Why farm reform will fail without tech

22-09-2020    08:24   |    Livemint

INDIA, Fatehpur- Market participation is meaningless without information. Should every Indian farmer get a smartphone? Without internet connectivity and market intelligence, the transaction cost associated with selling in places outside the local market are higher than the value of the produce

Kamlakant is a smallholder farmer in Daulatiyapur village of Fatehpur district in Uttar Pradesh. He is an enthusiastic vegetable cultivator and every season, he searches for answers to three basic questions—what crop to sow, how to grow it, and where to sell it.

The nearest Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) is 50km away, and he is thus unable to travel that distance to access information. He is dependent on a local farm consultant who visits his farm every week and charges ₹100 per visit. Ever since covid hit, the consultant has stopped visiting. He began to rely on WhatsApp to seek advice throughout the lockdown, harvesting 6 tonnes of brinjal and 9 tonnes of cauliflower on one acre, earning ₹57,000. In a post-covid world, every farmer in India ought to be able to access information at his home like Kamlakant.

That basic right acquires even more urgency with the passage of two key farm bills by the parliament on Sunday. It is important to ask how much relief these farm reforms will bring to smallholders like Kamlakant? These reforms seek to increase the availability of buyers for farmers’ produce and motivate farmers to diversify crops by reducing existing restrictions on licenses and stock limits. The hope is that increased competition will result in better prices for farmers.

However, we know that for competition to create efficient outcomes, high information access and low (preferably zero) transaction costs are essential.

Across India, every Kamlakant is looking to pool their produce with other farmers in order to afford the transport costs to sell in more rewarding markets. Without internet connectivity and market intelligence, the transaction cost associated with selling in places outside the local market are higher than the value of the produce.

Aggregated platforms can help farmers consolidate farm produce in real-time and help them negotiate better deals with transporters. Further, access to data on growth in the demand for certain crops and changes in consumption and lifestyle patterns of consumers would greatly help farmers to pivot towards products that the market is willing to pay for. It is fair to say that the real benefits of reform would accrue to farmers only when the entire agricultural produce trade is digitized.

Currently, over 94% of India’s 138 million farm landholdings do not receive information through the agriculture extension system due to which smallholder farmers continue to be far less productive than what’s possible.

To be specific, there are three infirmities in the current agriculture extension system—insufficient knowledge creation, poor delivery of information, and an absent grassroots capability. We need to reimagine the agricultural R&D and the extension system by creating knowledge, disseminating personalized information through technology, and decentralizing knowledge delivery by empowering local channels. There are viable interventions on all these fronts which can make the reforms count.

Knowledge bonanza

Contract farming is a panacea for smallholders only when they can harvest high value produce that can compete in markets and consolidate produce to make large and regular supplies. Else, it benefits only bigger farmers. Without access to on-farm knowledge on ‘how to grow’ high-value crops, smallholders will continue to carry on with low-value subsistence farming.

In the village, agricultural knowledge is gold. An extension officer visiting Kamlakant’s farm is often swiftly surrounded by a crowd of farmers waiting to get their query answered. To really address farmers’ knowledge gap, we have to create a knowledge bonanza.

With 77 state agriculture universities and 700 KVKs, India is sitting on a 39% vacancy in positions for extension officers due to which the average extension services reach only 6.8% of farmers. To build capabilities, agriculture universities and institutes need to create open access online agriculture courses (like courses on Udemy, a popular online learning platform) on horticulture, soil science, nutrient management, crop protection, greenhouse cultivation, post-harvest management and cold supply chain.

With cheaply available online courses, young graduates and even progressive farmers can self-train as extension officers and fuel on-farm innovation. As farming becomes more digitalized, information is not needed to be delivered on a two-wheeler and India needs to design powerful educational content—customized ‘how-to-do’ videos and audios in vernacular languages.

By building a knowledge culture, we can empower farmers with information on the ‘how to grow’ question. They will be able to experiment with different approaches to farming, often discovering solutions replicable in the local context. In our horticulture training experiments with Kamlakant and his fellow villagers in Daulatiyapur, we trained them in transplanting, farm preparation, nutrient management, and disease identification and provided them smartphones for advisory.

The knowledge stuck, and what used to be little known concepts then are now a part of the farmers’ vernacular and over 50 farmers in the village have diversified their farms, adopting unique intercropping patterns and increasing their income. It is unfortunate, however, that horticultural knowledge is scarce and concentrated in a few areas in the country. Organizations such as Kheyti in Telangana can lead in building the horticulture knowledge ecosystem.

A public-private tech platform that addresses the knowledge and marketing needs of farmers and creates farmer networks would be an ideal intervention. A helpful example is the Farmers Business Network (FBN) in the US. The FBN farmer-to-farmer model empowers farmers with impartial information through cloud-based analytics on seed performance, input price transparency, farm operations and yield forecasting.

