Ashok Prasad, Co-Founder, Unnati

Ashok is a strong proponent of disruption in agriculture through intelligent usage and penetration of digital technologies and tools. He has had considerable experience of over 25+ years in telecom, IT and Agri-domains. Ashok had started looking at digital and data-driven solutions for farmers, as early as 2011 under the firm Akshamaala Solutions (P) Ltd. His professional work experiences with Ericsson, Nokia Network, Nortel Networks, One97 Communication and Tata Teleservices, combined with his education in software systems and management has equipped him to ideate and create profitable tech-solutions for farmers through Unnati, which successfully champions its vision of #PoweringFarmBiz.

 

The COVID-19 outbreak brought businesses across sectors to a standstill for months on end. However, certain essential sectors were operational throughout these trying times. Agriculture is one such industry that has been actively working and sustaining millions of livelihoods during the outbreak. However, it cannot be denied that the agriculture industry has also faced several significant challenges due to local lockdowns in various parts. Here’s looking at some of the key challenges faced by the industry.

  • Shops did not open for sufficient time, deeply impacting sales.
  • Farmers were not able travel long distances due to the lockdown
  • Supply chains disrupted both the delivery of inputs and farm output
  • Market yards and mandis were closed
  • There was general uncertainty about the future

Apart from these primary issues, there was also a transformation in consumer behaviour, directly affected the agriculture space both positively and negatively. These included:

  • People didn’t want to step out of their house, primarily when the cases revolved around the upper limit, even when the lockdown wasn’t imposed.
  • Human touch has reduced in all aspects with fewer interactions
  • Adoption of digital platforms was on the rise for most activities from work to shopping
  • Doorstep deliveries became more acceptable across sectors from food to electronics
  • The use of digital payments went up significantly.

Evidently, the challenges were vast and multidimensional, but technology cam to the rescue. The Agritech industry saw considerable growth even during the pre-pandemic phase. Agritech firms by design are using technology to revolutionise various aspects of farming. This has helped them weather the pandemic despite the prolonged lockdown while witnessing growth. In many scenarios, Agritech companies were the only way for several aspects of the agriculture ecosystem to function.

By supporting the agriculture space, Agritech companies have been able to manage the above challenges well and have grown their business in multiples. The number of signups and usage of the apps have gone up significantly. However, Agritech firms faced challenges in logistics availability and deliveries, just like any other industry. The disruption from employees getting impacted by COVID themselves also has been a challenge. Some of the initiatives that Agritech companies have taken to overcome the challenges include the following:

  1. Digitising their internal processes for business continuity and employee safety
  2. Investing into tech and product development to come up with features that help in enabling as much as possible remote usage
  3. Regular connection between all stakeholders through online modes
  4. Remote working
  5. Partners being trained on digital processes to bridge the digital skill gaps across the value chain

Historically, it has been a natural trend noticed by economists that any economic crisis always follows a major economic boom. We notice a global recession once in a decade for some reason, and major economies bounced back by destroying records and charts at levels not computed by any reasonable man. Agriculture accounts for a major necessity, and therefore, one might wonder what would be the post-pandemic impact on this extremely vital sector. While the Agriculture sector acted as a cushion for the Indian economy’s significant depreciation on national GDP, we cannot ignore the fact that it is still a part of the unorganised sector.

We must acknowledge that the agriculture sector needs a significant shift from traditional modes to modern output ways. This is quintessential to boost healthy growth and allow Indian production to compete in the world market. We are forced to make a trade-off between quality and quantity. If we try to meet the market demand, which was the case during the pandemic, as there was a sudden surge in the global demand for food supplies, we often have had to impose inhumane labour hours and quality compromise.

This must be eliminated by facilitating significant infrastructure changes. India has the potential to revolutionise its agriculture sector because, as per NASSCOM’s 2019 report, India is home to more than 450 agri-tech start-ups, growing at a rate of 25% annually. These agri tech companies can fill this gap at a higher rate of change by using Artificial intelligence, GIS, Blockchain, data analytics, remote sensing and various Internet of Things Devices. It has been proposed that blockchain can increase transparency and augment the efficiency of the supply chain throughout the country.

Furthermore, Agroeconomic intelligence can help micro-financing and improve credit facilities which have been a struggle in the pandemic. 86% of India’s farmers are small and marginal as per Agriculture Census 2015-16. Therefore, the government has to include digital literacy and digital empowerment in their schemes to reap the benefits of modern-day technology.

To draw a reasonable conclusion, overall, Agritech companies have been overcoming quite well and have grown despite the significant challenges. While we know that India has massive growth potential through a constant inflow of FDI, we must act as a catalyst to push our government to bring about instrumental changes in the agriculture sector when the pandemic is brought to a halt.

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