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COVID-19 crisis has caused extreme hardships for the Indian agriculture sector, not only for the farmers in terms of the losses they suffered but also the consumers as they have not been getting adequate supplies. Adoption of digitial technologies rapidly by some of the stakeholders has helped in easing the situation in a few clusters of the nation but this benefited only a small set of farmers. The response during the crisis by some however demonstrated that immense benefits can be reaped by the agriculture sector and a new era can be ushered in through adoption of digital technologies.
The world has come to a standstill from the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every other sector, Indian agriculture also finds itself struggling with innumerable hardships. Though agriculture falls under the essentials segment and is exempted from the lockdown, agri-supply chain is still not functioning. Structural issues that have been ignored for long and hurting Indian farmers have suddenly become visible for all to see.
The COVID-19 crisis has left farmers grief-stricken due to the shutdown of mandis, lack of transportation and storage facilities, scarcity of contractual labour and restriction in movement. Most of the farmers are unable to sell their produce and resorting to measures such as dumping their produce and delaying harvest, thus leaving a third of India’s informal sector in the lurch.
RAPID ACTION on the GROUND
With such severe challenges being faced by the farmers, several stakeholders are rushing to bridge the gaps and exploring reforms that were unthinkable even three months ago.
Some of the state governments quickly stepped in to relax the APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) norms to allow farmers to sell their produce directly to buyers bypassing the mandi and middlemen and setting up new procurement centres. In addition, the government has also propagated the use of eNAM (e-National Agriculture Market) gateway to serve as e-mandi and provided farmers with a logistics app to ensure the movement of produce.
Moreover, we have also witnessed several farmers and farmer cooperatives that have quickly taken to the use of technology to establish a direct connection with buyers and sell their produce. Modern technology-driven marketplaces, e-mandis that facilitate buy-sell transactions and other digital tools like mobile applications that directly connect farmers to buyers and consumers are now being embraced.
Reforms that were in the pipeline waiting to be introduced and adoption of technology that was not looked at as a number one priority have drastically made their way as a means to adapt to the crisis.
For instance, Chambal Agro Farmers Producer Company (CAFPCL) in Madhya Pradesh in a move to help their farmers overcome the crisis launched a mobile app to take orders for vegetables from urban consumers. After seeing the success of this initiative, the district administration has replicated this experiment in other administrative blocks of Gwalior, in partnership with other organisations. This is a good example of how a traditional organisation quickly embraced technology and as a result the Chambal FPC team is now recognised as COVID-19 warriors.
Several other prominent players who have been supplying groceries, vegetables and other food products to hotels, restaurants, caterers among others have pivoted from B2B to B2C model to help farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers in apartments and societies of urban areas. Other agritech companies that are operating e-mandis have witnessed high transaction volumes post COVID-19 and those focusing on farm advisory services are working hard to streamline the delivery of inputs to the farmers’ doorsteps.
DIGITAL ACTION in the CLOUD
It is evident from the above cases that the adoption of digital tools and technology has not only helped the farmers sell their produce but also the consumers to get food on their plate during the lockdown. Agritech companies leveraged their cloud computing technologies to quickly scale their operations and support their actions on the ground. Even though farmers are not that adept using technology by themselves, support by modern agritech players, timely government reforms and the need to be agile during tough times has enabled swift changes.
A digital agri ecosystem or supply chain provides immense opportunity to make the farm-to-fork or soil-to-shelf paradigm a reality through increased capabilities in information flow, online transactions, standardisation of processes and seamless interaction between stakeholders. It can play a vital role for farmers and other stakeholders not only during times of crisis but also beyond.
8 Benefits digital agri-supply chain can offer to the agriculture sector
1. Seamless Communication
The digital landscape boosts internal and external communication throughout the supply chain. Farmers and FPOs (farmer producer organisations), even though are unable to travel to the mandis to sell their produce are able to quickly interface with buyers and consumers through digital connections.
Digital solutions enable greater visibility into each stage of the supply chain from cultivation to post-harvest cycle to the end delivery to the consumers and businesses.
3. Demand Driven Supply
Institutional buyers, who need consistent supplies to meet the downstream commitments they have, can publish the demand enabling producers to align their sowing accordingly.
4. Harvest Forecast
Digital access can provide detailed insights on what crop is being grown, what stage is the crop at, what quantity will be harvested and when giving confidence to buyers.
5. Real-time Advice & Authentic Inputs
Farmers can get real-time advice from experts based on the current stage of the crop and can also be connected with authentic input dealers if any intervention is required and get farm-gate delivery of inputs.
6. E-Trading & Market Linkage
Facilitates transactions between buyers and sellers without the need to physically meet, which opens up opportunities from across the country and offers pricing transparency.
7. Loss Prevention
Getting information about the cold storage in the supply chain where perishable items can be stored can prevent losses.
8. Reliable & Efficient Logistics
Connecting with service providers in real-time so that transportation of produce can happen from farmgate in a hassle-free manner for the farmers.
NEW ERA on the HORIZON
The crisis has drastically made people introspect and find innovative methods to adapt. We all know that this too shall pass, but with the passing of this crisis, innovation and digitisation should not slow down. We hope that the small fraction of farmers that quickly adapted to the situation without succumbing to it increases in the days to come and a greater population of farmers reap benefits in the future.
The crisis is an opportunity to bring in long pending transformations with modernisation and digitisation at its core to eventually benefit all the farmers of India. In order to de-risk and streamline the supply chain, a digital ecosystem is vital to transgress upon any challenge that comes upon.
We don't know what the world will look like after COVID-19, but we are hopeful that Indian agriculture will have a new lease of life with reformed policies, changed mindsets and adoption of innovative digital tools and modern technologies.
(Views expressed in the article are author’s own.)