Agriculture in India has been an enduring
source of livelihood. Employing nearly half
of the workforce and contributing to 18 percent of the country’s GDP
, the sector is undergoing a transformative phase
with the growing application of digital technologies through various agri-tech initiatives. For instance, India's Union Budget 2023-24
presented unique opportunities for leveraging digital technologies in agriculture and promoting urban farming.
The Agriculture Accelerator Fund
, with an initial investment of INR 2,200 crore
, highlights India’s commitment
to supporting agri-tech startups to enable India to achieve a US$5 trillion economy by 2025–2026. With an outlay of approximately INR 500 crore
for startups alone, this fund seeks to incentivise young innovators to collaborate with the agriculture sector.
The Agriculture Accelerator Fund, with an initial investment of INR 2,200 crore, highlights India’s commitment to supporting agri-tech startups to enable India to achieve a US$5 trillion economy by 2025–2026.
However, climate change, a growing population, and limited
resources have challenged
the country’s sustainable farming practices. While digital technologies may address issues
such as crop yield prediction, soil health monitoring, pest management, and enhanced precision
farming techniques, how can agri-tech be sensitised to the critical challenges of India’s agricultural sector? How can artificial intelligence (AI) be applied constructively to address issues related to agriculture more inclusively?
Understanding Agri-tech and its potential
The potential of digital technologies
in agriculture is enormous. Combined with traditional knowledge, farmers can make informed decisions, optimise resource utilisation
, and increase productivity. For example, AI-based
crop selection and prediction tools help farmers select the most suitable crop for their land based on soil type, weather conditions, and market demand. Further, digital technologies
can provide farmers with insights into animal health
and nutrition, and assist in smart breeding
and livestock management
, enabling farmers to improve productivity and profitability. Many countries
have adopted agri-tech to build a resilient agriculture sector, especially for urban farming
. For instance, due to limited land, Singapore
only produces 10 percent of its food. However, advanced agri-tech has helped the country establish high-tech egg farms to feed hens and collect, grade, and package eggs. It also uses containment systems to farm fish in controlled environments to protect the fish stock from threats such as rising sea temperatures, algae blooms, and oil spills. Companies like Blue River Technology in the United States
(US) have enabled automated essential crop management tasks like weed scouting, fertiliser application, and crop harvesting to reduce labour costs and increase efficiency.
Digital technologies can provide farmers with insights into animal health and nutrition, and assist in smart breeding and livestock management, enabling farmers to improve productivity and profitability.
With a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25 percent, India’s Agri-Tech industry
is expected to reach US$24.1 billion by 2025
. The sector has also attracted increased foreign investments
in recent years, including from international giants such as John Deere
, and Syngenta
. India has 3,000 startups
in the agricultural sector. Companies like DeHaat
, Absolute, Reshamandi
, and AgNext
utilise advanced technologies of precision farming and virtual farm
aggregation—including soil and water sensors, supply and demand chain monitoring, smart crop selection, weather tracking, satellite imaging, pervasive automation, minichromosomal technology, and vertical farming—to revolutionise agriculture.
India’s abundant millet production
and the global demand for nutritious superfoods present a valuable opportunity. With the Indian government’s focus on millet consumption to enhance nutrition, food security, and farmer welfare, India is well-positioned as the leading producer and second-largest exporter of diverse millet varieties
. This advantageous position, coupled with the beneficial use of agri-tech for increased profitability and efficiency, could boost India’s productivity, enabling it to emerge as a leader in organic and regional food markets, catering to the increasing demand.
Gaps and challenges
Food production in the world must increase by 70 percent
to feed its population, which is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. The gains of technological innovation in the agri-food sector are largely concentrated in the Global North. These attempts have largely prioritised environmental protection over increasing yield. For example, the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy primarily focuses on environmental conservation because Europeans consider “nature” as However, the existing socioeconomic conditions, fragmented farm sizes, larger populations, and the nascent development stage of countries in the Global South call for a different approach
Agri-tech attempts to help resolve challenges
the agricultural sector faces in the Global South, such as low-value capture, distress selling, and limited knowledge about climate-smart agriculture. Though it provides sustainable solutions, agri-tech has its complications
, such as high infrastructure cost, customer acquisition and devices, lack of digital literacy, and inadequate farm- and farmer-level data sets. These incumbent challenges create significant barriers to scaling agri-tech solutions and subsequent adoption by smallholders, resulting in low adoption.
