An Agripreneur's Key to Farmers' Hearts & the Most Awaited AgriTech Revolution
Despite accounting for nearly 18 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 40 percent of the total rural Net Domestic Product (NDP), the Indian agriculture sector remains one of the most underserved verticals in the country. Indian farmers, who constitute a large proportion of small landholders relying on traditional resource-intensive farming techniques, have limited access to modern machinery, logistics, storage facilities, and information such as data on weather patterns, soil health, and the protection of crops. The segment is desperate to host a paradigm shift powered by digital technologies. According to a report by Avendus Capital, Indian AgriTech is expected to grow at a whopping CAGR of 50 percent over the next five years, driven by enormous technology-first value creation opportunities. Siddharth Dialani, Co-Founder, BharatAgri is piloting this transformation through BharatAgri and its algorithms that offer critical inputs to farmers like what they should grow, how they should grow it, when to water, when to provide fertilizer, and whatnot. The passionate young entrepreneur, who made his way to Forbes India’s 30 Under 30 index in 2020, engages in an exclusive interaction with CEO Insights to decipher the challenges and opportunities in the segment.
In conversation with Siddharth Dialani, Co-Founder, BharatAgri
What are the ways technology has been driving changes in the agriculture sector in India?
Technology is slowly and steadily changing the way agriculture is done in India. With increasing smartphone penetration and the availability of affordable internet, farmers leverage the platforms like Google, Facebook, and YouTube to search for solutions to their farming problems. Also, WhatsApp is generally used for social interactions.
Moreover, a category of farmers has already adapted to digital payment systems like UPI. These technological advancements are helping agriculture to improve productivity, bringing more efficiencies and reducing costs. Farmers can now access personalized advisory, affordable crop inputs, financial services like loans & insurance, and farm-to-market services. Additionally, technology is also bringing transparency to farmers. Prices of crop inputs and subsidies by the government are no longer hidden or opaque. Information is now available at their fingertips. Farmers can use apps to get weather predictions and know market prices for their crops.
For example, identifying some pests on the crops can be very difficult for farmers. Even more difficult is to identify the right medicine to cure pest attacks. Apps like BharatAgri can help diagnose a pest and suggest the right medicine for the same. Farmers can also avail of doorstep delivery of those medicines from BharatAgri. With this technological advancement, farmers would be independent of local shopkeepers that are generally 20-25 km away and may not be scientifically accurate. It can also lead to crop losses and increased expenditure.
What kind of opportunities can businesses and individuals expect from this technological revolution?
This advancement creates immense opportunities for businesses and especially entrepreneurs. Since farmers are very active on their smartphones, they are looking for solutions to their farming problems.
They need a host of services and solutions, including access to (i) farm advisory, (ii) affordable and high-quality crop inputs, (iii) loans, (iv) education and crop insurance, weather insurance, etc., (v) affordable logistics, (vi) equipment through affordable leasing models, and (vii) sales support for crop-output.
If a solution leads to heavy investment by farmers or involves a lot of operational efforts, it is less likely that farmers will adopt it. However, if your solution is easy to implement, farmers would want to try it and pay for it as well.
As long as farmers can see a clear value-add and measurable results, they will be willing to pay for such services. Generally, farmers would pay for goods as opposed to services.
Moreover, because of the high usage of social media, it is easier than ever to introduce farmers to your products and services. Businesses and entrepreneurs can try out their innovative solutions with ease. Like any other industry, a solution needs hundreds of iterations to be adopted by the users. This was extremely difficult for agriculture due to slower experimental cycles and remote user-base. But this is now changing. You can now distribute your solution to farmers through WA, YouTube, FB, etc. Let them use your solution, take feedback, improve, and repeat.
How has innovation been assisting farmers, particularly during adverse weather conditions?
Weather prediction is now available to farmers; in most cases, it is free of cost. Within three days, the forecast is fairly accurate. And several companies and research institutes are continuously working towards improving accuracy.
The bigger problem is to get actionable advice based on predicted weather conditions. We realized this gap in the market. BharatAgri has developed a unique and proprietary weather-based dynamic advisory solution for Indian farmers. We give them not only weather predictions but also actions that they need to take on their farms. This helps prevent pests and diseases due to sudden weather changes.
However, in the case of extreme weather changes or calamities, little can be done to prevent crop damage. For such cases, farmers must opt for weather or crop insurance. The current government has introduced affordable weather insurance, leading to private companies joining the bandwagon and creating even more creative insurance solutions.
Insurance won’t prevent crop damages but can at least compensate farmers for their losses.
Another place where technology can help is crop diversification. Farmers need to diversify risks by growing different kinds of crops that may be drought resistant. Soil testing and weather-based analysis can help identify such crops or seed varieties.
