Nimble Agriculture: The Road Ahead

I helped facilitate the Nimble Agriculture session at Design Public 4. We sought to gain new perspective into the largely unsolved challenge of how we can use mobile technologies, social networks and new and innovative approaches to services deliver to better support small and marginal farmers in India. Anirban Ghosh of Mahindra’s agriculture vertical, Mark Kahn of Godrej Agrovet, Siddharth Tata of Acumen Fund and several other experts we involved in this challenge track.

The session started with an overview of the current scenario in the agricultural ecosystem. While we usually assume lack of sufficient funding to be one of the major challenges in BOP markets, this does not necessarily hold true for agriculture. The concept of Nimble Agriculture, that we’ve developed here at CKS is composed of a an array of sub-problems, including knowledge gaps, the lack of agri-inputs, production and supply chain loopholes, and behavioral dynamics between service and knowledge providers and small farmers themselves.

The inherent, dormant knowledge among farmers of their traditional practices of crop protection, seed and soil management, and storage has been depleted due to certain modern practices that have been dominant since the Green Revolution. Also, access to relevant information like weather unpredictability, pricing, markets, subsidies and schemes is lacking.

New technologies can energize the existing system by enabling communication and knowledge sharing in the unorganized agriculture sector. What we need to do is to align mobile and near-field communications technologies with existing outreach and farmer-empowerment initiatives in order to identify new ways of delivering information to farmers and allowing them to share existing knowledge in purposeful ways.

While the challenges of lack of knowledge, information, and agri-inputs are significant, the greater challenge is ingrained in the morphing social structures of rural India. Rural youth is lured by the glamour of the city. While agriculture is associated with hardships, cities are seen as new worlds of opportunity and upward mobility. This is deterring youth from taking up agriculture as a profession. Consequently, modifying behavioral patterns and causing youth to migrate to urban settings.

Several experts spoke of the need to recognize and restore the status of agriculture as a profession. Perhaps we need to create argi heroes by applauding the success of individuals whose work can serve to inspire the rural youth.

To take any initiative to any reasonable scale, private and government partnerships will be necessary. These partnerships will be strengthened further with national and international agencies coming together on the same platform, targeting ecosystems in totality. We can try to make existing value chains more lucrative, encouraging private entrepreneurship, and create new public-private partnerships to build more efficient agricultural and agri-processing systems.

This post is first of the series where we look at challenges of Nimble Agriculture. Watch this space for more.

About Neha Ahlawat

Neha Ahlawat is Associate Director- Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies. She is interested in exploring new approaches in ethnographic inquiry and design analysis for guiding social innovation and seeking integration between business development and design strategy.
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4 Responses to Nimble Agriculture: The Road Ahead

  1. Aditya says:

    neha, one of the fundamental questions i’m not quite clear on is whether innovations in agriculture can or should be investments from the social sector or from the private sector or both. in either of these two cases (effectively, for example bmgf and nabard on one side versus mahindra and godrej on the other side) what are the varying kinds of investments that different groups are likely to want to achieve. is the private sector willing to invest in sensor arrays, farm management solutions on mobile and the like? if yes, what is preventing this kind of innovation from coming about?

  2. Anand Vijayan says:

    Neha, are there any mobile operator – agriculture ngo partnerships that you can point me to? Also, is the government doing anything in the communication technology front?
    I remember in a RHoK (Random Hacks of Kindness) session that I attended, which had a bunch of software programmers trying to imagine up solutions for agri problems. Do you know if anything came out of those?

  3. Neha Ahlawat says:

    Aditya, we certainly need to look at it collectively. If the innovations have to happen in a coherent, socially relevant manner the investments need to come in from both sectors. At the same time we cannot ignore that if a model is not beneficial to the players chances of its survival are low. Someone said to me once that innovation in technology is often less important than innovation in the business model and I agree with that. It is therefore essential to develop viable, mutually beneficial business plans.
    I personally feel it is unlikely that any one organization- whether an NGO, ministry, funding agency, or private firm- will have all of the expertise required to succeed in designing and implementing successful innovations in agriculture through research, design, engineering, technological interventions, or funding alone.
    Going forward we will have to identify partners on the basis of their specialized knowledge, willingness to collaborate, and alignment of goals; and provide a common platform. Projects will have to be planned in a way that the key stakeholders can work together positively.

    Anand, yes partnerships do exist; though the engagement models vary significantly. There are several mobile based agricultural information services that have emerged in recent past, while some of these are government services there are several private sector services as well.
    For example, IIFCO Kissan Sanchar Limited offers free service (market information and agricultural advisory) to farmers. The partners behind this service are IFFCO, a well- known farmer’s cooperative organization that maintains a presence in 98 percent of India’s villages, and Bharti Airtel, a large mobile network operator (MNO).
    At the same time private services, like Reuters Market Light information services and Tata’s mKrishi cater to information needs of rural sector while ensuring significant business benefits to the stakeholders. We also have many private partnerships offering ICT enabled financial services to rural sector, such as m-paisa which is a partnership between Vodafone and HDFC bank.
    I fear I am not very well placed to comment on RHoK’s efforts. Want to shed some light?

  4. Ayesha Vemuri says:

    Thanks for the post, Neha. A question: did you address the idea of organic farming at all? Or perhaps some other alternative farming practices that are increasingly being adopted in other parts of the world, and to a lesser extent in India?

    I ask especially because I volunteered for some months on an organic farm in Coorg, Karnataka, where I also had the opportunity to meet and speak with a lot of the local farmers, who largely tended to be totally satisfied with the rural life and didn’t express all that much interest in the city life. This was also in large part due to the eco-farming and eco-tourism industry there, which is booming. This meant that the farmers were being paid very fair, above-market prices by small eco-tourism hotels and guest houses to encourage them to grow organic food. Most of these farmers had very small land holdings but were satisfied with their income.

    This may be a unique example that only works in certain places, but can you think of other community-driven engagement models such as this, which could contribute to the betterment of small and marginal farmers?

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