Startups and venture capital are pouring into what might seem an unlikely place: India’s vast, outdated agriculture industry. Seizing on controversial new deregulation, entrepreneurs are selling farmers apps to connect them to big buyers nationwide and using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the rickety supply chains that lose one-fourth of India’s produce to wastage. Enormous amounts of India’s grain, fruit and vegetables rot between farm and table because of manual handling, repeated loading and unloading, poor inventory management, lack of adequate storage and slow movement of goods. This rate of wastage from faulty supply chains is four to five times that of most large economies, experts say.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced changes it calls a watershed that will “remove middlemen and let farmers sell their produce directly to buyers,” improving their prospects, especially in far flung areas. Modi’s September overhauls, potentially the biggest reform ever to India’s massive farm economy, let farmers sell to institutions and big retailers such as Walmart not just to regulated wholesale markets.
But farmers fought back with disruptive national protests and Modi lost a cabinet minister from breadbasket state Punjab over concerns that the deregulation might endanger government-guaranteed minimum prices for produce. The farm sector contributes nearly 15 per cent of the output of India’s $2.9 trillion economy and employs around half its 1.3 billion people.
Producers and buyers are looking for business, helped by high-tech gear backed by big investors. Some 85 per cent of India’s farmers own less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land and lack the means to sell beyond local markets, even if that means forgoing better prices. Potato farmer Rakesh Singh in Uttar Pradesh said he is keen to get computer-enhanced tools to help his business in India’s most populous state.
“Real-time prices available on live electronic trading platforms and easy-to-use trading apps for mobile phones make the process of price discovery and selling goods a transparent and hassle-free experience for us,” he told Reuters. Singh is looking forward to a trading app from Farmpal Technologies Pvt Ltd, a small firm based in western Maharashtra state, targeting heartland states with technology that connects producers directly with retailers, its software predicting market conditions and managing inventories accordingly.