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Farmers tap into agritech start-ups to overcome pandemic-induced woes

Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, agritech or agricultural technology activities were largely seen as an urban phenomenon. Some of the more visible start-ups in this space were mostly dealing with the supply chain side. As the country now continues to fight the novel Coronavirus-induced crisis in various fronts, the services, solutions and products offered by agritech start-ups are seeing such greater acceptance among farmers. 

The pandemic has almost pushed farmers to take the help of agritech start-ups that operates in both in the pre- and post-harvest spaces. At a time when most of the wholesale vegetable markets and mandis are still shut in major cities, farmers in several states are finding the services of such enterprises extremely valuable. 

"Last month, a group of grape farmers in Baramati were struggling to find buyers for their produce and were willing to dispose it off at throwaway prices. We sent our logistics team and helped them connect with buyers as far as Ludhiana and Bikaner," said Amith Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Agribazaar, a business-to-business (B2B) online marketplace. The Mumbai-based start-up, which has 200,000 farmers and over 17,000 traders across the country on its platform, had a four-fold increase in sign-ups since March. 

The start-up uses artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to churn historical data and predict buying and selling prices of crops in a particular geographical location, to avoid price risk. Keeping the pandemic situation in view, the firm launched a new payment gateway called Agripay, which facilitates immediate settlement of farmers' dues instead of having them wait for days. The company said transactions worth $1 billion have been made through the platform that was built in-house.

Bengaluru-based Aibono, a B2B marketplace aggregator that operates on a seed-to-plate model, says it also witnessed a three-fold jump in its farmer base. "Demand from local kiranas rose by as much as 150 per cent during the lockdown, with a continued request for stock replenishment. We have seen a surge in our baseline orders by 150–200 per cent from the start of the pandemic till now," said Vivek Rajkumar, founder and CEO of Aibono.

Aibono, which caters to the post-harvest space, also claims it saw an uptick in its data science-driven just-in-time (JIT) harvest services. The idea is to make sure the cut product reaches retailers' shelves and avoid warehousing. "Eighty to ninety per cent of our vegetables never stay in a warehouse and move directly to the retailer in not more than 16 hours," Rajkumar of Aibono said. 

Selling and distribution is just one part of the story. Some agritech start-ups that are using AI and Internet of Things (IoT) to help farmers get better yields and employ efficient sowing techniques, too have witnessed a greater adoption among cultivators.  

"Post lockdown, farmers have been more receptive towards tech start-ups as they understand traditional (distribution) channels are no longer reliable in pandemic scenarios and the sowing season has now been delayed by a month. Our new enquiries have shot-up three-fold," said Ananda Verma, CEO and co-founder of Fasal.

The Bengaluru-based enterprise uses sensors and other IoT devices to capture relevant data from the farms continuously. The geographical location and algorithms based on historical data aid in delivering notifications to the farmer in local languages. "It helps in efficient water or input management, and alerts the farmers when the disease pressure is building up. as they are facing a shortage of labour as well," he said. 

Fasal is working on a plug-and-play model for its IoT equipment that would be more compact and require minimal technical knowledge for installation.

Funding in Indian agritech start-ups doubled to $250.3 million year-on-year in 2019, according to data obtained from Tracxn. The space has received $80.6 million in funding so far this year.

Highlights
* Agritech marketplaces witness 2-4x surge in new sign-ups
* Start-ups catering to pre-harvest segment see increased adoption of IoT-powered devices for resource and disease management
* Mumbai-based B2B platform Agribazaar helps grape farmers in Maharashtra connect with retailers, preventing disposal of produce at throwaway prices
* Farmers realise traditional diistribution channels are no longer reliable in pandemic scenarios 
* They are tapping into tech as Kharif sowing season now gets delayed by a month

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