Profits With A Purpose

How Harvesting Data Is Allowing India’s Farmers To Reap More From What They Sow

Harvesting Farmer Network (HFN) is building a technology and data-driven intelligence engine that aims to bring speed, accuracy, transparency and prosperity to the world’s largest and oldest industry: agriculture. It has already gathered 3.7 million farmers in India onto a single platform, with the goal of using technology and new business models to make smallholder farming profitable.

And it is only the beginning. India native Ruchit Garg, a former Microsoft executive who successfully built and sold a startup in Silicon Valley before returning to his home country to launch HFN, wants to create market linkages to 120 million smallholder farmers in India and later potentially expand to other countries.

At the same time the Indian government is now building its own digital foundation for the agriculture sector called Agri Stack starting with some foundational Agri Data Sets needed by everyone that will cover 150-170 million farmers, 800 million farm land parcels and hundreds of crop varieties sown across India. Agri Stack aims to make it easier to bring various stakeholders – including s 2000+ agri tech startups and other private companies – to come together to improve agriculture in India, enabling better outcomes and results for the farmers and helping the government do a better job with agri-management. The government is building on its success with India Stack (now called Citizen Stack), the name for a set of open APIs and digital public goods that has unlocked identity, data, and payments at population scale, which has now been exported to more than 10 countries.

Meanwhile, The Agri Collaboratory (TAC), an India-based “non-compete, Agri Think & Do Tank” which is set up as a non-for-profit, – is working with government, Indian and international organizations to  assess and improve the level of digitalization and data currently available in agriculture, across key focus areas. One of its policy briefs’ on “The Vision of a Digital Public Infrastructure for Agriculture” was reviewed and published as a part of the G20 compendium released recently.

Another project, which is called AgDx (Agri Digitalisation Index) was previewed at a global seminar hosted by The World Bank in January.AgDx aims to analyze and accelerate the penetration, maturity and impact caused by digital agricultural practices across India and the Global South  and is being developed by The Agri Collaboratory  together with the Institute for Competitiveness, India (IFC) – which is the Indian link in the global network of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School and with CGIAR, a 50 year old global network of 15 institutes engaged in research about areas like food security, climate adaptation, operating in 89 countries. India’s agriculture sector is highly diverse, with significant variations in climate, soil types, and crop patterns across different regions. An index like AgDx can provide policymakers with valuable insights into the current state of digitalization in different states and regions, as well as the potential impact of digital solutions on crop yields, farmer incomes, and environmental sustainability, says The Agri Collaboratory. This information could be used not only to help farmers but to guide policy decisions, such as investments in infrastructure, education and training, and research and development. It also has the potential to provide a basis for cross-country collaborations and help to identify best practices and innovations in the agricultural sector across different countries and regions.

These private, public and NGO efforts in India to bring agriculture into the 21st century could end up aiding struggling smallholder farmers around the world.

“This problem is not India centric, it is a global problem,” says Garg. “500 million smallholder farmers feed half of the world and they are struggling to make their livelihood.”

Selling Half A Billion Dollars Worth Of Produce On Twitter

HFN’s Garg, the grandson of a smallholder farmer, earned a Master’s degree in computer science and was hired by Microsoft India. As he rose up the ranks he was-moved to the software behemoth’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where he worked on expert operating systems. He eventually quit to build a tech startup company and–sold it in 2015.  I come from a lower middle class and grew up in a 100 square feet home,” says Garg.  “I had a tough childhood so when I was able to buy a house in Silicon Valley it was a big deal in my mind. I looked around and saw that there are lots of ideas in Silicon Valley but they are not changing anyone’s life, so I thought why I don’t I use my money and network to build something more meaningful?” He and and his family pulled up stakes and moved to Chandigarh in northern India.

Garg grew up watching his farmer grandfather hearing news of farmers committing suicide because they could not repay their loans, so he set his sights on the agriculture sector. After studying the market, he realized that “farmers have three major needs: access to market, financial tools and affordable and quality agri input. “While working on how to tackle these issues Covid hit. During lockdown in April 2020 Garg started conversing with farmers on Twitter. This evolved into helping them sell their crops digitally, by connecting producers to buyers. The Twitter thread took off and within days attracted 15,000 followers. Farmers would send messages with key details and images of their produce, and Garg would broadcast the supply information to buyers on Twitter. The Twitter page listed over 200 commodities, which were then bought by food-processing companies, restaurants, food exporters   hotel chains, and others. He worked the channel from 4 am to 10 pm, listing and marketing half a billion dollars worth of produce in 18 months. The direct sales were more profitable for farmers then going through traditional channels, says Garg.

