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COVID-19: How Agritech start-ups can help farming in the hour of crisis

Agri-tech ecosystem can play an important role in many ways to keep the food and agri supply chain rolling. Many agri start-ups are already working to solve the problems at hand

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Nearly 450 active Agritech start-ups are functioning in India. Since 2014, Agritech start-ups have received US$ 545 million as venture capital funding, out of this, US$ 330 million came in 2019 only. According to FICCI, these start-ups are growing at 25 percent year-on-year.

FICCI Task Force on Agri Start-Ups is supporting and scaling agri innovations by agri start-ups, which can transform agriculture landscape and improve farm economics. The agriculture and food supply chain is broken and disrupted due to COVID-19 pandemic and need some immediate solutions. As of now the priority for the nation is to keep the agriculture supply chain rolling during and post lockdown phase. This becomes even more critical when a huge Rabi crop will have to be procured and stored as well as the sowing for Kharif will begin in a few weeks. Agri-tech ecosystem can play an important role in many ways to keep the food and agri supply chain rolling. Many agri start-ups are already working to solve the problems at hand. Some of the possible solutions by them are as follows:

Agri-tech Solutions for Rabi produce

(1.A) Aggregation and distribution of farm produce from point of collection to consumption centres

Aggregation of farm produce is a key missing link in the supply chain. Mandi infrastructure -- including loading, unloading, grading, sorting, packing, quality assaying, trading -- is not working as much as it should to handle the Rabi harvest at hand. In addition, there are many pockets in the country, where the density of mandis is low and not easily accessible to farmers. Many start-ups are trying to connect farmers with buyers including retailers, e-commerce, food processors, cloud kitchens and even direct to consumer.

Start-ups working in this area include Ninjacart, Jumbotail, Bigbasket, ShopKirana, SuperZop, WayCool, MeraKisan, Kamatan, DeHaat, KrishiHub, Agrowave, Loop, Crofarm, FreshoKartz, Agribolo, Himkara, Kisan Network among any others.

(1.B) Quality assaying of agricultural commodities

Grading and sorting methods used in India are often manual, subjective, instrument driven, expensive or time-consuming. The Indian agricultural supply chain has always faced a problem of lack of standardisation of grade of commodities. This makes it difficult to develop a pan India market platform like e-National Agriculture Market (eNAM) for trading and online or remote transactions of commodities. Such a platform needs to be operationalised urgently for enabling remote transactions for farmers and traders.

Many Agritech start-ups are attempting to solve problem of standardisation through mobile imagery and digitisation such as transactional data, discovery and traceability. The start-ups in this category include Intellolabs, Agricxlab, Zense, Raav Tech, Occipital, Amvicube, Nanopix among others.

(1.C) Building near-farm storage, warehouse and processing units
We may lose significant proportion of food products after harvest due to disruption and poor infrastructure. Lack of bulk storage and transportation for cereal crops and lack of end-to-end cold chain facilities for perishable items -- including animal protein, milk, and horticulture -- is another major challenge causing post-harvest wastages.

A majority of losses can happen immediately after the harvest at the farm level itself because of lack of labour on the farm. Some start-ups have begun work on near-farm, modular and affordable storage and processing solutions. These storage facilities are intended to give farmers an option to sell the produce at the right price at the right time instead of immediate or distressed liquidation of their produce after harvest. The start-ups in this category include Our Foods, Agri Bazaar, Star Agri, Arya Collateral, Ecozen, Origo among others.

2 Agritech Solutions for Kharif sowing

(2.A) Optimise the use of agricultural inputs and enable delivery to farmers
The solutions include farm and crop diagnostics for mapping soil nutrition requirements through scanners and detection of pest attack through mobile imagery. This, in turn, helps in precise and timely application of agricultural inputs including seeds, fertilisers and pesticides.

These solutions improve farm economics by reducing the use of inputs and improving farm productivity. ‘Direct to farmer’ models for agriculture also enhance timely availability of necessary inputs, which conventional supply chains fail to deliver in many cases. Agri start-ups are trying to build business models to reach out to farmers directly with both online as well as through offline presence in the villages. Such start-ups can play pivotal role in making sure that farmers get desired inputs in timely manner. Some of the start-ups in this category are Agrostar, BigHaat, Behtar Zindagi, Unnati, Gramophone, Freshokartz, AgriBolo, DeHaat, Bharat Rohan and Bharat Agri.

(2.B) Reduce labour cost through mechanisation

Farm labour is in scarcity both for harvesting and sowing at this point of time. Mechanisation solutions include innovations in both hardware and farm services. Remote irrigation controllers, machines for urea deep placement, rain guns, and machines for grading and sorting, equipment for solar dehydration are some examples of innovations around hardware development to improve mechanisation in Indian farms.

Innovations around farm services typically include business models operating on the pay-per-use models, also known as FaaS (Farming as a Service), through custom hiring services. Such innovations have a huge role to play in improving farmers’ access of mechanisation.  Some of the start-ups in this category are Sickle innovations, Distinct Horizon, Tractor Junction, Khetibadi and J Farm Services.

In addition, some of the start-ups have focused on accurate and timely assessment of soil moisture and developing data-driven controlled irrigation model. The start-ups in this category include Satyukt Analytics, Flybird, Kritsnam, Agrirain and Manna Irrigation.

(2.C). Farmer advisory for crop monitoring include institutional credit and crop insurance
Agritech start-ups can also help in sowing as well as crop monitoring solutions. This include capturing and analysing multiple data points including weather, farm, soil and crop data, all of which can facilitate decision making as well as enabling farmers’ access to institutional credit and crop insurance.

Many of these start-ups are using satellite images to geotag farms, assess crop health and estimate output.  They are also building algorithms for farm monitoring and models for Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate and improve predictably of yield and farmers’ incomes. Some of these start-ups include CropIn, SatSure, Farmguide, Niruthi, Ekgaon Technologies, RML, AgRisk and Skymet. Start ups like Samunnati, FarMart, Jai-Kisan, PayAgri and Bijak are specifically working in value chain financing.

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