Dr. Pablo Erat is co-founder of Innoterra AG, a Swiss-Indian food and technology platform company that aims to reinvent the food ecosystem to provide healthy food to the world in a sustainable manner. He currently serves as a member of the board and maintains strategic oversight of Innoterra’s corporate and business units.
Suniti Gupta is the Managing Director and CEO of Innoterra Tech, a business unit of Innoterra, a Swiss-Indian food and technology platform company that aims to reinvent the food ecosystem to provide healthy food to the world in a sustainable manner. She currently leads the technology initiatives of Innoterra Platform Services.
According to the World Economic Forum, more than 80% of the food consumed in the developing world comes from small- and mid-holder farmers. In Asia, Africa, and parts of South America, small-holder farmers are the backbone of the agri-economy and rural entrepreneurship. With improved access to reliable energy and cheap mobile data, many of them have been able to put themselves on a path to profitability. Still, most of these farmers lack access to infrastructure and digital and physical services to be able to improve their practices, add value to their products and reach new markets and revenue streams.
This unaddressed gap is one of the key challenges we are working to solve at Innoterra and our 20+ years of experience of working with Indian farmers makes us certain, that integrating technology from the grassroot level up is the key to unlock the vast potential of small- and mid-holder farming communities.
An integrated ecosystem to empower the farmer
The emergence of digital technologies, especially smartphones that are available ubiquitously in India, has connected farmers and rural entrepreneurs to the wider world. Their awareness levels are increasing, helping them discover new possibilities to improve their practices and add value to their produce. Platforms such as YouTube have transcended language barriers, making a wide variety of videos – including product reviews, best practices, and field demonstrations – available to them. Today, small-holder farmers can identify what they need to do to get better value for their produce and expand their business. Yet, unlike the large-scale farmers from the developed world, they face impediments due to the fragmented nature of the current food ecosystem.
To reap the full value of their produce, they need access to situation-specific knowledge, the right kind of farm inputs, optimal financing and insurance, tools for crop monitoring, product traceability, post-harvest infrastructure, and quality assessment, along with greater access to the markets. All these different cogs need to be connected to deliver real benefits to the farmers. It is therefore imperative that we take an integrated and open platform approach that brings various players and parts of the value chain together. We need an active network of farmers and service providers in the value chain, with 360-degree support and integrated services made fully accessible to small-holder farmers.
Such a platform approach creates multiple physical and digital service touchpoints providing farmers with more viable options and tailored information for decision making, empowering them to actively transform their businesses towards an economically and ecologically attractive future. Very importantly, a platform built to scale will eventually drive a network effect giving smallholder farmers scale advantages previously only held by large farmers. For instance, the “power of a virtual collective” will provide farmers access to decision-critical data, create space for virtual collaboration, reduce prices of farm inputs and infrastructure, make tech integration more cost-efficient, and improve price realization. We also expect to see new technologically driven revenue streams emerge such as the trading of carbon credits and collectively using data as a currency, which could become a significant additional value stream for smallholders across the country. These future opportunities would also add another major incentive for the adoption of integrated more sustainable farming models.
Traceability as a case in point
A great example of the platform approach working smoothly to augment farmers’ business comes from the verdant Alphonso mango orchards of Ratnagiri. The Alphonso mango, one of the most premium variants available, has a geographical indicator (GI) tag for the Konkan region in Maharashtra. Yet, the mango growers couldn’t translate the GI tag into higher prices for their crop. The challenge was to establish proof of authenticity needed to claim the premium price in the market. InnoterraTech worked closely with the Hapus GI Authority and farmers to make each mango produced in the region completely traceable, right up to the farm level. More than 400 million mangoes produced in the region are now in the process of getting traceability stickers – not only a mark of authenticity of Alphonso mangoes but also a direct recognition of the farmers’ efforts to bring the best quality mangoes to the consumers. This initiative has helped the farmers in the region to increase their income substantially, by charging a premium that their product deserves.
Similarly, farmers in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are now using traceability solutions with their GI-tagged cherries, apples, Chiku (sapota), and other products, making their presence felt in the global markets. InnoTrace, the traceability application that makes this possible, is also making a range of product information accessible to the customers through a simple QR code scan. Consequently, buyers can make an informed decision about the food products, based on source, authenticity, sustainable growing practices, and farmer-friendly pricing strategies.
A generational shift in the making
Tech enablement is proliferating speedily in parts of India, but by no means is it the magic bullet to solve all challenges faced by small-holder farmers. It is a long journey that will make a meaningful investment of time, effort, and resources by all the stakeholders involved. The agri-tech start-up sector is still evolving in India. It is commendable to see young, energetic, and savvy entrepreneurs choosing to focus on transforming agriculture and the food ecosystem, but it is also important to note that expectations of fast-paced adoption of high-tech solutions by small-holder farmers are not realistic.
In certain geographies, fast-paced startups have not been able to deliver on their promises to the farmers, thus eroding the farmers’ trust. In some cases, solution providers are unable or unwilling to invest the resources to do capacity-building for small-holder farmers to enable tech adoption at the grass-root level.
The crucial point is that the adoption of technology is not a one-off leap for small-scale farmers. It is a journey that begins with small steps – and we very often see that it is a generational shift in making decisions differently, being open to new possibilities, and letting go of some old, decadent practices. At Innoterra, when we work with farmers and their families, we ensure they know we are fully committed to the process until its completion. Also, to build a robust community network, real-world outreach, on the ground, to our farmer partners is as important as the digital one.
Scaling business and expanding earning potential are goals that are every farmer’s ambition, but on-ground transitions needed to achieve these goals are different for each of them. Every farmer partner needs a uniquely calibrated roadmap to adapt to the platform and benefit from it. Mid-scale producers in semi-urban areas may be more well-informed and inclined to accept more advanced solutions, while small-scale farmers working in remote areas may need support to figure out basic digital access to avail themselves of the services on offer. To ensure that all farmers get equal access and opportunity, close engagement and training is a pre-requisite.
It is critical for businesses to fully commit to the transformation journeys of small-holder farmers, collaborating with regulatory authorities and other key stakeholders within the food ecosystem. The ambition of making India the provider of healthy, traceable, and delicious food to the global consumer can certainly be achieved by a focused effort towards creating a robust, value-added, and integrated food ecosystem. Companies that proceed with this conviction will make an important contribution to the blueprint of India’s development in the coming decades.