AI Helps India to Sow Seeds

Machine Learning is Being Implemented for Better Crop Yields

01.05.2018 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo by Gary Chapman on ModernFarmer
Photo by Gary Chapman on ModernFarmer

According to a government-released report in 2014 agriculture still makes up 17.9% of India’s total GDP while also employing over 50% of the country’s active workforce. It is clear then that it is still an integral industry within the country and any force to aid it should be utilised – AI is one such force.

Microsoft has teamed up with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which is headquartered in India to develop an AI sowing app powered by Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite. The suite includes machine learning and Power BI.

ICRISAT is a non-profit and non-political agricultural research organisation that aims to keep developing the industry in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Suhas Wani is the Director of the Asia region for the organisation and is familiar with the obstacles farmers face across India and neighbouring countries.

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Dr Wani explains: “Sowing date as such is very critical to ensure that farmers harvest a good crop. And if it fails, it results in a loss, as a lot of costs are incurred for seeds, as well as the fertilizer applications.” It’s clear then that timing is everything with regards to successful crop yields.  

The technology colossus has termed this digital agriculture – using AI, cloud machine learning, advanced analytics and satellite imagery to allow farmers to yield more crops (between 10 and 30 percent higher yields according to the company) and therefore increase their income. All a farmer needs is a phone capable of receiving text messages.

The suite uses AI to analyse climate data that spans from 1985 to 2015. It then calculates the Moisture Adequacy Index (MAI) – a measure used for evaluating the adequacy of rainfall and the moisture in the soil to see if it meets the potential water requirements for crops.

Ten advisory messages were sent out until the harvest was completed and after a successful first run, the initiative was expanded. The Karnataka government will also implement AI to start using a price forecasting model for policymakers and believe it will truly benefit farmers.

The machine learning can also be used to predict the likelihood of pest attacks on crops and will allow workers to take precautionary measures to ensure minimal damage is done. Workers can be notified through the Pest Risk Prediction app.

One of the people behind these ideas is Anil Bhansali. He is the Managing Director in Microsoft India for research and development and he knows that these are just a few of the applications of AI technology that could bring more success to employees within India’s largest labour market.

As Bhansali puts it, “Indian agriculture has been traditionally rain-dependent and climate change has made farmers extremely vulnerable to crop loss. Insights from AI through the agriculture life cycle will help reduce uncertainty and risk in agriculture operations. Use of AI in agriculture can potentially transform the lives of millions of farmers in India and the world over.”

It is a refreshing change to see one of the world’s top tech companies already making pragmatic use of such advanced technology in such a simple way. The hope is that it will yield a truly positive impact for farmers within India.

Anil Bhansali – Managing Director at Microsoft India R&D Pvt Ltd

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“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will, in the end, contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” - Thomas Jefferson

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