Establishing high-speed internet connectivity and mobile networks are essential to ensure farmers' access to basic digital tools and information.
Smooth transformation of Indian agriculture methods requires advanced training and efforts for inclusivity from the government. For example, 54.6 percent
of India’s population is engaged in agriculture and its allied sectors, and only 1.65 lakh students
are enrolled in Under Graduate, Post Graduate and PhD programmes in leading
agricultural institutes. Moreover, insufficient credit
availability exists for farmers to utilise the digital technology
effectively. Establishing high-speed internet connectivity and mobile networks are essential to ensure farmers' access to basic digital tools and information. A lack of information on access to gadgets like smartphones for farmers and the implementation of such high-tech solutions in the field add to the challenges.
Roadmap for the future
- Foster Inclusivity: The United Nations has outlined three foundational pillars for digital inclusivity. The Digital India initiative is pivotal in driving digital inclusivity by ensuring widespread broadband connectivity in rural areas, benefiting the agricultural sector. Increased digital connectivity must be supplemented by training and capacity-building, vital to empowering farmers, by incorporating digital literacy classes in the National Agricultural Higher Education Project, and collaborating with leading agricultural institutes. Such innovations can help educate farmers on technology adoption and development while prioritising training and digital access. For seamless operations and increased productivity, a dedicated assistance team comprising trained professionals and AI-literate individuals from local government bodies could provide on-ground support, guidance, and expertise.
- Facilitate Data exchange: The government could encourage data sharing among farmers, researchers, and private sector entities to facilitate research and innovation in agriculture. Fostering a collaborative data-sharing ecosystem through dedicated platforms is crucial for exchanging insights and mutual learning and leveraging the full potential of data-driven technologies that drive innovation. India must harness the potential of Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) at the international level, forging collaborations with countries such as the US, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and the European Union. This strategic cooperation would enable India to enhance its data capacity and leverage advanced AI technologies available in countries worldwide. By establishing robust data exchange pipelines, India can strengthen its existing capabilities and build a comprehensive database for future research. However, it is essential to establish data protection protocols and maintain strict vigilance over data accuracy.
- Encourage Innovation: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched Cultiv@te, a programme that focuses on utilising South-South and Triangular Cooperation (SSTC) to examine and expand technological innovations. Its primary aim is to assist developing nations, including India, promote local innovation. Krishi Vigyan Kendra Knowledge Centres (KVKs), a 100 percent Government of India-funded scheme, is a single-window agricultural knowledge resource and capacity development platform “evaluating location-specific technology modules in agriculture and allied enterprises through technology assessment, and demonstrations”. They support public, private, and voluntary initiatives for improving the district-level agri economy, linking the National Agriculture Research System with farmers. In April 2023, NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission and the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare connected the Atal Tinkering Labs with KVKs and the Agricultural Technology Management Agency to support agriculture-related innovation, especially among the school-going youth. Similarly, the government could provide grants and support to agricultural startups, following the successful model of the Ministry of Agriculture's Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.
The fund has given a fillip to the Innovation and Agri-Entrepreneurship Development
programme, which has already supported 1,138 startups with financial assistance for improving farming practices such as precision agriculture, farm mechanisation, agri logistics and supply chains, waste to wealth, organic farming, animal husbandry, and dairy and fisheries. If the government’s intent is translated into action, the Agriculture Accelerator Fund could galvanise inclusivity, data mining and exchange and innovation initiatives to transform India's agricultural landscape and uplift India’s agriculture production capabilities, and also contribute to the unrealised promise of doubling farmers’ incomes.
Samridhi Diwan is an intern at Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.