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FOOD FOR ALL: Can digitalisation help?

The Sixth ET Food Strategy Summit, presented by Rabobank, discussed how technology can be made an able partner in the food sector’s growth

By 2050, the world is expected to have a population of almost 10 billion people. Of that, 1.57 billion will be in India. The question is: are we ready to feed them all? And if we are not, how can we do it? In Indian agriculture, the value chain process – from farm to consumer – is complex. With population expanding at a fast clip, there is enormous stress on the food supply chain. Fortunately, there is growing awareness about the need to change our ways of food production.

While policy and strategy are necessary arms in this endeavour, technology and mechanisation are increasingly playing a critical role in the future of food. But what are the innovations that are happening, and thatcan work? To take this critical issue forward, The Economic Times in association with Rabobank hosted the sixth edition of the Food Strategy Summit focusing on ‘Digitalisation of Indian Food & Agriculture Value Chain ‘ recently in New Delhi. The Forum, marked by two power-packed panel discussions and presentations by Rabobank’s experts, assessed the changing consumer spend habits, farm and food digitisation, and their impact on the food and agriculture value chain. Inaugurating the summit, Diane Boogaard, CEO, Asia of Rabobank, placed digital and data in their broader context and paved the way for the platform to discuss challenges, initiatives and opportunities that can benefit the Indian agri sector and the economy at large. Boogaard said, “It is in our interest to stand up for worldwide food security. The most pressing food issues of today are greater production with lower ecological impact, reduction of food waste, and ensuring we have stable and efficient food markets for everyone.” The subsequent sessions addressed these crucial issues in great detail.

The Value of Networking

Arming the farmer with tech tools to thrive

Indian agriculture is besieged by a host of challenges, and to be able to find solutions, technology is being used in various forms to address farmers’ production troubles and improve value chain services. The first panel discussed networked farms, and the core question was raised by Rakesh Dubey, Director-Policy, Regulation and Government Affairs, Monsanto: “The world has limited resources; we have to feed two billion people more in  the next few decades and we are not getting any more land. So, how do we achieve the food mission without burdening the planet and leaving nothing for our future generation?”

All the panellists shared insights on how technology could be leveraged to produce solutions to this pressing query. Rakesh Kapur, Joint Managing Director, IFFCO, said, “The farmer today is deprived of timely information with regard to market prices. So, electronically linking them to market platforms — whether to the agri commodity or warehouses for collateral management services for raising finance — will help the farmers.” Added Mukul Varshney, Director – Corporate Affairs, John Deere India: “One thing that is changing in Indian agriculture is ‘Uberisation’ of tractors. We have seen the benefits of Uber taxis and how it is all on the app. So, can something like that be done for the tractors? Farmers could go to the app, and click on information services like harvesting, tillage, sowing or spraying and raise an order.”

Stressing on the importance of data analytics, V. Venkata Krishna,  Lead-Digital Farming Solutions, ITC Infotech, said, “Because we have so many small, diverse, remotely located farms, collecting data on those farms is the real challenge. Once you work on that challenge, passing on thatinformation to the consumer is not really a big challenge.” The other data challenge is to build up knowledge on weather, soil and hydrology. “These are going to be very important in order to develop sustainable interventions to not just maximise private profitability but to do so sustainably, where we also need to assure we deliver not just food, but also nutrition,” said David Bergvinson, Director-General, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Focusing on the farmer, Krishna Kumar, Founder & CEO, CropIn Technology Solutions pointed out that the biggest pain in the life of a farmer is uncertain RoI. “If he does an investment today, he needs to wait for six months to get the returns, and meanwhile he doesn’t have any liquidity,” said Kumar. “Deploying technology to ease liquidity troubles can help farming remain sustainable.”

Is Indian Agri Digital Ready?