“I realized that if I used my experience in Silicon Valley to think differently and help farmers to sell produce in a more profitable way, everything else would fall into place, he says.  HFN (originally called Harvesting Inc.) was launched in 2020. The company has so far raised $5 million. Its backers include impact investor Chamath Palihapitiya, an early senior executive at Facebook, and philanthropist Peggy Dulany, who founded Synergos about 40 years ago along with her father, David Rockefeller.

Applying AI To Farming

Today HFN serves many of the functions of a traditional cooperative and more. “If a large group of farmers come together than the cost of buying agriculture inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers and the cost of adopting new technology, goes down. HFN has helped farmers create their own brand and improve their position in the entire supply chain, he says. HFN analyzes the data it collects to know which villages are growing what crop and what yield is expected at the end of a growing season. HFN’s salespeople then find buyers for them. Major corporates such as Cargill, Reliance and Adani Wilmar purchase through HFN’s network.

Technology plays a major role. HFN’s advanced AI system guides farmer from seed to market, providing support throughout the entire crop life cycle. AI advises them on what types of crops to plant and when. Then, if problems develop farmers can upload crop images on WhatsApp and HFN’s AI will identify the crop type, provide disease detection, recommend what treatments to buy, and point them to the nearest retailer in its network. “It is like having a doctor in their pocket,” says Garg. At harvest, AI matches crops to the best buyers, streamlining the selling process and aiming to get the farmers get the best value for their produce.

But, says Garg, “we don’t talk tech. We are in the business of creating trust.” HFN makes a point of bringing the farmers together as a community. It has secured centers close to the farm where farmers can safely store their produce and gather, over chai and samosas, to exchange tips and learn about new products and approaches to farming.

Building An Apple Store For Agriculture

HFN also helps companies that want to sell to smallholder farmers, a difficult feat because there is no easy way to reach out to the over 600,000 villages in India which encompass many cultures and languages. HFN does this through a network of young people called “Saarthis,” a Hindu word that means a person who will show you the path.

In India there is a large group of underutilized young people trained in agronomy, the science and technology of producing and using plants by agriculture for food, fuel, fiber and chemicals. Many are the sons and daughters of local farmers. They are eager to work and are recruited by HFN to serve not only as local guides to farmers but also as the company’s ears and eyes on the ground, says Garg.

“To make it easy and interesting for them we break it down into microtasks on mobile phones,” explains Garg. Based on a client’s request, the Saarthis might be asked to find information such as how many tractors are in use on each local farm and what kind of tires they use, he explains. The 8000 Saarthis working for HFN are paid for conducting surveys and other tasks, some of them earning 2.5 times the national average, says Garg.

HFN is already being approached by companies that want to sell farmers tractor tires and solar pumps. “As India’s economy grows and the farmers earn more companies will want to sell them color TVs and what not, but corporates don’t have a good infrastructure to serve these villages,” says Garg.

HFN has set up a whole program to help companies sell to rural villages. “We can help them with pricing for their product and with their marketing. We can do digital marketing to our network but we also organize vans with loudspeakers to pass through villages and in-person meetings, every Sunday in our physical infrastructure,” he says. “We can also help with distribution and help make the sale.”

“Companies know their products,” says Garg. “We have detailed information about each farmer.” Think of HFN as a kind of “Apple Store for Agriculture,” he says. “We can serve as the layer between all of the providers, potentially touching 800 million lives in India.”

HFN’s ambitions don’t stop there. There are some 480 million smallholder farms in the world, about 120 million of them in India. “What we are doing in India can be deployed in other parts of the world,” Garg says, “with potentially huge impact” on things like climate, health and reducing migration to big cities.

The Role Of The Agri Stack

The Indian government has strong incentives to help digitize farming, says Nipun Mehrotra, a former IBM executive who is the Co-Founder and CEO of  The Agri Collaboratory, which is helping build collaborative government, private and academic ecosystems to help India emerge as a global leader in open source agri innovation.

