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29 April 2020, Gateway House

Satellite tech for India’s agriculture

The COVID19-caused migration of India’s large workforce to their rural roots holds immense promise for the country’s agriculture productivity and farmer incomes. Precision agritech and satellite-as-a-service (SAAS) can reduce the urban-rural skill, remuneration, and digital divide. Time to privatize space technology for agricultural benefit.

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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In August last year, UPL Limited, the Mumbai-headquartered global agro-chemicals company, collaborated with an Argentinian satellite and geospatial analytics start-up called Satellogic .[1] Satellogic operates a large constellation of microsatellites with high-resolution imaging capabilities targeted to its customers, both policy-makers and private companies, in the agriculture, forestry, energy, finance and insurance industries.[2] It’s collaboration with UPL in India can help the company offer key agriculture solutions to farmers to improve productivity and income.

Why an Argentinian space start-up? The country does not have a flourishing space programme like India, its satellites are launched from China, it has raised money from North American, South American and Chinese investment firms – yet it offers its services worldwide. In contrast, India’s satellite data is sequestered within the government, the private sector has limited access to it, even though it plays an increasing role in the country’s agriculture value chain. Agriculture technology (agritech) companies, including the satellite-as-a-service (SAAS) provider startups like Satellogic can become a source of jobs and information for the vast, on-going return migration of skilled and unskilled workers from urban to rural India.

The Government of India does indeed have a successful intra-governmental SAAS ecosystem for its own use. It uses Earth observation and meteorological data from indigenously built remote sensing satellites for agriculture applications in the country. Fundamental to this governmental ecosystem is the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which builds satellites and payloads and processes the satellite data. ISRO distributes volumes of state-specific satellite data to independent nodal bodies within all state governments known as the State Remote Sensing Application Centres (SRSACs).[3] The SRSACs receive vast volumes of ISRO satellite data ranging from multispectral, cartographic and radar imaging and meteorological observations and forecasting applications (Table 1).[4] The SRSACs process and analyse the satellite data and share it with the irrigation, forestry, land-use and agriculture ministries and departments of state governments among others.

Table 1: Remote sensing satellites of Indian Space Research Organization involved in agriculture applications. 

Satellite Type Satellite Objectives
Multispectral imaging satellite Resourcesat-2 & Resourcesat-2A Multispectral imaging for crop production forecast, land, water and natural resource inventory and management, and disaster management support
Cartography satellite Cartosat-1 High resolution cartographic mapping, digital elevation mapping – drainage and irrigation networks, topographic mapping and contouring
Radar imaging RISAT-1 All weather imaging capability targeted for kharif crop (June to November) during south-west and north-east monsoon seasons. Flood and natural disaster management
Meteorological forecasting Kalpana-1 Comprehensive weather status reporting and forecasting
Meteorological observation INSAT-3D & INSAT-3DR improved meteorological observations including vertical – temperature and humidity – atmosphere weather forecasting and disaster warning

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare is another key end-user of ISRO’s satellite data for its projects such as Forecasting Agricultural output using Space, Agro-meteorology and Land-based observations (FASAL), National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring Systems (NADAMS), Coordinated Programme on Horticulture Assessment and Management using Geoinformatics (CHAMAN), and C(K)rop Insurance using Space technology and Geoinformatics (KISAN) have used satellite data to various ends such as crop forecasting, drought assessment, horticulture management and crop insurance respectively. In 2017, these insular projects were integrated into a single entity, the National Programme on use of Space Technology for Agriculture (NPSTA) (Table 2).[5]

Table 2 Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare programmes integrated into the National Programme on use of Space Technology for Agriculture (NPSTA). 

NPSTA Constituent Programmes Goals of constituent Programme
National Programme on use of Space Technology for Agriculture (NPSTA) Forecasting Agricultural output using Space, Agro-meteorology and Land-based observations (FASAL) Crop Forecasting
National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring Systems (NADAMS) Drought Assessment
Coordinated programme on Horticulture Assessment and Management using Geoinformatics (CHAMAN) Horticulture assessment and development
C(K)rop Insurance using Space technology and Geoinformatics (KISAN) now incorporated into Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna Crop insurance

These intra-government synergies have matured over the years. However, the causal factors that resulted in their growth are fast becoming obsolete for many reasons. The intra-government synergies were developed exclusively for the state and regional administration as the end-user. With government as the provider and consumer of satellite services, cost was not of consequence to the end-user; feedback from farmers was difficult to obtain; technology upgrades were not done in consultation with the last-person in the value chain – the farmer.

However, the digitization of space technology has changed everything. Over the past decade, the cost of constructing and launching a satellite has dropped considerably owing to bus and payload miniaturization and low-cost satellite launches.[6] This has led to a profusion of private companies around the world which are building, launching, operating satellites and selling data at competitive prices to the end-user through a business-to-customer and business-to-business SAAS model.[7]

Some of these private SAAS companies, domestic and foreign, are now participants in India’s agriculture technology (agritech) sector. Companies like Satellogic will soon become indispensable to India’s agritech sector. The NPSTA will have to eventually accommodate them by expanding its existing ISRO-dependent intra-government model to a broader SAAS-driven innovation-enterprise model.

