Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India's monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Rajarshi MIitra
Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India's monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Rajarshi MIitra

What use does the small Indian farmer have for data analytics? A lot, apparently.

A slew of big-data startups are empowering farmers with critical information to plan operations, from sowing to predicting crop yields, and thus gain access to cheaper credit and insurance protection.

The intervention of science to help farmers optimize agricultural production and marketing gains more significance as a deep-rooted farm crisis has emerged across India, leading farmers to demand loan waivers and better prices for crops.

This science of numbers can help assess soil fertility and nutrient requirements and predict crop output to make crop-insurance schemes precise and foolproof.

Data analytics enable businesses to process large volumes of data, identify and analyze patterns in the numbers and put them in context. Entrepreneurs use these insights to comprehend their environment better and fine-tune their business strategies. Top companies like Amazon, Netflix and Starbucks have made fortunes crunching numbers to understand consumer behavior.

Soon, Indian farmers will also be able to use data science for crop-health monitoring, crop-insurance management and soil-nutrient analysis among other things. SatSure, a data analytics startup, offers these and other services through its expertise in remote sensing using satellites and data science.

“We want to create a change in the lives of farmers not just by predicting crop patterns and yield but by improving crop insurance, innovating agri-lending services and creating a better link between banking agencies, insurance providers and farmers,” says Prateep Basu, 29, one of the company’s founders.

Basu was working with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bangalore when he read a news story of a farmer receiving a dismal four rupees as a payout on his crop insurance. Moved by his plight, Basu got together with two ISRO engineers and an entrepreneur to form SatSure.

Building a credit-rating system for farmers

One of them, Abhishek Raju, explains that SatSure is building a credit-rating system for farmers. He says banks hesitate to lend to farmers because they are often uncertain about recovering their loans.

But with accurate information about a farmer’s acreage, his yield over the last three years and the productive potential of his soil and the seeds he uses, the bank would gain the confidence to lend and meet the objective criteria to determine the loan size and repayment terms.

“Farmers can also use the same data to improve their crop and land quality,” Raju adds.

SatSure has tied up with the government of Andhra Pradesh, a state in the south of India, to provide data services to farmers.

But it is not the only player that’s marrying artificial intelligence (AI) and data science with agriculture. Bangalore-based Intello Labs, founded in May 2016, calls itself an ‘agri-tech’ startup and uses image recognition technology to monitor crops and assess their health.

Bangalore-based Aibono uses agri-data science and AI to provide agricultural solutions and stabilize farm yields. Its website claims that by monitoring more than 50 farm variables, the company can double a farmer’s income.

Meanwhile, Trithi Robotics, also from Bangalore, uses drone technology to help farmers monitor crops in real time and provide analysis of soil and seed quality.

Intello Labs founder, Milan Sharma, says farmers are under-served, exploited, ignored by the tech community and plagued with inefficiencies. Indian farmers do not have adequate knowledge about the quality of their product, so they don’t price it efficiently. Moreover, it’s difficult for producers to determine the shelf life of their products, he says.

The organization uses advanced tools to analyze crop photographs to ascertain its grade. “The solutions empower the farmers to demand a fair price for their produce. We aim to supplement this with crop-sowing data, weather predictions, soil quality and price visibility to give a holistic tech platform to increase the farmer’s income,” Sharma says.

And while private players explore the opportunities and challenges in the agriculture sector, the Indian government has come up with its own initiatives. A report by the national ministry of agriculture in May 2016 said agricultural land makes up more than 55% of the country’s geographical area. In collaboration with ISRO, the government has launched a program titled Forecasting of Agriculture outputs through Satellite, Agro-meteorology and Land-based observations.

Known as Fasal – the Hindi word for crop – this program uses remote sensing and data analysis to predict the yield of most of the major crops such as rice, jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), wheat, sugarcane and oil seeds.

Agri-tech firms face many challenges

Pankaj Rai, a senior vice-president for strategy at Wells Fargo, a US banking and financial services firm, says agriculture in India has many gaps that can be filled by the new wave of agri-tech and AI startups. At the same time, he cautions that the challenges are many.

Speaking at a recent event in Bangalore, he warned: “There is a steady decrease in land under agriculture when compared to the needs of the country’s growing population. The lack of mechanization and continued dependence on middlemen post-harvest are becoming hurdles for AI to completely penetrate the sector.”

According to SatSure co-founder Raju, the real challenges include the problems of credit rating and availability, the restricted access that farmers (and even state governments) have to advanced technology and the lack of timely information.

He said before his firm approached the Andhra Pradesh government, they conducted thorough field checks across the country to evaluate the quality of available agricultural data. They found that the data available with governments had many loopholes and were not comprehensive.

“But imagine if all states had done the simple job of digitizing land holdings. Our satellites would automatically be able to take these numbers, analyze them with soil structures, crop patterns and provide the government with accurate data,” he said.

But his colleague Basu says it’s better late than never. The government is now realizing the enormous potential that technology has to boost the agricultural sector. “From improving seed quality to enabling accurate insurance claims, AI can change the face of Indian agriculture,” he said.

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