COVID-19: Lessons that we learnt during lockdown on agri-supply-chain

Published: June 25, 2020 5:30 AM

Farmers will no longer be restricted to selling their produce locally, thanks to the amendment of the Essential Commodities Act.

Farm operations and harvesting were affected with migrant labour returning to their villages.Farm operations and harvesting were affected with migrant labour returning to their villages. (Representative image)

By D Narain

The Covid-19 pandemic significantly disrupted Indian agriculture, and forced players across the agri-value-chain to remodel day-to-day operations. With agriculture declared an essential industry, farmers continued to farm despite disruptions at every stage of the agri-supply-chain.

Health and safety concerns aside, there were multiple challenges on ground. With closure of local mandis, farmers were unable to sell their produce in physical market places, and their liquidity was strained. Restrictions on movement and closure of state and national borders affected transportation of agri-produce from farms to markets and of essential seeds & crop protection products from factories to markets. It also disrupted exports of produce and agri-inputs from India to other countries. Farmers could not receive on-field agronomic advisory on crop, pest and disease management. Restricted operations of agri-input retail stores led to delays in procuring essential agri-inputs. Farm operations and harvesting were affected with migrant labour returning to their villages.

The silver lining for Indian agriculture was the rapid digital transformation, which saw Indian farmers turning to tech-enabled platforms. While digital tools for agriculture have been around, its widespread use has been limited. However, over the last two months, Indian agriculture has digitally leapfrogged to a new era that will see complete overhauls of traditional supply-chains. Everyone, including farmers, food processors, agri-input companies and retailers, have adopted new approaches to ensure smooth food production and last-mile reach of food produce to consumers.

To ensure timely supply of seeds ahead of the Kharif planting season, agri-input companies had to redraw their distribution networks and consider alternate business models such as e-commerce collaborations to facilitate home-delivery of seeds and crop protection products to farmers. For exports, companies explored new supply-chain routes such as using the Indian Railways for transporting seeds to Bangladesh. In the absence of the local mandi, digital tools created new market linkages by connecting farmers directly to bulk buyers across the country. Agri players set up collection centers at the farm level for direct procurement of produce. Agri-tech firms used mobile apps to create one-stop portals to make agronomic advisory accessible to farmers. With audio conferencing, voice SMS and WhatsApp, farmers received crop advisory on their mobile phones without having to leave their farms. This was beneficial for smallholder farmers who lack access to latest technologies.

With the visionary agri-reforms introduced by the government, Indian agriculture will benefit immensely. Farmers will no longer be restricted to selling their produce locally, thanks to the amendment of the Essential Commodities Act. Unrestricted inter-state and intra state trade in agricultural produce will unlock India’s agricultural market and create additional trading opportunities outside APMC markets. Farmers will now be empowered to engage with processors, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers and exporters without depending on intermediaries. This freedom to distribute and supply agri produce will help farmers realize better prices. It will also attract greater investment to Indian agriculture and draw focus on overlooked areas such as cold storage, food processing and tackling post-harvest losses. Ultimately, this will help Indian agriculture become more resilient, more self-reliant and globally competitive at par with other major agricultural nations.

Agriculture has the potential to be the growth engine for India’s economy as well as provide livelihood and sustenance to millions of farmers and rural communities. Digital transformation is the much-needed catalyst that will not only empower Indian farmers with better access to information, markets, credit, finance and insurance, but also streamline local and national agri-supply-chains. In addition, it will help smallholder farmers who were previously sidelined become a key part of the overall farming eco-system. When this happens, the industry will truly progress towards sustainable agriculture that focuses on not just high crop productivity, but also enhanced farm profitability.

The author is CEO & Managing Director, Bayer CropScience Limited

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