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Innovation In Agriculture: An Idea Whose Time Has Come Facilitating integration and collaboration in agritech practices through technology will systematize the sector and enhance productivity

By Prabhjeet Bhatla

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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 gross domestic product (GDP) and around 10 per cent of exports. With more than half of all farmland rain-fed, small-size farms disincentivizing mechanization, nearly half of all farmers lacking access to credit, and rapid soil degradation, the path forward is long and difficult. A swamp of complex challenges and policy neglect laced with vested interests has resulted in daunting demographics.

Production has outgrown the population for decades, catapulting India to one of the largest global producers of wheat and rice. Going forward, the nation must poise volumetric targets with efficiency and sustainability while moving up the value chain to enhance farmer and national income.

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

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 fertilizers. These investments have since plateaued.

Since 2015, approximately 500 agritech startups have raised INR 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 agribiotech. One reason for this is that most founders have inadequate agricultural experience or exposure.

On the farming end, the challenges, climate risks, access to markets, access to low-cost capital are the big challenges farmers are facing not only in India but around the world. On the consumer end, there are 7 billion people on the planet and this number is only going to go up.

"The data is going to be of higher importance because without putting a layer of intelligence, it does not mean anything. We are working on how data can be linked to sustainability, how it can create a peripheral value," said Krishna Kumar, founder, and chief executive officer, CropIn Technology Solutions at the TiE Global Summit.

Working on the philosophy of bringing farms closer to home is Hyderabad-based UrbanKisaan. With the vision of making hydroponic technology more affordable and accessible for the masses, the startup offers home-grow kits or vertical hydroponic farms. And by creating mini-farms in cities and revitalizing farmlands with hydroponic technology, the startup also supplies fresh produce to customers through Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo, and other retail channels as well as in the direct to consumer (D2C) model on a subscription and on-demand basis.

The market opportunity is huge, as 'urban farming' is catching up at a rapid pace globally. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the global hydroponics market is expected to reach $16.6 billion by 2025, growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 11.9 per cent from $9.5 billion in 2020. The growth of the sector is said to be driven by the increase in population and the need for food security through alternative high-yield farming techniques, given the depletion of water across the globe.

Moreover, the rise in awareness and demand for a healthier lifestyle is said to have opened doors for a plethora of possibilities for hydroponic startups to reap the benefits in the long run.

The COVID times have been challenging for most sectors of the Indian economy. However, one sector which demonstrated extraordinary resilience has been agriculture and allied activities.

The food supply chain responded with multiple innovative models to survive the COVID shock. The temporary survival tactics in the form of innovative models developed by startups and value chain members in the last few months are turning out to be growth drivers for the longer run. This growth is driven by increased adoption of agritech innovations by the farmers, increased use of data by supply chain members, and proliferation of D2C models with consumers and trade becoming digitally comfortable and inclined to place orders online.

Reinvestment in agricultural research institutions, insisting on a collaborative approach with agritech startups and corporates as equally valuable partners, blending technology with domain knowledge, and form 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.

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.

Prabhjeet Bhatla

Former Staff

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