Apart from digitalising India’s agri sector for over two decades, with its E-choupals, ITC is also enabling farmers to maximise the market reach. It is perfecting a win-win model for all parties involved. Organiser representative Deepti Verma recently spoke to Anil Rajput, President ITC Corporate Affairs, regarding this journey’s challenges, milestones and innovations. Excerpts
E-Choupal has been using Information Technology (IT) for the economic development of rural communities. How did it come about and how far spread is the reach today?
ITC has been deeply engaged in agriculture for over a century. Over two decades ago, ITC launched e-Choupal, a pioneering agri-ecosystem recognised globally for its trailblazing contribution to farmers’ empowerment. The primary purpose was to address some of the core challenges farmers face given their fragmented and small land holdings, heterogeneity of the condition of different farmers, lack of information and awareness, low productivity as well as inadequate access to the market.
Therefore, ITC e-Choupal was conceived as an innovative market-led business model to enhance the competitiveness of Indian agriculture. E-Choupal leveraged the power of Information and Digital Technology and the Internet to empower small and marginal farmers with timely and relevant weather information, the transparent discovery of prices and much more. ITC e-Choupals connected farmers with markets, allowed for a virtual integration of the supply chain, and created significant efficiencies in the traditional system. In addition, the initiative offered a host of services related to know-how and best practices to provide a significant boost to farm productivity.
“The ITC e-Choupal eco-system has helped transform village communities into vibrant economic organisations by enhancing farmer incomes and co-creating markets”
The human and digital infrastructure of the e-Choupal network was complemented by physical infrastructure in the form of Integrated Rural Service Hubs called “Choupal Saagars”, which offer multiple services under one roof. ITC also launched the ‘Choupal Pradarshan Khet’ to bring the benefits of sustainable agricultural best practices to small and marginal farmers through demonstration farms. Backed by intensive research and knowledge, this initiative provided agri-extension services that were qualitatively superior and involved pro-active handholding of farmers to ensure productivity gains. The services were customised to meet local conditions, ensure the timely availability of farm inputs, including insurance and credit, and provide a cluster of farmer schools for capturing indigenous knowledge.
At present, there are around 6,100 choupals in 35,000 villages, empowering 4 million farmers.
The e-Choupal model has been specifically designed to tackle the challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture. Can you please elaborate on this?
Agriculture is the lifeline of the Indian economy. As much as 70 per cent of rural households depend primarily on this sector for their livelihoods, besides employing nearly half of the total workforce in the country. However, agriculture contributes around 20 per cent of the country’s GVA, highlighting the chronic challenges of low productivity, investments and incomes. Compounding this is the threat from depleting natural resources such as groundwater, the top soil and the increasing impact of extreme weather episodes caused by climate change.
Fragmented and small land holdings, low productivity, poor farming knowledge and know-how, and weak last-mile connectivity create a vicious cycle of low incomes and investments, aggravating rural poverty. Agri wastage is rampant, estimated at Rs 92,000 crores annually. It is obvious that agriculture needs special focus, given its enormous impact on the economy.
The ITC e-Choupal initiative addressed these challenges through a range of interventions aimed at boosting productivity, enabling price discovery, enhancing market linkages, and diversifying income. The ITC e-Choupal eco-system has helped transform village communities into vibrant economic organisations by enhancing farmer incomes and co-creating markets.
It looks like a solution that aims to benefit everyone in the food chain, from the farmers to the intermediaries to the economy. Please take us through the model.
ITC’s presence across all three sectors of the economy – agriculture, manufacturing and services – enables it to contribute significantly to every node of the agri-food value chain. ITC’s celebrated e-Choupal initiative offers a range of interventions aiming to improve productivity and enhance farmers’ income. ITC has also spearheaded a ‘Baareh Mahine Hariyali’ programme, which aligns with the Prime Minister’s vision of doubling farmers’ income. This integrated programme aims to multiply rural incomes through a wide spectrum of interventions including agronomic practices such as zero tillage, introduction of the right varieties, cropping intensity and diversification and shared mechanised farming equipment. This programme covered over 2,00,000 farmers, many of whom have multiplied incomes. ITC is also collaborating with NITI Aayog to progressively build the capacity of 2 million farmers in 27 Aspirational Districts to help enhance rural incomes.
