“I work from morning 5 AM to evening 6 PM in the fields every day. It is a constant struggle against the men in my village who try to sabotage my success”.

These were the words of Mrs. K Sasikala, a farmer-entrepreneur who lost her husband in 2004, leaving her with an enormous debt and a young son. Fighting against all the odds, she is now one of the biggest farm owners in the quaint village of Tripuraram in Telangana region of India. Having won several awards at the national and state levels and featured by a popular new channel, she is a quintessential example of a ‘progressive farmer’, constantly keeping herself updated with the latest techniques and experimenting with new variety of crops every season. Today, apart from being one of the most respected and innovative farmers in the district, she also owns a food processing unit, a biogas manufacturing plant and a dairy farm.

This was one of the many positive stories of change that we came across during an expansive, two-month ethnographic study on the agricultural sector done across different states in India. Progressive minded farmers such as Sasikala are not outliers anymore. We came across her counterparts in each village/area that we visited during our study. This changing paradigm of the agriculture sector presents a lucrative opportunity for start-ups and large technology businesses to enter a gargantuan market which has remained highly untapped till now.

 

Let us just look at the numbers for a minute: The agriculture market size of India is forecasted to touch $1640 Billion in FY 2016-17. Even if you consider reaching to 10% of that population who are ready to adopt technology to improve productivity and boost their income, the market size is still a behemoth figure of $164 Billion, which is astonishingly close to the projected market size of Indian IT & BPO market in 2016! ($160 Billion). The food processing industry, which is currently valued at US$ 39.71 billion, is expected to grow to 65.4 billion by 2018. The total number of rural internet users is expected to rise by about 200 million by 2020, which is 20 million more than the entire population of Pakistan!

Low Productivity and low transparency are currently the two major challenges hindering the growth of agricultural industry, especially from the point of view of farmers. According to estimates of Goldman Sachs, labour productivity in other industries and services are 4 and 6 times more than agriculture, respectively. There is also a high rate of labour migration to cities (owing to Govt. schemes such as MNREGA), resulting in high labour wages which in-turn decreases productivity and profitability. Transparency is another malignant issue, caused by the notorious ‘middlemen’ (traders, wholesalers, mandi agents etc.) in the value chain. They end up devouring a lion’s share of the value of the produce before it reaches the end consumer, sometimes even as high as 50%.

 

Several small and medium sized technology start-ups are already fighting it out in the Agritech space, with the prominent ones in recent times being Reuters Market Light and IFFCO Kisan Sanchar. But prominence here is only relative. The total workforce in agriculture sector is about 228 Million. The percentage adoption of these services is astonishingly low (about 100,000), which means that there may be an Infosys or a Wipro of the agricultural industry lying dormant/yet to exist. It is indeed quite surprising how even with highly advanced technology such as drones and soil monitoring systems being around for several years, nobody has quite managed to make serious inroads into this sector.

These are some of the ways in which firms could strategically increase their market share in agriculture without having to splurge on marketing campaigns:

  1. Platformize (Apple, Uber, eBay, Coursera): In the platform model, the owner only acts as a facilitator of the services rendered by the producers to the end consumer. One of the best success cases of this model is Apple, who created the entire AppStore marketplace as a platform ecosystem where the creators and consumers come together in a single platform to share information, needs, reviews etc. What could possibly work in the Indian agricultural scenario is a combination of the models used by Apple, eBay and Coursera, where there is an open knowledge platform providing advisory, combined with an open e-commerce marketplace and an opportunity for existing/new businesses to create innovative services using the platform.

  2. Make it Social, Exciting and Gamified (Facebook, Snapchat, Zomato): In the agriculture sector, social media can play a powerful role in connecting farmers across the nation to share their knowledge, experiences & business acumen and in offering support (both monetary and informative). 

    There are already platforms trying to capture this market, for example the producer-consumer social network Farmily, It was started by serial entrepreneur Karthik Natarajan, who himself comes from a family of planters. Farmily’s mission is to become a Facebook for farmers, connecting them to buyers, other farmers and the ecosystem (distributors, input merchants, food processors etc.). 

    An important aspect to be kept in mind for a social platform catering to farmers would be that of gamification.  With a careful combination of gamified conversations, morale boosting features, audio interfaces and other exciting interaction modes, a platform could really take off.

 

THE SOCIAL ASPECT

Beed district in Marathwada, central Maharashtra, has already seen 44 farmer suicides in the 2017. And it is only mid-April. The worst of summer is yet to come. Farmer suicides have been on a rising trend since the last decade, with climate change causing longer droughts and untimely rains. One of the chief factors for this is also the lack of financial literacy about availing credit (banks, microfinance, moneylenders).

Information Technology has the power to change this dark trend which is adversely affecting the entire nation. By equipping farmers and other stakeholders with the right knowledge, right skill sets and right guidance, the entire farming ecosystem can be revamped towards a productive, sustainable, and brighter future. This entails that any tech based business model in the agricultural sector which also has a sustainable social vision has enormous potential to benefit from it.