Reaping a new harvest: Giving agritech a farmer-first approach

Updated: April 30, 2021 4:00 PM

Tech Mahindra’s Makers Lab is at the forefront of firms using digital technology to overcome myriad challenges faced by Indian farmers.

Tech MahindraNikhil Malhotra, Global Head of Makers Lab at Tech Mahindra.

By Srinath Srinivasan

Tech Mahindra has been one of the few Indian IT services companies to venture into niche domains. With its Makers Lab, the company has ventured into a space where it is in a position to bridge multiple levels of businesses—adding great business value to to its parent corporation, working with startup ecosystem and at the same time contribute to the tech industry by creating IP locally in India and enabling developers to build further on top of it.

Leading this is Nikhil Malhotra, global head, Makers Lab, Tech Mahindra. One of the unique things coming out of Makers Lab is agritech and its multiple offerings. “In India, as far as agritech is concerned, a large focus from a large group of people have always been on input in the market side, as well as on large farm holders, which includes other businesses like insurance,” says Malhotra, talking about where and how Tech Mahindra’s agritech journey began.

“Now, there is a shift towards precision agriculture.”

“Sometimes precision agriculture is not viable in an Indian context, simply because we actually have a small farm size, and the affordability may be very low and most importantly there is a lack of data – agriculture, financial and farmer related, which is hard to get,” explains Malhotra. However today, Malhotra and his team look at the space from the lens of applicability, that is, solutions have to be accessible, achievable, and sustainable. “Our actual work started with overcoming these challenges,” he says.

The team then went onto make a simple app that farmers can use to manage loans, assets and see how much their family members are involved, in 12 local languages with voice support to do away with the problems of interacting with the application. “We call this Darpan App which is in pilot stage today,” says Malhotra. When it comes to applying exponential technologies, the team at Makers Lab made the solution truly Indian.

“We found a paper from MIT USA, where it was mentioned that ‘Panchang’ which is the old Indian science or Indian almanac, is actually a little bit more accurate than the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). We put this theory to test. We read the Telugu Panchang, DhatePanchang from Maharashtra, among others,” he explains.

The team has developed an algorithm from the studies. “I am very happy to say that we have tested data for the last 40 years. We have found that Panchang is approximately 10% more accurate than the IMD data,” claims Malhotra. The reason behind the improved accuracy was that IMD’s systems take only 12 parameters to measure a climate response and even the precipitation. A Panchang takes around 18 parameters, which also includes local soil sectors.

The other advantage of using Panchang data was that Panchangs were built to give weather predictions one and half years in advance as compared to meteorological department’s, which is usually two to three days or in best cases two to three months in advance. Malhotra, says, “We are actually in the process of constructing our own Weather Channel for farmers which will give weather prediction from IMD and also compare it with what the Panchang has to say in order to arrive at the actual scenario more accurately.”

Extending the use of AI vision, the team has a dedicated WhatsApp channel where anybody who finds pests can take a picture and send it over the channel. If there is an image already available in the database, the vision system will find out that pest and give the information about it. The team will then give farmers sustainable ways of removing that pest. If there is no such past history, the particular image goes into a training and labeling system that is used to build a pest management databank.

Malhotra says, “We have recorded almost 57 pests from regions in Aurangabad and Telangana, and we are slowly moving towards the north to find out pests that may be local to that area as well.”

AI is also being used for crop selection. “We provide yield prediction to the farmer for that season. That involves a larger AI ecosystem. It also necessitates a larger data exchange layer, where federated systems can give us more information,” he says. The company is in talks with World Economic Forum and Telangana government to create a state maintained data exchange system.

Makers Lab has also partnered with NGOs besides forming its own teams to train farmers on the usage of digital technology and its importance.

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