Column: From seeds to ‘agrivisory’

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Published: January 2, 2016 12:19 AM

In the competitive seeds market, MNCs like Monsanto see value in positioning themselves as agri-solution providers

It is mid-morning. Lalan’s tomato crop has been afflicted by early blight. The farmer from Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district calls a number. It is picked up by an adviser at a highrise in Malad, a Mumbai suburb. Lalan complains he has applied copper oxychloride without effect. The adviser asks him whether he has sprayed the plant on  both sides. He suggests mancozeb, a fungicide, instead. The farmer says the fix is effective, but not available. “Try the Krishi Vigyan Kendra,” the adviser tells him. He also gives Lalan a third option, of using cholorothalonil. “I can spell it out for you, or you can call me from the shop,” he says. He advises Lalan to act fast because blight is contagious.
Lalan had called before, so the screen in front of adviser at the Malad office prompts the farmer’s details. The tomato crop is 44 days old. Lalan is further advised to spray calcium nitrate to initiate flowering and also give bamboo supports to the plants.

The agent is Pravin Mane, 26, an agricultural-sciences graduate. He has been at the job for three years. On the day of this writer’s visit, there were 30 of them on the phones out of a total of 42.

A farmer from Nalajhar village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district is on the line next. He is calling about Sardar-brand tomato seeds. Mane says he cannot advice on non-company brands. Jethuram Markham wants to know why the leaves of his maize crop are reddening. “Phosphorous deficiency,” Mane tells him and prescribes a foliar spray. Markham makes more enquiries; Mane apologises for being unable to answer all the queries as the maize seeds Markham has bought from the company have been newly introduced. He offers to call back with the information.
A Marathi-speaking caller seeks advice about his cotton crop. The screen prompts adviser Sachin Bhosle, 23, that the caller is Vijay Devaji Hulke, 34, of Seraj Khurd village in Korpana of Chandrapur. Bhosle is also a B.Sc in agriculture and is seven months into the job. Hulke has 22 acres, and the soil is heavy or clayey. He has five acres under cotton and the first call was made on 14 June, 2014.  Hulke, the screen says, has been calling regularly about fertilizer management, pest control, nipping and plant rejuvenation.

Though seeds decide how much a plant will yield and whether it can resist pests, fight diseases or thrive in adverse weather conditions, they cannot deliver on their potential if farmers do not plant them at the right time, neglect proper spacing, misalign nutrient supply with stages of growth, ignore preventive measures or fail in taking curative action should there be a pest attack or a disease outbreak. It is not just the genetic make-up of plants; their nurture also determines the quality and volume of output.

In the tough marketplace of the seeds business, companies realise that they can retain a lead over rivals only if the technology they have embedded in seeds is translated into yields in farmers’ fields. The technology development manager who set up this particular ‘agrivisory’, told this writer that the company will succeed only if farmers succeed, echoing the global head of the multinational corporation he was working for then (he has since moved on).
At a Delhi-talkathon on maize in April, Suresh Kumar, Punjab’s additional chief secretary, who is also driving the state’s partial switchover from paddy to maize in order to conserve groundwater, admonished the contracted companies for their under-performing seeds. Though the state-supplied seeds had been declared suitable by the Punjab Agricultural University, farmers’ yields were half of those in regulated conditions. “Please go to farmers with a credible product,” he advised the seed MNCs.

The fault, though, may not be in the seeds themselves. They will not deliver if grown in inappropriate soil and weather conditions, or if the farming practices are such that they do not bring the best out of them. Within the country, there are wide gaps in yields between states. Punjab produces, on average, 4.8 tonnes of wheat per hectare while in Madhya Pradesh, it is 2.4 tonnes per ha. Andhra’s kharif rice yield is 2.5 tonnes per ha and that of Bihar is 1.7 tonnes per ha. International comparisons are starker. USA’s maize yield is 11 tonnes per ha, while that of India is 2.5 tonnes per ha, though rabi maize yields in Bihar and Andhra are higher.

When a farmer calls this agrivisory, they are not offered a menu of options or told to press a number of keys. The first four digits of a mobile number are unique to a state and the call is automatically assigned to advisers who speak the state’s language. Conversational language and colloquialisms are preferred to put callers at ease. For instance, instead of the Hindi word sinchayi (irrigation), a caller from Bihar will hear the word patwan, for corn tassels, the preferred word is dhanasees and not the formal pushpan.

Advisers arrive at the right solution through a process of elimination by asking questions for which answers are provided in a ‘if not this, then that’ format. “Is the leaf yellow?”,  “Are they yellow at the lower or upper part of the plant?”, “Are they yellow along the edges or at either ends?”, a series of questions are asked. A decision-tree has relevant photographs and text to guide the advisers.

The advisers are usually agricultural science graduates or have a farming background. To qualify, they have to pass a written test and undergo three months of training. Regular meetings with farmers, and with in-house sales and development teams makes their knowledge less abstract. It also brings in the human element. Advisers say that farmers sometimes call to thank them. There are those who insist on speaking to favourite advisers. Satisfaction levels are said to be high; the attrition rate is 3%, much lower than that for the call centre industry.

The advisory is currently free. Four million farmers have accessed the service since 2010—without any advertising of the service, by just word of mouth. This also speaks of the credibility of the information provided. “The backend advisory tool we have developed is the bible on corn,” says the India-region CEO. There are advisories for cotton and vegetable seeds as well, the business in which the company is engaged in India. The value of the advisory depends on how relevant it is to farmers. And it is not just a means to drive the seeds business. “We are clearly transforming now from being a seeds and biotechnology company to being a solutions provider,” says the CEO. As the business evolves, she says, there will be gradations ranging from base content, which might be free, to fee-based farm specific solutions. The CEO is Shilpa Divekar Nirula and the company is Monsanto India.

The ministry of agriculture also has a Kisan Call Centre, which is supposed to answer queries from 6 am to 10 pm. I asked 14 farmers of Nayagaon in Bihar’s Samastipur district to call the toll-free number a day after Diwali. Only one was able to get through. When he asked whether he should sow wheat now as it was still warm, the voice at the other end cheekily replied, “Abhi nahin kijiyega, toh Janvari mein karoge kya?” (If not now, when will you sow? In January?) After registration, he was told to wait for an expert. After six minutes, the line was cut. It was the second time they were calling—the previous time, too, they had had a similar experience. With proper training and motivation, the Kisan Call Centre agents would regard their work not as a chore, but a noble call to public service.

The author is editor of

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