Subsidize smartphones

In a post-covid world, extension officers cannot visit farms; farmers cannot move freely; and roughly 60% of farmers in India do not have smartphones to obtain personalized information through video calls or zoom webinars. Farmers are facing abject impoverishment right now, and an enabling digital instrument such as a smartphone can actually be their pathway out of poverty.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent Independence Day address announced that every village will be connected with optical fibre in 1000 days. The policy to connect India’s villages must be quickly reinforced with a grassroots momentum that would arise from a ‘one smartphone per farm household’ through direct benefit transfer (DBT).

It would prove more valuable for farmers than the PM-KISAN aid, opening lucrative opportunities for diversification, access to credit, and increased savings on agri-inputs. Instead of waiting for the needle to move on digital penetration, it may be prudent to marshal the digital shift directly.

Smartphone for all can be a real gamechanger as it would solve for all the three questions that Kamlakant and his ilk usually have at the beginning of every cropping season. First, using cloud-based analytics farmers can know what crop to sow—a critical question from a marketing standpoint. Once all farmers are connected to the digital system, we can track the data on sowing patterns from the day the farmer purchases seeds.


With real time seeds sale data (4 companies hold >50% market share) and prices across mandis, we can determine the potential acreage of a particular crop and farmers can be advised on what crop or variety to sow. Recently, during the lockdown, tomato prices plunged, causing tomato cultivation to decline. If Kamlakant can find out that there are fewer tomato growers in the same way Google Maps informs us about the route which has less traffic (past trends would indicate that less cultivation could result in a price rise 2 months down the line), he would plant tomatoes. Data can help farmers make safer bets and get better prices.

Second, smartphones provide technologies that train a farmer on how to grow a crop and make modern farming navigable and productive. For example, remote sensing provides nutrient and water stress analysis, image recognition informs farmers of pest management, input analytics bring transparency to crop protection methods. When every farmer uses a smartphone, it becomes easy to develop mass contact farmer-to-farmer data sharing as well as individual contact with farmers. Armed with individualized information, farmers make independent data-driven decisions and mitigate harmful herd behaviour.

The adjacent need for larger data collection is also pertinent. We know that unavailability of real-time farmer data makes impact measurement and evaluation impossible and we are never able to identify which interventions work and which don’t. Smartphones help gather large amounts of data quickly, contributing to better policymaking.

Modern technologies are so rapidly evolving that even Kamlakant’s father (a low-skilled 80-year-old) can use a smartphone with ease. Unblocking the inertia of the middle-aged/elderly farmer is what will prove to be a route to increasing agricultural productivity. With covid forcing innovation on everyone, we can already see a 20% increase in digital payments since March 2020.

Every person in the rural household needs a smartphone—the child for her education, the unemployed youth for reskilling, and the farmer for agronomic and marketing information. The young and the old have greater facetime with each other now during covid than ever before, and it is the right time to distribute smartphones to multiply the rate of tech diffusion.

BOOST entrepreneurship

Agriculture extension development (or agriculture advisory) continues to be heavily lopsided. Only 6% of landholdings in India fall within the recommended extension to farmer ratio of 1:750 and are concentrated in 10 states, of which only Haryana, Punjab and Jharkhand are primarily agrarian.

Even in terms of aid to improve farm productivity, over 54% of the centre’s aid between 2014-18 went to just 4 states—Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana, whereas, Odisha received only 1.2%.

As a remedy to this condition, the government’s aspirational districts programme is an attempt at focusing development efforts where they are most needed.

Now, it is essential to develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem in these districts. Government and corporate social responsibility funds should be separately allocated to these districts to boost agri-entrepreneurs, who will build the grassroots capability to design innovative products and make them accessible in these regions. We need to invest in imaginative leaders who can mobilize farmers and show them that if a farmer in Israel can grow 70 tonnes of tomato per hectare, so can they.

Reducing dependence on the government is fundamental to building grassroots capabilities. It is important to visualize how much more quickly farmers can become capable if they are not at the mercy of a single entity’s ability to deliver. This has become increasingly clear since covid. Humans are naturally innovative and it must be recognized. Innovation will not happen after infrastructure, rule of law, and capital are in order—innovation is already shaping our societies.

The food and agriculture industry is nearly 9% of total global output, but draws less than 2% of total private equity (PE) investment, and India receives only 2.6% of total PE investment. Covid has reminded us of the growing fragility of our food and agriculture system—a system that improves the well-being of plants, animals, and humans.

Agriculture today needs rapid tech diffusion and it is urgent for the government and the private sector to fund it. It is amply clear that investments towards digitalization will bring the greatest improvements in farm productivity. In his remarkable book Food Citizenship, Harvard University agribusiness professor Ray Goldberg reminds us that by neglecting the food system, we are threatening who we are and who we want to be. We have to act now.

Harshit Kohli is the founder and CEO of Swayam Farmer Foundation


Source: Livemint

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

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