Farmers with phones need smart inputs

Smart farmers with smartphones are seeding an agriculture revolution in the country. From pre-sowing period to cultivation to post-harvest activities. Mobile phone-enabled technology is allowing farmers to make smart and profitable choices. 

Farmers across India are being supported in almost every phase of process including pre-sowing information; sowing and crop management; harvesting and storage; and finally, price discovery with market access. 

A growing cohort of agri-tech start-ups have been working on several aspects of the agriculture value chain.  At the centre of this are the growing number of farmers with a smartphone. The rise in adoption of phones is helping them take informed decisions. The numbers of smartphone wielding farmers vary but there is a better estimate of rural mobile usage. The Internet and Mobile Association of India says that rural India has more than 217 million active mobile users. This is more than the estimate of 205 million in urban India. 

It is safe to say most of the active rural users of mobile will be linked to farm-related activities.

The drastic fall in cost of data on mobiles has significantly added to the adoption of usage of smartphones among farmers. India has the cheapest mobile phone data in the world. And not surprisingly more than 80 per cent of internet access in India is through mobile phones. 

As smartphone usage rises, even the millions without smartphones are getting critical information on text messages regularly. 

“Age is an important dimension of smartphone usage among farmers. We have noticed that younger farmers tend to be more comfortable with using phones for farming advice than older ones. And of course, the affluent farmer is more likely to have phone than tenant farmers,” says Siraj Chaudhry, managing director and CEO of National Collateral Management Services (NCML), a post-harvest commodity management company. Promoted by Fairfax, the shareholders of NCML include HAFED, Punjab National Bank, Corporation Bank, Bank of India and Indian Bank.

NCML is using technology in several of its activities to help farmers. It hosts market intelligence platforms for crop monitoring, production forecasting and remote sensing-based agri-lending. NCML’s EmktYard is an android app for procurement, which is active with 50,000 farmers in Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 

Usage of mobile-based information is uneven across the country. Literate farmers use mobiles with ease while tenant farmers can barely afford them. Educating farmers about the use of phones is another serious matter. The big push for usage of mobiles are done by companies selling their products to farmers. While many are genuine, there are also those who mislead the farmers. 

“We have to protect farmers from fake news. Most farmers have access to information, but many are unaware on how to deal with it. There is a risk of farmers being misled by incorrect or vested information. We have to work to create a framework where the agency providing information is accountable for it,” says Chaudhry. 

Even though agri-tech is raising millions of dollars of investment, a nationwide effort to bring technology to all farmers is missing. Most of the effort is fragmented and defined by crop or geography. 

Policy-makers and entrepreneurs must create models which can help the marginalised farmers even when there is no immediate return on investment. By seeding the farming community with appropriate technology and accountable information, all stakeholders stand to benefit.

The monopolies in agri-markets are being dismantled by the government. India must ensure that market intelligence and agri information flow remain open and transparent.  Mere smartphones will not make agriculture smarter. 

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