Moreover, advisory solutions can provide the know-how for growing these crops, which may be entirely new for farmers. Farmers can be hand-held to grow these crops with the right technological interventions.
Can farmers instantly adapt using technological solutions, or is there further awareness that needs to be created?
Interestingly, smartphone and internet penetration among Indian farmers is high and is growing at a fast pace. Out of 140 million farming households, 70 million households own a smartphone. In the coming decade, all 140 million farming households are expected to own a smartphone.
The extensive usage of social media solves the awareness problem. Fortunately, we don’t have to educate them as much to explain about our effective solutions. Moreover, when farmers see success stories around them, they are more eager to try these innovative solutions. Social media has been key in spreading awareness about such success stories.
It is crucial for entrepreneurs to introduce low-touch and easy-to-implement solutions to farmers. If a solution leads to heavy investment by farmers or involves a lot of operational efforts, it is less likely that farmers will adopt it. However, if your solution is easy to implement, farmers would want to try it and pay for it as well.
However, there are still a few aspects that can be improved, including (i) last-mile connectivity, (ii) seamless internet across remote areas, (iii) market connectivity, (iv) easier ways to avail government schemes and subsidies, (v) post-harvest infrastructure development (including warehouses & cold storage), and (vi) easier access to credit. These challenges can be solved through systematic government intervention and infrastructure development.
How is innovation promoting sustainable agricultural practices?
Unfortunately, in India, there is rampant over-usage of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And there’s a reason for that. Farmers are looking for solutions to eradicate pests and diseases from their crops. This is critical to preventing crop loss. And chemical pesticides help in controlling pests. Similarly, farmers are looking for crop growth that can help increase yield and income. That’s where chemical fertilizers come into the picture.
The advice or knowledge provided to them has always been about using these chemical inputs. The awareness about sustainable ways of farming has been very limited, to say nothing of the scarcity of sustainable crop inputs. Unlike chemical inputs, there is no single big and reputed brand for organic inputs.
BharatAgri’s advisory solution promotes integrated farming practices. It includes integrated nutrient management and integrated pest management. We reduce the chemical inputs usage by 40 percent by replacing them with organic inputs. This helps the farmers improve yields and control costs. Moreover, residue-free produce is an added advantage.
Eventually, we learned that the organic inputs our advisory recommends are not available to farmers. Local shopkeepers don’t have them. Moreover, the quality is not standardized and can’t be trusted. And hence the idea of advisory-driven e-commerce got originated.
BharatAgri now delivers high-quality and affordable crop inputs to farmers’ doorstep. This includes all kinds of organic fertilizers and organic pesticides.BharatAgri farmers are moving towards sustainable farming, and much needs to be done. Farmers take additional steps to reduce chemical usage and hence must be compensated through some carbon credit program. This will further incentivize them to move towards sustainable agriculture. Moreover, sustainable farming produces better-quality crops, fruits, and vegetables. It is essential that farmers earn additional income for the same. This rarely happens as our markets are not yet that mature.
Could you draw a futuristic picture of how the AgriTech industry would turn out, and what is your word of advice to industry leaders hacki new opportunities?
We will have to draw parallels with the progressive urban regions and then look at both businesses and individuals. Agriculture is unique because farmers are individuals as well as businesses. In most cases, they behave like a business—they purchase crop inputs, arrange finances and grow (manufacture) crops. And then they find a market to sell their produce. Unfortunately, most industries treat them like individuals. This may need to be revised more efficiently.
In progressive urban regions, all businesses can find support in the form of everything from decision-making tools to finances, accounts, digital marketing & sales management software, consultants, and workforce management tools. Such tools being available to farmers will help them manage their farming decisions more scientifically and efficiently.
Similarly, if we look at farmers from an individual perspective, they purchase crop inputs from traditional retail and look for credit in traditional banks. In progressive urban areas, e-commerce, quick commerce, and digital payments have changed how we live. And we are making much more informed decisions, bringing financial independence. We believe such tools and services will be available for farmers in the coming years. With rapid infrastructure development and growing internet penetration, it will be easier for farmers to avail of such services.
We will see a time when all farmers will have access to tools to make scientific decisions on their farms, produce more, and finally sell in the right market. They will be able to bypass all the middlemen and the inefficiencies in the system. And that will make an individual farmer profitable and strengthen the weakest link in the Indian economy.
Hobbies: Reading, Swimming, & Traveling
Favorite Cuisines: North Indian
Favorite Movies: Sherlock Holmes
Favorite Books: Zero to One & Goal
Favorite Travel Destination: Andaman & Nicobar Islands