Enhancing availability of natural resources, ITC has implemented a Water Stewardship programme that includes supply and demand side initiatives. The Watershed Development programme covers over 1.3 lakh acres, while under the demand side management initiative, crop water saving has crossed 700 million kilo litres. ITC will progressively enable Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) certification for high water-stressed regions in its catchments.
ITC also developed sustainable and inclusive agri value chains anchored by its world-class FMCG brand portfolio. The Wheat and Spices Value Chain is anchored by the Aashirvaad brand and exports. ITC’s Bingo drives the Potato Value Chain! Snacks; the Fruits & Vegetables Value Chain is powered by ITC’s B-Natural juices, Farmland and ITC Master Chef Frozen Foods and the Dairy Value Chain leverages Aashirvaad Svasti dairy products and Sunfeast Wonderz milk-based beverages. The Company has also developed a wood-based value chain anchored by its Paperboards business.
What is the status of the service right now and what is the future road map like?
Anchored by the e-Choupal initiative, ITC is now the second-largest procurer of wheat in the country after FCI. Today, ITC sources 4 million tonnes of agri-commodities from more than 20 crop value-chain clusters in 22 States.
ITC has been progressively working to usher in Next Gen agriculture, focusing on value addition, promoting Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) and bringing the power of the digital revolution to farmers. Its CSA programme has benefited 5.5 lakh farmers in 18 lakh acres across 17 States.
“ITC has launched a dedicated initiative – ITC Mission Millets that includes the development of a ‘good for you’ product portfolio, implementation of sustainable farming system as well as enhancing consumer awareness”
Recognising that millets offer a secure crop option for small farmers, given their climate-friendly attributes, ITC has also launched a dedicated initiative – ITC Mission Millets that includes the development of a good-for-you product portfolio, implementation of a sustainable farming system as well as enhancing consumer awareness through an educate, empower and encourage approach.
The business is scaling up its value-added portfolio comprising spices, coffee, frozen marine products and processed fruits amongst others, for domestic and exports markets.
Bringing the benefits of the Digital Revolution to farmers, ITC has recently launched a phygital eco-system called the ITCMAARS (Metamarket for Advanced Agriculture and Rural Services) as a crop agnostic integrated ‘phygital’ eco-system. It is embedded with a full-stack AgriTech platform with FPOs as the pivot. This platform provides farmers with AI/ML-driven personalised and hyperlocal crop advisories, access to good quality inputs and market linkages, and allied services like pre-approved loans. It also offers advanced technologies like real-time soil testing, quality assaying and precision farming at farmers’ doorstep. ITCMAARS has now been launched in 8 States with 1,100+ FPOs encompassing 5 lakh farmers. This will be progressively scaled up across the country. This defining initiative will make a substantial contribution to the national priorities of multiplying farmers’ income and enhancing livelihood opportunities. It will also harness the innovations of successful startups in the Agri-tech space to offer their solutions to millions of farmers.
From pharma to infra, everyone is using tech as a partner. How future ready is Indian agriculture?
Given that digital and sustainability are the megatrends of the decade, there are several opportunities that can be leveraged to empower farmers. Whilst the ITC e-Choupal brought the benefits of Information Technology to farmers, ITC is progressively empowering farmers with the digital technology advancements taking place at a rapid scale. It is indeed encouraging to note that Indian startups and other enterprises have developed over 1,500 Agri-Tech solutions which can benefit farmers manifold. However, these are mostly point solutions and cannot be amplified to farmers without a digital platform aggregator. ITCMAARS has been designed as one platform where Agri-Tech solutions can be linked to farmers to offer various customised solutions. Since ITCMAARS is also supporting the aggregation of farmers through FPOs, a vibrant market can also be created for such Agri-Tech solutions. This is therefore, a win-win situation for farmers as well as the Agri-Tech solution providers, thereby enhancing the competitiveness of Indian agriculture. Such Next Gen interventions through ITCMAARS , the eco-system developed by ITC e-Choupal, and the creation of world-class brands will help foster demand-responsive value chains and enable farmers to meet better-evolving consumer needs and for exports.
It is heartening that more than 5 lakh farmers are using the ITCMAARS platform. This also points to be future readiness of farmers to adopt digital technology. With the exponential spread of internet and mobile phones and the increasing use of digital payment gateways like UPI, rural India is poised well to leverage digital advancements. ITC, therefore, is working with farmers in this journey to enable a new dimension of progress in agriculture.