Agriculture , Industries

IFFCO's Digital Disruption of the Agriculture Sector

IFFCO Director Anil Gupta on How Nano-Fertilizers and AI Drones Empower Farmers
IFFCO's Digital Disruption of the Agriculture Sector
Image: Shutterstock

India's agriculture sector, the largest contributor to the country's economy, is undergoing a digital transformation led by the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited. To support the 55 million strong Indian farming community, IFFCO pioneered multiple innovations such as liquid nano-fertilizers that cost a fraction of traditional fertilizers, AI-enabled drones for precision spraying, digital tools for farmers, high-resolution imaging, and cloud-based data processing.

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IFFCO, a multi-state cooperative society and the largest manufacturer and marketer of fertilizers in India, has developed an ecosystem of products, services and support systems for more than 35,000 cooperatives over the past 54 years. With a turnover of $7.23 billion in 2022-2023, IFFCO is also encouraging entrepreneurship among young Indian farmers with subsidies and self-employment opportunities.

The mobile revolution in India, with one of the most economic data rates in the world, has facilitated the digital revolution in the agriculture sector. Improved data connectivity in rural areas and increased handset usage among farmers are financially empowering the community, said Anil Kumar Gupta, director (IT services), IFFCO.

Cost-Effective and Efficient Nano-Fertilizers

IFFCO's innovations, such as Nano Urea and Nano DAP (Di-ammonium Phosphate), saved India $1 billion in foreign exchange, Gupta said referring to the fact that India imports 25% of its total fertilizer consumption. Farmers benefited significantly as liquid fertilizers are now available at one-tenth the price of traditional fertilizers. A 500 ml bottle of liquid fertilizer costs $2.70, whereas a 45 kg bag of conventional fertilizer costs $24.

As of February 2024, IFFCO produced 70 million bottles and sold 50 million bottles, with exports to other countries as well, Gupta said.

Data-Driven Farming With AI Drones and Cloud Technology

To enhance agricultural productivity and efficiency, IFFCO employs AI-enabled drones, AI imaging technology and cloud computing. These innovations are revolutionizing farming practices by providing data-driven insights and enabling precision agriculture techniques.

Drone Sprayers

Drones are considered more efficient than the time-consuming conventional manual methods for spraying liquid fertilizer. Drones are commonly used for spraying in countries with relatively large fields such as Canada, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. This technology, however, had not yet been implemented in India, where 80% of farmers have a land holding of less than one hectare.

"With the advancement in technology, we can use our small and medium category agri-drones in a very precise manner," Gupta said. "We solved this challenge with AI-powered drones."

IFFCO claims it deployed 800 AI-powered drones to efficiently spray foliar plant fertilizers in small- and medium-sized fields, covering almost 125 locations with more than 2,000 farmers at each location, as of February 2024.

"We interacted with farmers to learn about their pain areas, and we found that demand is usually more than supply, leading to shortages," Gupta said.

To meet the growing demand and close the demand-supply gap, IFFCO sells its fertilizers through an e-commerce portal called IFFCO Bazaar, delivering products to farmers' doorsteps "in the shortest time with zero delivery charges," Gupta said. The portal accepts input in 12 Indian languages and receives orders from all over the country (26,000 pin codes). The organization also built 10 more plants to manufacture liquid fertilizers, adding to the existing three.

AI Imaging

The AI-powered drones capture high-resolution images of crops, which are analyzed using AI on the cloud to identify pest and insect infestations. Farmers can then identify the crop that needs to be sprayed with insecticide or pesticide, and in what quantities. They can then order the required quantities using IFFCO's e-commerce portal.

The drones record parameters such as wind speed, temperature and weather conditions. They also assist in soil mapping. Using this data, IFFCO provides advisories to farmers on when to fly the drones, which regions of their field require spraying, what direction the drones should fly, and what type of nozzles are to be used for spraying.

Cloud Technology

The massive amount of information collected by the drones is captured and processed on the cloud. IFFCO uses Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and it has been using other Oracle solutions for the past 25 years. Three years ago, IFFCO began using the Oracle Digital Assistant, which is both, a chatbot for employee-related workflow applications and a tool for farmers. This assistant serves as a voice-enabled tool for farmers who cannot read or write.

Promoting Entrepreneurship

To address the issue of young farmers migrating to urban areas, IFFCO developed a plan to make them self-sufficient by subsidizing the cost of drones and fertilizers and providing free training. Gupta said that the cooperative is purchasing 2,500 drones and 2,500 electric three-wheelers and providing them to rural entrepreneurs.

"They are educated up to the 12th grade. We train them to be drone pilots in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Manesar. In all, we have 12 training centers and the training lasts for 15 days. After completing the training, they can go to the rural areas and offer farmers drone spraying services and charge INR 300 [$3.60] per acre," Gupta said. "In a day, they can cover 18 to 20 acres and earn approximately INR 5,000 [$60] per day."

IFFCO covers the maintenance and warranty of the electric drones, ensuring no operating expenses for the entrepreneurs. "If an entrepreneur can earn between INR 50,000 [$599.91] to 1 lakh [$1,199.83] a month through spraying services, he will never migrate to a larger city in search of work," Gupta said.

Through its innovative approach and business models, IFFCO not only promoted entrepreneurship but also brought AI and cloud technology to Indian farmers. With a voice-enabled app, a multi-lingual portal, and digital tools, the organization aims to increase yields and profitability, and reduce migration to urban areas, benefiting millions of farmers and thousands of farming cooperatives across India.

About the Author

Brian Pereira

Brian Pereira

Sr. Director - Editorial, ISMG

Pereira has nearly three decades of journalism experience. He is the former editor of CHIP, InformationWeek and CISO MAG. He has also written for The Times of India and The Indian Express.

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