In India , agriculture remains a pillar of the economy, contributing about 18 per cent of GDP and employing more than half of the population. Yet the industry is highly fragmented, with outdated infrastructure and poor logistics contributing to an estimated US$13.1 billion post-harvest loss each year, according to Indian environment and science magazine Down to Earth . But India’s booming agritech industry hopes to change all that, and has some novel ideas – wearable tech for livestock and facial recognition systems for cows among them – to do so. Would you use a cow dung face wash? They do in India Amid a wave of suicides by heavily indebted farmers and mass protests demanding better crop prices, drought relief and loan waivers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to increase farmers’ incomes and in 2018, launched the ‘DigiGaon’ or Digital Village programme, which aims to connect more than 100,000 villages to the internet so that residents can access services such as banking, health care and education online. The prospect of greater rural connectivity appears to have inspired India’s private sector, and agricultural technology start-ups are now booming – in August, there were at least 450 nationwide, according to industry body the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), with that figure expected to increase by 25 per cent annually. CropIn, a nine-year-old start-up based in Bangalore that has been backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is indicative of the trend. After somewhat troubled beginnings, it has grown 300 per cent in the past 15 months on the back of providing farmers with real-time agriscience data that they can access using their smartphones. After a torrid December, will 2020 be better for India’s BJP? The company uses “field officers” to collect an array of information – ranging from weather patterns to land records and crop yields – which is then collated and presented on a single connected platform that adds value “for each stakeholder, be it farmers, banks, insurance firms, commodity traders, government and development agencies, farming companies, or the end customer,” said start-up co-founder Kunal Gupta. “We’ve so far digitised 5.5 million acres of farmland and are expanding our operations overseas as well,” he said. About 25 Indian agritech start-ups have expanded internationally, and almost 10 times that number believe they can attain unicorn status – a valuation of at least US$1 billion – within the next three years. Money has been flowing into the sector from foreign investment funds such as the US-based Tiger Global and Germany’s Bertelsmann, with US$248 million invested in various Indian agritech initiatives in the first six months of 2019 – a 300 per cent increase on the whole of 2018. And there certainly isn’t a lack of problems that need to be tackled either – Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer at Nasscom, identified bottlenecks in the country’s supply chain system, soil-data management and technology-driven initiatives as three areas where start-ups can bring a range of benefits. “For the start-ups, choosing the right marketing strategy and specialising in a particular segment to scale it across the country will be crucial given that India is a diverse agriculture market with a variety of needs,” she said, adding that companies will also need policy support from the government to thrive. One such specialised start-up is Stellapps, which focuses on increasing productivity in the dairy supply chain. It deploys wearable sensors, strapped to cows’ legs, to provide data on each animal’s activity, health and breeding patterns. Company co-founder Ranjith Mukunthan said this information had helped the farmers it works with increase their profits almost fivefold. Stellapps is also in the early stages of developing a facial recognition system for cows that promises to revolutionise India’s dairy industry, Mukunthan said. The facial recognition system aims to strengthen animal-related digital data to be used by insurance companies, nutrition providers, and financial institutions offering loans on cattle. “The existing ID mechanisms for cattle are either ear-tags or RF [radio frequency] chips,” Mukunthan said. “Both of these are high vulnerable for ID theft and manipulation. But this system will significantly bring down manipulation as it documents bovine IDs using facial image, body structure and teeth.” Other areas where agritech start-ups could make great strides include implementing technology to automate processes and improve yields for small farmers, and simplifying the supply chain system so that such farmers are able to get a fairer price for their produce, said Vivek Kumar, co-founder of Excubator – a firm that helps small companies secure investment. He cautioned, however, that India’s agritech space “is complex” and will require “patience from both start-ups and investors” before profits can be made. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. 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