India is an agrarian economy and over 58 percent of the rural households depend on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood. With the recent help of tech giant Microsoft, Indian farmers have begun to use AI to increase efficiency, further encouraging them to harvest a good crop.
Every year since 2013, more than 12,000 suicides have been reported in the agricultural sector with 10 percent accounting for farmer suicides. Collectively, seven states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Naidu) accounted for 87.5 percent of the total suicides in the farming sector. Additionally, the reasons for farmers’ suicides have varied widely including high input costs, low yields, disintegration with markets, mounting loans, water crisis and urban consumer-driven economic policies.
In partnership with the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Microsoft developed an AI-sowing app. With the app, Indian farmers use AI to increase their agricultural income, giving them greater price control over their crop yields.
On his two-day visit to India in 2017, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella highlighted the benefits of AI in agriculture. In an interaction with Microsoft engineers in India, Nadella said, “Taking AI to the oldest industry on our planet, agriculture, is something we have already been doing in collaboration with local stakeholders like ICRISAT, which just at a little distance away from the campus. If you can increase the yield [with the help of AI] in agriculture, the kind of impact it will have on economies like India will be huge.”
The beta version of the new sowing application was tested in June 2016 in Kurnool district of the Indian state Andhra Pradesh and was applied only to the groundnut crop. The results showed a 30 percent higher average in yield per hectare. The pilot also confirmed that the advisories received through the app via SMS were relevant and accurate. The sowing app provides the best times to sow depending on weather conditions, soil and other indicators, relieving Indian farmers from inaccurate forecasts.
The app relies on business intelligence tools that give clear insights on the soil health, fertilizer recommendations and seven-day weather forecasts powered by the world’s best available weather observation systems and global forecast models. So far, Indian farmers use AI-powered apps in a few dozen villages in Telangana, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Powered by Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite, the app provides updates to Indian farmers. Indian farmers use AI for sowing recommendation, seed treatment, optimum sowing depth, preventive weed management, land preparation, farmyard manure application, recommendation on harvesting, shade drying of harvested pods and storage. The SMSs can also be delivered in regional languages like Telugu and Kannada. Through a basic phone capable of receiving text messages, farmers can use AI with no capital expenditure.
Microsoft’s next collaboration could help farmers fight pest risk. In collaboration with India’s largest producer of agrochemicals, United Phosphorous (UPL), Microsoft aims at leveraging AI and machine learning to calculate the risk of pest attack.
But interestingly, Indian farmers are not oblivious to digital farming. In the past, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Innovation Labs introduced mKrishi, which allowed farmers to receive advice on pest information, crop prices, weather conditions and more in their local languages.
Tech innovations and partnerships like that of Microsoft and TCS could help Indian farmers with information that is more data-driven and based on pure analytics. Whether such efforts lower the suicidal rates of Indian farmers or not is yet to be seen. But if the results are positive, it will be a boon to many agriculturally reliant Indian households that have faced huge losses.
– Deena Zaidi