Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part series about the impact of IT on farming in India. Read Part One.
No doubt about it, Mother India is a farming powerhouse. She feeds not only her people, but a sizable portion of the world as well. As a major player in the global marketplace, especially for agricultural exports, India ranks second worldwide in farm output, landing in the top three for production of wheat, rice, cotton, peanuts, eggs, milk, bovine meat (water buffalo) and sugar.
Over the past 10 years, India has experienced the highest export growth rate of any country (21 percent), compared to Brazil (15 percent) and the United States (nine percent). At the same time, India has seen an increase in agricultural exports from $5 billion U.S. to more than $40 billion, making her the seventh largest agricultural exporter worldwide.
India’s agricultural accomplishments are impressive, especially when you consider that, just a little over 50 years ago, millions of Indians were on the brink of mass famine. Indian agriculture, however, continues to face some significant challenges. These include inadequate infrastructure, weather-related issues, outmoded farming practices, inefficient market and capital structures, scarcity-era regulations, and widespread illiteracy and under-education.
An anticipated increase in population makes solving these challenges all the more urgent. Currently Indian farmers feed 1.2 billion people with a food production of 260 million tons. By 2040, they will need to increase production to 500 million tons in order to feed an estimated population of 1.5 billion. They will also have to do this on less acreage, as farm land is swallowed up by population growth.
While Indian farmers continue fighting to succeed, they no longer have to rely on just hard work and luck. They have a new and powerful ally — information technology (IT). IT has completely altered our world and solved many age-old problems, and now, with the spread of internet access, it’s making a positive difference for India agriculture.
The government and private industry realize the importance of collaborating and leveraging IT and the internet to improve farming efficiency. One proven method of doing this is e-Choupal, an initiative set up by the Indian conglomerate ITC Limited (ITC). E-Choupal was established in 2000 out of ITC’s desire to capture more of the soybean crop.
The e-Choupal (“village square” or “gathering place” in Hindi) initiative directly confronts the challenges of poor farming techniques, retail uncertainty, and under-education by installing computers with internet access in rural areas as a way to provide farmers with up-to-date marketing and agricultural information.
ITC selects one rural farmer, respected by his peers, to host a computer in his home. Each computer is linked to the internet via phone lines, if possible, or by a VSAT connection. The hosting farmer, called a “sanchalak,” is then trained in the use of the computer and printer.
Each computer set-up (kiosks) typically serves an average 600 farmers from ten villages, all within approximately 5 kilometers of one another. Sanchalaks do receive compensation for having the kiosks in their homes, and for hosting regular information and training meetings in their homes.
E-Choupal has been a success for the farmers and the company. An earlier attempt to share information on farming and markets by radio and TV was frustrated due to the large number of different languages spoken by the farmers (India has 22 officially recognized languages). With internet access, training can be delivered to a gathering at the sanchalak’s house in the specific language of the region.
Farmers benefit by learning innovative farming practices applicable to their region (crop rotation, irrigation methods and proper fertilization) from an agricultural specialist, leading to a higher per-acreage yield. They are also able to reduce costs by purchasing needed farming supplies, such as seeds and fertilizer, for lower prices via a local ITC warehouse.
A significant advantage is that the farmers also have access to real-time market conditions and pricing. Instead of having to accept an arbitrarily low price set by local purchasing agents (who studies show repress profits by almost 50 percent), farmers are aware of the fair-market price and able to earn greater profits for their crops.
ITC of course benefits by lower procurement costs. They save almost three percent from commission fees and transportation than if they had to rely on local middle-men. The company also has more control over the quality of the produce it purchases.
Working closely with rural farmers has made ITC aware of their challenges, and as a result ITC has expanded the framework of e-Choupal to provide additional services such as access to health care and education.
There are presently 5,200 e-Choupal kiosks across six Indian states reaching almost 3.5 million farmers in 31,000 villages. E-Choupal is using IT to solve age-old problems and create a win-win for all parties.
Illiteracy and under-education
Schooling, particularly in the rural areas, has always been a challenge with non-standardized curricula, sub-standard instruction and poor facilities. India’s pupil-to-teacher ratio is currently at 42:1. There is ample evidence that lack of education is a major contributor to poverty. Farmers are hard-workers, but many lack a basic education or the skills to find employment outside of the farm, particularly during times of crop failure or between planting and harvesting.
Internet access and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have opened a world of learning to millions of people. Classes are often free and can be taken at a student’s convenience. Online offerings include everything from basic literacy and math classes, to skills and trades and all the way up to college courses for credit. Best of all, the courses are easily accessible on the computer and a variety of mobile devices.