How technology can strengthen the agri value chain

The second panel vigorously discussed the subject “A collaborative effort: Enabling stakeholders to make the food & agri value chain digital ready.” Farming or agriculture cannot be seen in isolation – it involves a network of stakeholders that ultimately impacts the economy. So, streamlining the agri value chain has larger implications. Rajesh Srivastava, Chairman and Managing Director, Rabo Equity Advisors, explained, “Agriculture is not crop production as the popular belief holds, it’s the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and water. And without agriculture, it is not possible to have a city, stock market, banks, university or hospital. Agriculture is a foundation of civilisation, and a stable economy.” Srivastava stressed that the world needs disruptive practices for the supply chain that would certainly involve technology, failing which feeding 10 billion by 2050 would not be possible. Talking about how digitalising the farm sector is helping the farmers, Pankaj Poddar, CEO, Cosmo Films, said: “The farmer is able to know about the weather conditions, soil properties, what kind of crops they can grow, what kind of rates they can get for that crop, and so on.”

Digitalisation is creating efficiency and transparency in the whole value chain for different stakeholders, said Shashank Kumar, Founder & CEO, DeHaat. Focusing on linking the farms to various market segments, Sanjay Sacheti, Country Head India, Olam Agro, said: “When we look at digitalisation, it is not only about farms, it is about farming, trade and logistics, processing factories, trading and linking to various market segments”. In this ecosystem, disintermediation, collaboration and improvement in operational efficiencies will help cut across the value chain and make the sector more efficient and add value to activity. The panel also discussed how empowering the consumer is as important as empowering the farmer. Ganesh Ramamurthi, Head-Testing & Certification and Crop, Weather & Intelligence Group (CWIG) at National Collaterals Management (NCML), said, “Testing is important from the point of view of empowering the consumer. The consumer believes in hallmarks and logos. These will be required, and to get them, you require a systemic and standardised regulatory authority.” Even as the other panellists deliberated on the importance of digitalisation and whether we are ready for the digital revolution, Alexander d’Huc, Director/Country Manager, De Lage Landen Financial Services, questioned: “Actually, can we afford not to be ready?” He believes that digitalisation is just a mindset, and it’s the courage to let go and to let machines decide on things which they can do much better and let others focus on other things. “We are trying to support this initiative by applying new digital ways of supporting farmers and financing,” he said.

Tech Adaptability to strengthen Agri Value Chain

D. Paul Schuilwerve, CEO- India, Rabobank shares his view of the future of the agriculture sector and how digitalisation can dominate the F&A businesses in India..

What are the challenges that digital platform can help to overcome in context of Indian agriculture?

The main challenges in Indian agriculture will be to grow more food with declining available land and reducing waste by adopting sustainable and energy-efficient farming solutions. Digitalisation has tremendous potential and an integrated digital platform with the ability to deliver key services like – access to farm inputs, access to credit and access to market – can help overcome these issues.It will also help in traceability of food produce which can help reduce food wastage across the value chain, in particular at the upstream. It can also bring small farmers to the level of large farmers  terms of access to information, inputs, markets, price discovery leading to improved income. These changes can help improve farm management, increase food productivity and develop end-toend market linkages.

What are your views on adaptability of digital technologies in Indian agriculture?

An all-inclusive digital platform can prove to be a game changer for Indian agriculture.The success in adoption of technologies will largely depend upon customising services to large numbers of small farmers in India. Integrated farm technologies with strong linkage to information and communication technology (ICT) framework is still at a nascent stage in India. However, barriers to use digital farm technology will go down and large corporates backed initiatives together with ag-startup will deliver cost-effective customised and affordable solutions to farmers. Small farmers will also be able to use digital platform to get services like soil moisture, nutrient level and quality of produce for their small tract of land. In the future, these small farmers will be able to use the digital platform for advanced technology solutions like drone based technologies for application of fertiliser and pesticides.

What is Rabobank doing to promote digitalisation in Food & Agribusiness?

Globally, Rabobank is actively promoting digitalisation initiatives in the food & agriculture value chain. We have built a global digital farming community through the ‘Global Farmers’ initiative which promotes exchange of ideas between farmers and other stakeholders. Our initiative ‘Terra Accelerator’ is bringing together disruptive technology start-ups in food & agri for cross-industry innovations. We are using block chain for financing transactions in trade of food commodities. In India, from this year we are working with agri incubators/accelerators to identify various ag-tech/ fin-tech initiatives which innovatively addresses the supply chain fragmentation issues and can potentially facilitate access to financial services to small-holder farmers. Rabobank through its digital initiatives and efforts is determined to reinforce its belief of ‘Growing a better world together’.

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