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Apps, drones, online markets as Coffee Board looks to improve crop productivity

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The board has launched on pilot basis a number of tech measures to help the 3.66 lakh coffee growers in the country.

New Delhi: Drones, geo-tagging and a number of mobile apps are among the technological measures the government-run Coffee Board is set to introduce to improve productivity and revenue.

The board, which is under the commerce ministry, set the process in motion last week, when Suresh Prabhu, the Commerce and Industries Minister, formally launched the ‘Coffee Connect’ app.

The app will collect data from coffee plantations in the country through inbuilt geo-tagging which will help generate information about plantation location, plant material and age.

“For the first time in the 75 years of India’s Coffee Act, 1942, we are trying to infuse new technologies that will enhance productivity and yield for farmers,” said Coffee Board Secretary and CEO, Srivasta Krishna.

Krishna emphasised on the need to grow “smart coffee”, using concepts such precision agriculture and smart agriculture to maximise yields from the existing coffee growing regions.

The board hopes that these technological measures will help increase profits of farmers, particularly in the export markets.

‘Way to hike profits’

According to Krishna, a cup of Indian coffee sells for $3 to $4 in the US, of which an Indian farmer gets only 5 cents. With technology, he said, this could rise to 10 cents.

The move comes amid fears that the next season could see the coffee output drop to its lowest in two decades due to the unprecedented rains in the two top crop producing regions in the country – Kodagu in Karnataka and Wayanad in Kerala.

Also read: More flood damage: India’s coffee output dips to 21-year low

According to a Bloomberg report, output in the year starting October 1 may be about 25 per cent lower than the 3,16,000 metric tons estimated by the Coffee Board for 2017-18.

Coffee is cultivated by 3.66 lakh coffee farmers in the country, 98 per cent of whom are small farmers. Typically, a small farmer is one who owns less than 25 acres.

Apps galore and a call centre

The ‘Coffee Connect’ app is among a number of apps that the board has already launched on a pilot basis.

The app allows users to get in touch with the coffee board’s extension officers, who provide services to coffee farmers.

At present, there are 170 Coffee Board extension personnel — or one extension officer per 2,153 farmers.

The app, officials hope, will enable better information exchange between Coffee Board personnel and those on the ground.

The board has also launched, on a pilot basis, a suite of apps to provide solutions to challenges in rainfall, pests and diseases.

Some of the app features are hyper-local weather forecasting, early detection of coffee crop pests such as the White Stem Borer and predicting the probability of Leaf Rust disease.

This app also has a blockchain-based market-place that allows coffee growers and farmers to directly deal with customers, including multinational firms.

“These are all wonderful efforts. These tech solutions, however, need more effort, and push from all stakeholders to make them really effective,” said Mohan Alwares, a coffee grower from Mudigere in Karnataka.

Alwares lauded the blockchain-based market but urged the board to increase awareness of it.

Rajeev Chaudhary, general manager and the chief risk officer, Agriculture Insurance Company of India, said such measures will hold the board in good stead.

“The Coffee Board’s various tech implementations including the pilot blockchain-based marketplace would make it a frontrunner among the other boards for crops in India. Other boards, however, will most likely follow suit”.

Also read: Research check: does drinking coffee help you live longer?

Drones Used

Another proposal that the board is exploring promoting is the use of drones in agriculture.

At the board’s event last Tuesday, several drone start-ups presented proposals, arguing that their use will improve the efficiency of pesticide use and spray.

“A farmer might take 2-3 hours to spray an acre with pesticide; a drone will do this in less than 10 minutes,” said Rahat Kulshreshtha, the CEO of the drone start-up Quidich Innovation Labs. “Using drones we found that 30 per cent less pesticide can be used and since it can be done remotely, farmers are saved from the harmful effects of direct contact with pesticides”.

Alwares, however, isn’t sure that drones will help in coffee plantations in India. “Unlike in Brazil where coffee is grown in open cultivation, in India coffee is largely a crop grown in shade,” he said. “If a coffee plant is 5 feet tall, there are trees as tall as 50 to 100 feet growing over it to provide shade. So I’m not entirely sure how drones can be used.”

Chaudhary of the Agriculture Insurance India foresees drones being increasingly used in other crops.  He says drones for aerial surveillance will be especially helpful in monitoring high-value and high-risk crops such as cotton, groundnut, soybean and plantation crops like tea. Agri insurance companies will likely make more drone purchases he said, adding that Maharashtra leads the pack in this sector.

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