Increasing population, degrading natural resources and climate change are some of the challenging issues facing agriculture.The consequences are increased uncertainties of farm livelihoods, productivity and incomes; increasing challenges of hunger, malnutrition, food and nutrition insecurity.
Farm production and efficiency has to be enhanced to meet the growing demand for food. Agricultural operations have to be run differently using new technologies leading to more profitable, efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly farms. Digital technology is one such technology which is now gaining momentum in agriculture.
While some of the digital innovations seem to apply to large scale farming, even small holder farming can benefit greatly from digital applications. Digital tools can make smallholder farming more resilient, productive and profitable. There are already good examples illustrating this.This issue includes some of those experiences.
Small farmers and digital initiatives
Small farmers can benefit in a number of ways using digital tools. Digital platforms offer significant advantages to smallholder farmers by providing list of services that help them access support services like farm advisory, inputs, finance and markets.Technology combined with data could be a driving force towards building resilient agricultural communities.
Digital platforms are being used to provide extension services, especially by the mainstream institutions. For example, ICAR CPCRI developed E-kalpa, a comprehensive farmer friendly mobile based android applicationto help the coconut farming community to access crop advisory(Anitha Kumari P, p.14). Similarly, FARM Mojo is an app built on IoT platform to benefit fish farmers by smart pond management (Partha B Biswas, p. 28).
Technology is one aspect. Appropriate content is the key. It requires a thorough understanding of the location and expertise on the subject, as farming is location and crop specific. For instance, mKRISHI® PAWS, a mobile app was developed by ICAR-IISWC Dehradun, by involving a number of stakeholders like farmers, input dealers, extension workers and researchers working in remote and hilly regions (Bankey Bihari et.al., p. 22).
Some NGOs are trying out innovative platforms. Krishi Janani’s marketplace platform in Tamil Nadu is building an alternative model that emphasizes decentralization and regeneration (Usha Devi Venkatachalam, p. 10).
Concerns and supportive measures
Often the skill requirement is underestimated. The paradigm shift towards digital technologies should not further marginalise the small and marginal farming communities. Alongside investment in technology, there is a growing need for investment in building capacities of communities in development of digital skills and knowledge. For example, GEAG trained 36 model farmers on crop advisories, weather advisories, geo-tagging and crop health monitoring, who serve as ‘change agents’ to scale up the digital interventions in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (B K Singh, et.al., p. 33).
Digital technologies should not be viewed as an absolute solution to challenges in farming. A study conducted in Dehradun found that though mobile phone emerged as a preferred digital tool for information dissemination for smallholder farmers, the adoption rates however were found to be higher when supplemented with conventional approaches. (Bankey Bihari et al., p. 22).
Establishing a ‘digital agriculture ecosystem’ requires an enabling environment for innovation by farmers and agripreneurs. Partnerships with public agencies become critical in wider usage and making the initiatives more relevant and meaningful. For example, large-scale pilots on digital applications are being implemented in four districts of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh by CropIn in collaboration with State Rural Livelihood Mission (SRLM) in Bihar and MP (Krishna Kumar, p. 5). The role of civil societies in this enabling role is critical as they are better in understanding the needs, the realities, creating empathetic interfaces.
Although agriculture cannot do away with grassroots institutions and human interventions, digital technologies can play an important role in helping the sector overcome specific challenges (Ram Dhulipala, p. 18). Especially during the pandemic times with extended lockdown measures, there couldn’t be a more opportune time for stakeholders to explore digital alternatives.