and touch 7.4 tonnes per hectare in 2034.

India’s strength in computing technology and software development will work wonders when transferred to the farm fields. They will bring the advantages of data analytics and use of agronomic data gathered from precision monitoring technology to the farmer. Historic weather data and its detailed analysis will in the years ahead, cushion the farmer somewhat from the vagaries of nature.

Empowered with technology, India is destined to evolve into an agrarian powerhouse. By improving the volume, quality, flow, and frequency of information used in cultivation and other stages in the food value chain, food production is expected to shortly become more competent, productive and sustainable. In a statement at the World Economic Forum early in 2018, David McLenan, CEO of Cargill had said, “We have an incredible opportunity to work together to use technology and innovation to create more inclusive and sustainable food systems”.

Already, computers and mobile applications are being used by both the government and the private sector to communicate with farmers. The ITC “e-choupals”, for instance, link farmers to the agro-products processing and marketing division of the company through the Internet. The farmer has begun accessing markets through digital devices and farming is mechanised to an extent.

In the years ahead we are likely to see more automation in the farm fields, in processes like irrigation, for instance. One day in the near future, the Indian farmer will be tending to several fields from his perch atop a haystack.

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Magazine 28 April 2018 agriculture anniversary special

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