Food deficit and farmer exodus – can IT scarecrows work?

By : |December 3, 2014 0
Transparency and productivity side outcomes can actually snowball and gather some positive moss as mobility and phone-ubiquity rolls. Or so is what SourceTrace hopes?

BANGALORE, INDIA: When population is teeming by the billions across the globe, demanding not only enough food but nutrients too and without compromising sustainability, the world food crisis just keeps getting murkier.

Flip back to some latest estimates from Food and Agriculture organization of United Nations, that indicate that some 805 million people are estimated to be chronically undernourished in 2012–14, and the developing world is not on track to achieve the World Food Summit (WFS) target of halving the number of undernourished people by next year.

What then can be the role of technology in confronting this formidable monster that has assumed cyclopean proportions both on questions of quality and abundance?

Modernising farm production? Automating irrigation and warehousing? Making land management more sophisticated and smart? Improving yields with better, smarter tools? Making weather forecasting less fatalistic? Bolstering inspection systems for those who are out in the trenches and who affect food safety and quality that arrives on our table? Advancing drought-resistant technologies? Or fiddling with something sci-fi like gene splicing?

Or equipping farmers with a device or information so that they can be prepared for a price fluctuation or a crop disease or simply, be aware of the best price and yield discussions?

All that and more, as it turns out. In this interview, Venkat Maroju, CEO, SourceTrace Systems, unearths a few roots of future tucked in this new soil of IT as he traces his organization’s journey on Indian pastures so far.

How is the idea of remote mobile application and your offering actually path breaking for agriculture and other adjacent sectors?

This is a novel technology that we are taking to the last mile to agriculture. Early-generation mobile apps were asynchronous and sms-based. We are in the sixth to seventh year now and heavily focusing on transactions and much beyond asynchronous communications. We have deep expertise in remote area impact without any data integrity or security issues. We started working in Latin America and gradually spread to India. It is still early phase of impact but we have 15 to 20 customers who range from pilots to advanced stages of adoption. Some customer names we can cite here are Olam, FarmsNFarmers, Aditi Certifications, Tamilnadu News and Paper Limited, LalTeer in Bangladesh, Aarong, Bangladesh, SUVIDHA and BAIF/VAPCOL.

How is India embracing this so far?

We are at an inflection point and have a strong pipeline in India with many new customers to be signed in next 12 months and this progress is across verticals. Overall, we currently touch 200,000 small farmers and the plan is to embrace 10 million globally in the next two years.

Small farmers? Is there any overriding philosophy here with your strategic direction?

Globally the space is mired in a lot of issues, specially food safety and security. About 70 per cent of food in the world comes from small farmers, so it’s crucial that we pay focus to them and their challenges around productivity and at the same time ensure their livelihoods and prosperity. We cannot let them move away from agriculture, and that is a scary trend. The idea is how to make the last mile visible and above all, equitable. That’s where information and transparency plays a big role. If we can make the supply chain fair and less opaque, we can resolve a lot of issues. I grew up in the rural Telangana region of south India, and have been myself familiar with the large-scale distress experienced by smallholder farmers. If you recall, during 1995 – 2005 the Telangana region has accounted for the highest number of farmer suicides in the world, and before joining SourceTrace, moved by the fate of smallholder farmers and the distressed rural economy, I resigned from a US corporate job and decided to work with smallholder farmers. It started with a social enterprise in agriculture in Telangana homeland and from one venture to another, my passion to work with smallholder farmers continues till date.

Can you talk about how geo-fencing helps here?

All our data elements, right from farmer profile to people who are entailed in transactions with time or data statistics or GPS co-ordinates have to be covered properly. This piece is critical specially in remote areas and when done well, it allows to show farm areas mapped smartly. In fact, some certification agencies have made this feature mandatory.

But given the missing pieces in the big-picture i.e. farming ecosystem, how can this technology avoid half-baked results?

No. I disagree about such gaps. All we need is good mobile technology and good levels of mobile-literacy. Most operating systems like Android etc are open and affordability of devices is not a problem. Resistance piece from vested interests is an ongoing challenge but we are coping well. When Technology builds up efficiency and transparency, it automatically wipes disproportionate profits for middlemen so that’s a natural area of resistance. But technology is and has to be the answer.

What drives your acute focus on agriculture for this application?

It is our focus area for long and we have a lot of entities like co-operatives, certification-agencies, government agencies, commodity sector etc coming under our scope as we grow. We also subside heavily for small organizations. We are crop- and product-agnostic. Our solution is built specifically to work around the typical challenges of remote areas, we can support any native language that goes well with Android platform. We specialize in mobile applications for developing economies with a primary focus on agriculture and sustainable development.

How?

For instance, the SourceTrace ESE Agri Business solution tracks the flow of goods from the source to the central processing facilities even in the world’s most remote areas. We try to enable agribusiness companies and cooperatives to reach and collaborate with smallholder farmers, capturing all the transactions with the farmers at the field level so that the visibility, traceability, timeliness and accuracy of transactions are improved to benefit the management, offering new market knowledge, and also the treat the farmers fairly and equitably without any opportunities for leakages in the value chain.

What to expect next then?

Forestry is an interesting vertical for us. We are exploring opportunities in plantation management, specially in regions like Indonesia or Latin America. We have seen some 15 per cent productivity improvements with some customers already, with $10 worth annual benefit per farmer and other pricing benefits for small farmers. We are trying to work on crop-specific and product-specific features with new applications.

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