What connects Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco and the Indian government? Agriculture, of course.
The agricultural sector in India, accounting for about one-fifth of GDP and employing about half of the nation’s 1.3 billion-strong population, has for long been the major lifeline for the economy. Yet, it is also inarguably one of the most outmoded, with numbers showing some of the lowest levels of productivity in the country. If any sector needs reforms yesterday, it is this one.
Consequently, the current government, in its effort of seeking food security for all, has decided to share farm statistics that it has been collecting since coming into power in 2014 with US industry giants Amazon, Microsoft and Cisco (along with several other local businesses, including Jio Platforms. and ITC) to follow a data-driven approach to boosting agricultural productivity all over the country.
Bloomberg reports: “the government is counting on the project’s success to boost rural incomes, cut imports, reduce some of the world’s worst food wastages with better infrastructure, and eventually compete with exporters such as Brazil, the U.S. and the European Union.”
Ain’t no tech like Agri-tech
Recent reports from Ernst and Young found that the current penetration of agri-tech in India stands at just about 1%, with the potential to rise to about $24 billion in revenue by 2025. This tie-up thus represents a great opportunity to deploy artificial intelligence, machine learning and networks into a sector much-starved of it.
The idea is simple: to collect data about soil health, crop patterns, weather patterns, credit and insurance into a single database for analysis using AI and advanced analytics. The goal is to be able to develop personalised services for a sector ‘replete with challenges’, such as water stress, degrading soil, peaking yields and a lack of infrastructure including refrigerated trucks or temperature-controlled warehouses.
Markets analyst Shruti Srivastava writes: “Under the agreement, the big tech companies help the government in developing proof of concepts to offer tech solutions for farm-to-fork services, which farmers will be able to access at their doorstep. If beneficial, firms would be able to sell the final product to the government and also directly to growers and the solutions would be scaled up at the national level.”
Currently, both Amazon and Microsoft have started one-year pro bono pilot programmes under this scheme. Whilst Microsoft has already selected 100 villages to deploy AI and machine learning platforms, Amazon has been offering real-time information and advice to farmers through the use of a mobile application and cloud services to solution providers.
For e-commerce firms such as Reliance and Amazon, this tie-up means securing a steady farm-produce supply chain in a groceries market that accounts for ‘well over half’ of the $1 trillion retail spending market of Indians. However, as is often the case within major foreign conglomerates coming into an emerging market, what this means for India’s fledgling agri-tech industry is major competition.
In fact, there have already been major concerns brewing over the adverse impacts that this may have on smaller and more vulnerable farmers, in what many see as a government tactic to provide greater sway to the private sector. This becomes particularly relevant against the backdrop of the recent wave of farmer protests against the new agriculture laws by the Indian government. Selling this technology-to-help-agriculture idea in a farmer-friendly way is thus going to be the biggest obstacle of all. Consider the following quote fromBloomberg:
“With this data they will know where the produce wasn’t good, and will buy cheap from farmers there and sell it at exorbitant prices elsewhere,” said Sukhwinder Singh Sabhra, a farmer from the northern state of Punjab, who has been protesting since November against the new farm laws. “More than the farmers, it is the consumers who will suffer.”