About 140 million people in India– about 50% of the work force – are farmers. There are an estimated 114 million land owning famers, and potentially another 50 million who are farming but do not own the land, the so-called tenant farmers at the bottom of the pyramid. Of the land-owning farmers, 80% own small farms of only one or two hectares, he says.

The farmers use 45% of India’s land and 85% of its water to produce 18% of the country’s GDP. Farming in India has never been a good source of income so in the long run the country has to free up labor resources for other sectors, such as its growing manufacturing industry, and produce food more efficiently, says Mehrotra.

The country also needs to manage its food resources more efficiently. For example, after Russia declared war on Ukraine grain prices went up but India did not export rice and wheat because it wanted to make sure it could feed its people, says Mehrotra. It didn’t have precise information on its reserves because warehouses are not connected and there is no accurate data on what farmers are growing.  If the country could organize holistic “agri output management” leveraging a digital infrastructure and tokenization based on blockchain, it could save the country hundreds of billions of dollars and improve strategic planning, he says.

That is where the Agri Stack comes in. The government wants to build Agri Stack to make it easier to bring various stakeholders – including startups – together to improve agriculture in India and enable better outcomes and results.

 The program aims to bring together high-quality data and to make this data easily available to the stakeholders – including startups – that need it so that they can create new services using the data. Agri Stack is being built by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare with a federated structure – keeping India’s states at the center of the design and using participatory and inclusive design to ensure the sector evolves collectively.

At the center of Agri Stack is a Farmer Registry – a federated registry of all the farmers in the country, compiled by states according to common standards, and cached by the Center. Each farmer will be assigned a unique Farmer ID (a functional ID like that used in the India Stack) and a digitally verifiable credential. The Farmer Registry will be dynamically linked to their farmland plot records.

A Unified Farmer Service Interface (UFSI) is envisioned to be used by government and authorized private users such as banks, agri-techs, and agriculture value chain companies. UFSI will enable a center-state federation of data authorized and consent-brokered access to the core registries data, and standards-based interaction between various public and private stakeholders.

A Crop Sown registry is designed to be a federated registry of crops being sown and grown across the country every season, by every farm and every farmer. It aims to streamline and improve paper-based methods of surveying crops by introducing smart-phone and image based -including drone and satellite images-  Some 2000 agritech companies in India are expected to benefit from the Agristack.

Agri Stack also to make it easier for farmers to get easier access to cheaper credit, higher-quality farm inputs, localized and specific advice, and more informed and convenient access to markets and to make it easier for governmentsto plan and implement various farmer and agriculture-focused benefit schemes.

Successfully bundling digital public infrastructure at massive scale for e the India Stack has given the country the confidence to now take the digitization of the agriculture sector forward, says Mehrotra.

Leveraging Digital Public Goods And Digital Public Infrastructure

But can the Indian government singlehandedly build the digital public infrastructure for agriculture – a single source for all data related to agriculture, livestock and farmers? The answer is no, says The Agri Collaboratory. Digital ecosystems require non-linear, and non-traditional approaches. Co-creating privately provisioned Digital Public Goods Infrastructure for agriculture, by combining the innovation of the private sector and the scale of the government can make them transformative, affordable, and encourage start-ups to build businesses and provide value to farmers by leveraging digital public goods and digital public infrastructure, says The Agri Collaboratory.

It paints a future in which small farmers can turn farming into a sustainable profitable venture by using the agri indices and advisory to choose

crops for the season and increase profits by using predictive pricing and setting a selling price at the time of sowing.  Using farmers’ past digital footprints, from alternate data sources covering sowing to harvesting, cashflow and warehouse receipts, lenders will provide collateral free loans at low interest rates in minutes without visiting a bank. Farmers will avail themselves of subsidies, insurance, and extension services on innovative, environment friendly technologies and practices that improve farming efficiency (less water, higher yield, reduced inputs). They will obtain carbon credit for environmentally sustainable practices that reduce produce wastage, use of natural resources and climate friendly disposal of waste.

And governments and public agencies will use open data sets through agri data exchanges to ensure food and nutrition security by optimizing produce grown locally and predicting and preventing price volatility of produce, through using supply chain optimization.

“We envision that by 2035 India, and indeed global agriculture, can be transformed through the use of emerging technologies, innovations and the application of AI and data at massive scale,” says The Agri Collaboratory.

Startups like HFN give an early glimpse of what harvesting data to let farmers reap more from what they sow could achieve.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.