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Digitalization of agriculture to empower farmers and ensure sustainability

Image Courtesy: Digitalistmag

Agriculture is on the cusp of a drastic transformation because of the increasing number of satellites in space, faster connectivity, and the all-pervasive and ongoing digitalization. From simple tractors, harvesters, and thrashers, the sector is traversing towards the use of satellite imagery, drones, AI, and predictive analytics for better yield.

The new paradigm of digital agriculture will encompass everything from sensors to real-time data analytics and resource optimization, to enable farmers to make more informed decisions. AgTech companies are actively working on the ground to change the face of a sector that needs to be reformed.

Indian AgTech startup DigiAgri is one such company that use agricultural intelligence to apply its cutting edge digital technologies to serve stakeholders

With the motto of ‘More Crop Per Drop, Per Dollar, Per Acre and Per Farmer’, the company aims to increase the productivity and profitability of the farmer to ensure that he becomes not just a sustenance farmer but a sustainable farmer. DigiAgri uses GIS, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and satellite imagery, to offer intelligent insights to farmers regarding which crop would be most productive as well as profitable.

The company works very closely with the farmers, giving them the advisory and support on ground to ensure they adopt the best practices using the data-driven agriculture models.

DigiAgri works with a lot of institutions and organizations across the globe. The International Centre for Agriculture, funded and sponsored by the Islamic Development Bank and the government of United Arab Emirates, is among its international partners.

“We work with the entire ecosystem, ranging from governments to private sector, and give them data-based insights on how to ensure efficient delivery of products and services to the farmers, and provide them with better market connect”, emphasizes Deepak Pareek, CEO, DigiAgri, in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World.

Deepak Pareek, CEO, DigiAgri

Satellite imagery and spatial data are increasingly playing a big role in agriculture today. What do you think the government should do to make it more widespread?

Satellite imagery is a critical component in what needs to be done right in agriculture. At DigiAgri, we use a lot of satellite-based technologies, but most of these are procured from overseas. The first thing that the government can do is they can put a lot of data that is available from ISRO, which now offers a resolution of up to one meter. That data and imagery need to be available free of cost for those who are using it for agrarian purposes because there is a social implication as well.

Currently, there is taxation on the technology we are using from satellite. Even if I buy image from someone, I need to pay taxes on that. There has to be a relaxation on this.

IOT and Blockchain are touted to be two technologies that will completely revolutionize the agricultural scenario. What are your views on it?

When it comes to IOT, until we don’t know what’s happening on the ground, it’s very difficult to create right models. But once they become affordable over the years, a farmers they won’t be just sowing the seeds, they will also sow the sensors.

In the developing world, one of the biggest challenges that farmers face is the lack of transparency in the ecosystem. There are a lot of middlemen and a lot of fleecing and exploitation happens across the value chain in most of the crops. Blockchain will make the system more transparent and trustworthy. In the case of India, I would like to recommend to the government that it should convert the E-NAM platform completely on Blockchain, only then farmers will be able to get a fair price for their produce.

Evolution of agriculture over the past 100 years. Courtesy: GNSS Market Report 2019

Since you are also a member of the World Economic Forum AgTech Committee, could you throw some light on its strategy for agriculture?

WEF has been very active in the past few years when it comes to sustainability. Agriculture and basically the things around agriculture are very critical in case you want a sustainable future. WEF is typically focused on multiple fronts. It focuses on increasing productivity and sustainability in our production systems, and water conservation and ocean rejuvenation. They are doing a lot of activities in these areas, including creating the rice policy intervention, setting up centres of excellence, so that the use of water gets reduced. About 70% of fresh water is used in agriculture and they are focusing on this issue,

And the third area where the World Economic Forum is working strongly is Africa. We need to empower Africa by getting funding and new technologies. Another initiative that WEF has is the concept of Association and partnership with local bodies. For example, Grow Asia, which is a joint initiative of ASEAN Secretariat and WEF. Here they are trying to help digital technology reach farmers in ASEAN countries. Similarly, they have GrowAfrica program where they are working on the ground with AFDB( African Development Bank) for taking technology to the farmers. There are similar initiatives in Latin America and India.

The landscape of agriculture in India has radically transformed over the decades yet modernization still remains an uphill task. How do you think this should be addressed?

We need a three-pronged approach to this problem. First is policymakers need to give impetus to modernization and the digitalization of agriculture. Secondly, we have to de-incentivize activities which are not actually helping us. For instance, we export a lot of sugar, and 8000ltr of water is used to make one kg of sugar. Just calculate the price of water in Europe for 8000 liters and then we sell that sugar for around 1.5 dollars. The challenge is that we will have to be smart enough in making these policies and de-incentivize any of these activities which are not in the right direction. The third approach would be in creating the right ecosystem. The problem is we are trying to import a lot of technology from the west, but unfortunately for the past 30 years, it has not given results to us. So we will have to find out own models, own champions from within the country who would be flag-bearer a unique agricultural model.

When we talk about enhancing technology access, the glaring inequality between big farmers and those with small landholdings is something that unavoidably springs up. What do you think should be done to reduce it?

More than 85% of the farmers in India are small and marginal farmers. Unfortunately, the cost of production of technology is pretty huge for them. Farmers are willing to pay for the technology, provided it gives value to them. But to ascertain that we are actually able to showcase the value is a really difficult task.

Until and unless we don’t have the ecosystem players – from the corporations to the government – subsidizing the initial cost of adoption, I don’t think we will reach anywhere on this. Another idea is that we can eliminate the small and marginal farmers from the ecosystem by using the cooperatives and IFU models. My view is that we are trying to solve the short term crisis by long term solutions; in the long run everybody is dead, so we have to ensure that we fix it now.

Also Read: How satellite imagery is crucial for monitoring climate change