Indian farmers have always been at the mercy of the elements. The monsoons are not reliable and too much rain is as bad as too little. Governmental agencies are currently using IT to mitigate damage to crops by warning farmers of extreme weather and offering tips to deal with it. For example, if rainfall will be less than normal, farmers can plant a drought-resistant crop, thus reducing the risk of loss.
Additional services like pest and disease alert applications also enable farmers to better plan and manage their crops and herds. Valuable information is easily disseminated through computers and mobile devices. An example of this is Water Watch Cooperative, a Netherlands based organization whose goal is “increased food production while using less water and pesticides”.
Waterwatch utilizes satellite, climate and weather data to facilitate crop growth. The data base is updated weekly and free to all users. Farmers can receive warnings about anticipated floods and droughts and take preventive measures. They can also “predict and increase their yields protect their crops from plant diseases and know when it is the best time to irrigate.”
Nurturing the soil
Traditionally, Indian farmers haven’t given much thought to replenishing the soil. Failure to do so leads to mineral depletion, soil exhaustion and lower yields — per acreage yields in India are among the lowest in the world.
India has a potential of 650 million tons of organic manure to fertilize their fields. Unfortunately, the cow manure is also heavily used as kitchen fuel. An easy solution is the use of chemical fertilizers. To this end the government provides subsidies and other incentives for farmers who use fertilizers, and chemical fertilizers are gaining wide spread acceptance.
To maintain quality and the proper usage of fertilizers, the government has also established a Central Fertilizer Quality Control and Training Institute at Faridabad and 52 control laboratories across the country.
With a few clicks of the mouse, farmers across India can access the latest information on the best fertilizers to use for their areas. They can ask questions of experts and even send photos of plants and stock for professional advice. Along with fertilizers, such practices are resulting in increased crop yields and larger profits for the farmers.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Transportation from rural villages to market is difficult — most rural roads are useless during the rainy season, and storage facilities are either inadequate or nonexistent. As a result, to avoid spoilage, farmers sell their harvested crops immediately to a local purchasing agent at distress level prices. Rural
The Food Corporation of India and the Central Warehousing Corporation are using IT to develop and maintain a network of rural storage centers. Such centers have the ability to keep produce cool and safe from vermin until a time when prices are higher and they can more easily be shipped to market.
While national and local governments are working to improve rural roads, private corporations like ITC are spending their own money to ensure that the farm products they buy are shipped in a timely and efficient manner. They use IT to plot out the best areas in which to build roads, the most advantageous times for harvesting and to implement regular pick-up and delivery schedules.
One aspect of farming that will benefit greatly from storage facilities is dairy. Dairy farmers gather milk from their herds on a daily basis, and typically sell it on the same day regardless of price. With cold storage facilities farmers can deposit their milk for a week or more, avoid waste and sell it in bulk at a more favorable price.
Farming is a capital intensive activity; it takes money to purchase seeds and fertilizer, manage the farm and buy equipment. Unfortunately, the wealth of almost all farmers is tied up in land and animals. With little cash on hand, they regularly find themselves having to borrow money until they sell their harvest.
Traditionally, the main suppliers of money to Indian farmers have been local purchasing agents — the same individuals who purchase their harvests. These agents often charge usurious rates of interest. The farmers, already struggling under the typical burdens of farming, struggle to pay off their loans. If for any reason a bad yield occurs, which happens quite often, the farmer faces the very real risk of losing everything he owns. This is doubly tragic because most of rural farms are family operations that have been worked for generations.
Fortunately, with the help of IT, rural moneylending is undergoing a positive change. Large private banks and governmental agencies have begun extending loans to farmers. Farmers use the internet to track daily interest rates and often combine with other farmers in cooperatives when shopping for the best loan. The new money entities realize the profits to be made and are fiercely competing to offer easy term loans to farmers.
Another aspect of easier money is insuring against crop failure. In the past the cost of crop insurance was prohibitively high, and few farmers could afford to purchase it. Now however, the banks are wrapping the cost of insurance into the loan. In the event of a failed harvest, the farmer is protected from losing his land and the banks still get their loans paid.
India’s long history has been filled with a multitude of challenges the sort which have destroyed many other civilizations. Like the plucky underdog who just won’t quit, India has repeatedly harnessed the energy of her people to survive and thrive. India’s agricultural challenges will be successfully met by her farmers and IT professionals.
In the coming decade look for India to become even more prominent on the world stage for farming and a great many other things.