Thursday, 27 November 2014

Hybrid seeds maker Monsanto bets big, this time on agriculture extension

After Bt cotton and single-cross corn hybrids, Monsanto’s next big focus in India is agricultural extension: advising farmers on agronomic practices to get the best out of their land.
The $15 billion agriculture technology MNC already has over 13.5 lakh farmers registered under its Monsanto Farm AgVisory Service (MFAS) platform across 17 states. “We have data on each of them — name, mobile number, the village and tehsil to which they belong, age, educational qualification, annual income and ownership of farm equipment (tractors, harrows, cultivators, seed drills, harvesters, etc). Besides, we know their landholding size, soil type, irrigation status, individual crop acreages, and sowing dates,” said Shilpa Divekar Nirula, CEO-India Region, Monsanto Holdings Pvt Ltd.
The 13.5 lakh farmers — growing by roughly 10 per cent a year — are all users of Monsanto’s hybrids seeds products that include Bt cotton (‘Paras Brahma’ and ‘Deltapine’ brands), corn (‘Dekalb’) and vegetables (‘Seminis’). “Since we understand our seeds best, our farm advisory services are obviously directed at those using these,” explained Nirula.
Monsanto globally is already into agri extension. In the last two-and-a-half years, it has acquired three US-based companies — Precision Planting, The Climate Corporation and Solum — dealing with precision farming technology applications, customised weather-based cropping advice and soil analysis services.
Nirula, however, stated that MFAS was a free mobile-based crop advisory service. “We are not thinking in terms of monetising it now. Also, the reality and context here is different from that of the US. Our aim is to evolve this service to customise it at the individual farmer level to the extent possible,” she added.
MFAS basically offers two kinds of services. The first is voice-based crop advisories in local language. These are pre-recorded outbound alerts that go out to each farmer through an entire cropping season. In rabi corn, for instance, farmers receive one every 4-5 days right from the time of sowing around early November to harvesting in mid-February.
Such advisories — be it on how much and when to apply which fertiliser or irrigation, disease and weed management tips — are timed to the cropping schedule in each area, while also incorporating local weather forecasts and mandi price information.
The second is inbound calls made by farmers themselves seeking advice on their crop that may have, say, developed yellowing of leaves after 40 days of growth. These toll-free calls are attended by MFAS agents, who are mainly agriculture graduates having undergone rigorous training and equipped to communicate in the local language. The agents, then, recommend the necessary insecticide or herbicide treatment based on the farmer’s on-field description.
In 2013-14, the MFAS platform issued about 1.6 crore automated outbound advisories and received 4 lakh inbound calls. That included 2 lakh from unique farmers – meaning one farmer calling twice on an average.
These numbers aren’t small even compared to the 44.43 lakh calls received by the Kisan Call Centres (KCC) under the Union Agriculture Ministry in 2013-14. The latter have, moreover, been in existence since 2004 while covering a much wider range of crops.

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