By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jul 9 2020 (IPS) – Digital technologies in agriculture are helping address the twin problems of food security and supply chain disruptions triggered by COVID-19 in India while augmenting the income of smallholder farmers. Leveraging technology to match supply and demand of resources and food is key to overcoming the issues of starvation and food supply interruptions, Anshul Sushil, CEO and co-founder at Wizikey, an online platform linking over 500 agriculture-related business, tells IPS.
“Agritech is finally getting its fair share of attention and the innovation and research that is happening in India right now will change the way we all get food from farm to fork. The technology transformation in the industry will ensure direct supply and smoother distribution,” Sushil says.
According to the entrepreneur, the growth of homegrown agritech start-ups such as Ninjacart, India’s largest tech-driven supply chain platform, as well as Dehaat and Jumbotail, which aim to bolster the agritech ecosystem by maximising productivity, increasing supply chain efficiency and improving market linkages, are helping tackle the challenges of agriculture and food production successfully.
A number of urban agritech startups have leveraged the model of facilitating direct transactions between communities and farmers, enabling the latter to tap into demand in cities.
Digital Green, an organisation that trains Indian farmers in sustainable practices is developing a voice-enabled WhatsApp chatbot. The technology will provide seamless market connections, enabling smallholder farmers to improve their incomes amid economic disruptions caused by COVID-19.
Farmers can use the chatbot to share the type, quantity, and price of crops they wish to sell using a chatbot accessed via WhatsApp. Buyers, including small purchasers from the local community looking for nutritious foods, large industrial and retail buyers, use the same chatbot interface to discover available produce, using farmer-uploaded photos to assess quality. The buyers can directly contact farmers via WhatsApp to complete the transaction.
“In the best of times, Indian farmers have limited selling options — typically to local traders or regional markets — which present low prices and high transaction costs (time and money) for relatively small volumes.
“The transportation restrictions and market closures due to COVID-19 further restricted their options, with major implications for livelihoods, India’s food supply and the rural economy,” explains Rikin Gandhi, CEO of Digital Green.
Using technology to match supply and demand of agricultural resources and food will be critical to absorb the influx of people amid tenuous conditions in which farmers who already operate on thin margins are unable to sell their crops and face uncertainty about the upcoming season, adds the expert.
Amidst the global pandemic’s devastating impact on lives and livelihoods, India’s farming community remains one of the most vulnerable.
• As per the International Labor Organisation’s statistics, 43.9 percent of India’s total workforce worked in agriculture in 2018.
• Nearly 700 million Indians rely directly or indirectly on an agriculture-derived livelihood. Agriculture and allied sectors contribute 16.5 percent to the country’s $2.6 trillion GDP, according to the Indian government’s Economic Survey 2019-20.
The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that COVID-19 will lead to a surge in the number of people facing acute food insecurity, leading to an upswing in children’s malnutrition cases while pushing back the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
The 2020 Global Nutrition Report, the world’s leading independent assessment, stresses the need for more equitable, resilient and sustainable food and health systems to ensure food security for all.
India’s 1.4 billion people present a daunting challenge for the country’s COVID-19 response. The country imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, confining its population at home from Mar. 25 to May 18.
Expectedly, the lockdown has had ramifications on people’s health. A survey of 12 Indian states by leading civil society organisations titled “COVID-19 induced Lockdown – How is the Hinterland Coping?” revealed that over 50 percent of respondents have reduced the number of times they are eating each day and 68 percent have whittled down the items in meals.
Worse, rampant hunger is jeopardising the health of millions. According to the Global Hunger Index, the pandemic will only exacerbate the situation with a greater likelihood of people dying from hunger than the coronavirus in the wake of the lockdown. This will only add to India’s burden of malnutrition.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015- 2016, 38.4 percent of children under five are stunted (low height for age), 21 percent are wasted (low weight for height) and 35.8 percent are underweight (low weight for age).
Even more disconcerting is the prediction of a rise in poverty.
A World Bank analysis predicts that 12 million Indians will plunge into extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90/day) in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. This is in addition to about 415 million people who already exist below the poverty line in rural India. This demographic refers to people earning less than the country’s per-capita monthly income of approximately $100.
India maintains nearly 60 million tons of food grain in its granaries, according to the Food Corporation of India. The Food Sustainability Index created by the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition and the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks India among other middle-income countries with an above-average score of 65.5 out of 100 in sustainable agriculture, but disruption of traditional supply chains has impacted farmers badly.
CSC Sekhar, Professor of Economics, Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, writes in his column for The Economic Times that the incomes of farmers of perishable crops and poultry products are going to be much lower due to crop losses, storage problems and a halt of transportation networks.
The expert advocates a judicious mix of policies, combining direct payments with free food provision, in addition to providing employment under the flagship MGNREGA job employment scheme [Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act 2005, an Indian labour law and social security measure that guarantees the right to work], to ensure economic and physical access to food for vulnerable sections.
As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the U.N., the four pillars of food security are availability, access, stability and utilisation. These indicate the physical availability of food; economic access to food; stability of the availability and access; and absorptive capacity (health status).
But availability and access thus become critical in the present context, writes Sekhar.
“The public and the private sector buyers are looking for ways to reliably access products and struggling to find a reliable, aggregated supply. These changes have highlighted the need for a new digital marketplace that enables lower transaction costs for buyers and sellers, and greater value capture for smallholder farmers,” says Gandhi.
Apart from such innovations, necessitating public-private partnerships, the country’s food safety net also needs to be expanded, an officer in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, who didn’t want to be quoted, tells IPS.
India’s social safety net is extensive and an elaborate array of programmes exist to assist the poor, including the world’s largest food-based social programme; the Public Distribution System, which covers 800 million people. However, all these programmes face bottlenecks because of the lockdown.
In an article “Food security for children amidst Covid19: A cause for concern”, Shoba Suri, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, states the lockdown has led to children being deprived of nutrition support, adding to the burden of families not able to meet ends due to loss of wages and looming poverty.
Particularly vulnerable are slum dwellers and migrants returning to their villages who often miss out on food support from government schemes, says Asha Devi, a volunteer with a Delhi-based NGO.
“Hundreds of thousands of factory workers and wage earners who have lost their jobs continue to face uncertainty about livelihood and food security for their families. Various marginal groups such as HIV/AIDS patients and sex workers complain to us of rising hunger due to loss of income. We need to reach out to them urgently,” Devi tells IPS.