NPSTA’s urgent expansion should now be in mission-mode in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. A vast migration of technically-skilled and unskilled working-age population is taking place, with a return to the Indian hinterlands from domestic urban centers and from the Gulf countries.[8] Agriculture is an integral part of India’s rural economy, and a large section of this returning population will potentially acclimatize and insert itself into the ‘farm-to-plate’ value chain. This migration will perhaps reverse the steady decline in the agriculture workforce – from 56.7% in 2004 to 43.21% in 2019[9] [10]– but it will only be productive and revolutionize agriculture if agritech solutions are on offer.

India is ready for this. It has last-mile telecommunications (BharatNet) and electricity (Saubhagya) connectivity, and higher conventional and digital literacy rates, negating the earlier impediments to making farmers the end-users of SAAS and allied agritech products. A shift of end-users from state administration to digitally-literate farmers has to be made.

This needs the scientific institutions’ deep-science startups to become dynamic participants in India’s post-pandemic agriculture digitization project. The NPSTA can enhance its mandate to run innovation incubators and accelerators with ISRO, SRSACs, startups and micro-small-medium enterprises (MSMEs), and public and private-listed agrobusiness working synchronously as stakeholders (Table 3).

Table 3 Stakeholder composition of a proposed NPSTA incubator or accelerator ecosystem in rural India. 

Stakeholders in rural agri-tech ecosystems Role in the Ecosystem
Indian Space Research Organization Sell Earth observation satellite data at market rates; consultancy for microsatellite construction, operations and ground control
Start-ups and micro, small and medium enterprises (agri-tech, SAAS, data analytics) Process SAAS and agri-tech data, build intuitive web and mobile applications based solutions for end-users at competitive prices along with innovation of allied agri-tech products
Public and private-listed agro-businesses (seed, chemical, fast-moving consumer goods) Invest in start-ups and MSMEs, mentor them, and help them adapt to market dynamics
State Remote Sensing Applications Centers They can become an end-to-end business enabling and regulatory authority

These NPSTA ecosystems can be nurtured in rural areas, particularly in the campuses of agriculture, science and engineering colleges and universities, rural management institutes, and Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) centres. Rural regions will not only generate entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for the newly migrated and extant workforces, it will also alleviate urban population stresses gradually.

Most of India’s agritech incubators and accelerators are located in metro cities and away from farms. These only offer beta or simulation environments (Table 4), which do not assist end-to-end agritech product development. Creating agritech start-ups in rural areas offers the advantages of field-testing on farms, critical for obtaining quality assurance certifications, market-readiness of the final technology product, and generating systematic upgrades based on feedback from farmers.

Table 4: Names and locations of incubators and accelerators for precision agriculture technology startups in India 

Name of the Precision Agri-Tech Accelerator/Incubator Host Institution City
PUSA Krishi Incubator Indian Agriculture Research Institute, PUSA Campus New Delhi
Agriclinics & Agribusiness Centres National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management Hyderabad
a-IDEA, Centre for Agri Innovation National Academy of Agricultural Research Management Hyderabad
Agri-Tech – NASSCOM Center of Excellence- IoT& AI Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Bengaluru, Gurugram, Gandhinagar
Centre for Excellence – Agri-Tech Innovation Centre Karnataka Innovation and Technology Society, Government of Karnataka, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms Bengaluru
Indigram Labs Foundation National Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board, Department of Science and Technology New Delhi
India Agritech Incubation Network Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur; Tata Trusts; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Kanpur

Such indigenously-built, verified, tested, and upgraded SAAS and allied agritech companies will also alleviate chronic and environmental stresses in the farm-to-plate value chain such as unpredictable weather, groundwater depletion, supply-chain breakups, and weak finances and insurances.

Adapting the NPSTA to such a futuristic public-private enterprise model will give India the double benefit of modernising its agriculture and making it globally competitive. This will benefit agribusiness companies in India like UPL, Godrej, Amul, Patanjali, Mahindra, ITC, Hindustan Lever, and Nestle, encourage space-and agritech start-ups and more importantly, the farmer of India. It will also accelerate the path to achieving Prime Minister Modi’s goal of doubling farmer income by 2022-23.

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References

[1] Victor Cortés, Argentine startups Satellogic and Kilimo to expand in India. Contxto, 8 August 2019.

https://www.contxto.com/en/argentina/argentine-startups-satellogic-and-kilimo-to-expand-into-india/

[2] Retrieved from the Satellogic website, https://satellogic.com/industries/agriculture/

[3] Retrieved from the Indian Space Research Organization website, https://www.isro.gov.in/earth-observation/nesdr

[4] Satellites Designed for Benefit of Farmers. Press Information Bureau – Government of India – Department of Space. 15 December 2016. https://pib.gov.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=155408

[5] Use of Space Technology in Agriculture and Allied Sectors. Press Information Bureau – Government of India – Ministry of Agriculture & Farmer’s Welfare. 19 December 2017.

https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1513186

[6] Martin N. Sweetings, Modern small satellites – changing the economics of space. Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 106, Issue. 3, pp. 343-361, March 2018.

https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8303876

[7] “Satellite-as-a-service”: a new approach for space industry. Exodus Orbitals. https://exodusorbitals.com/files/whitepaper.pdf

[8] J. Calabrese, India-Gulf Migration: A Testing Time. Middle East Institute, 14 April 2020.

https://www.mei.edu/publications/india-gulf-migration-testing-time

[9] Labour in Indian Agriculture: A Growing Challenge. KPMG-FICCI, 9 March 2015.

http://ficci.in/spdocument/20550/FICCI-agri-Report%2009-03-2015.pdf

[10] Retrieved from the GlobalEdge website citing World Bank data

https://globaledge.msu.edu/countries/india/economy

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