In early 2016, Martin Bliemel, a professor at the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation in UTS, and Sreekant Sreedharan, the founder of ExoCortex, got together to discuss plans to address food security in India. What became apparent very early in our conversations was that India needs a fundamental rethink of the farm-to-fork ecosystem to fend off an inevitable food crisis in our immediate future. We immediately recognized three things:
- Scope: An entirely new industry had to be built to feed 500 million more people
- Time: We had a decade to avert a fundamental collapse of our food production infrastructure
- Action: A community had to be built with participants in – academia, industry & government
To create a new industry we would require an ecosystem with participation from entities responsible for innovation, mobilizing capital, and mobilizing the workforce. At the heart of such an ecosystem would also be a primer organization or individual, responsible for keeping the wheels of the ecosystem moving.
We realized that the entire farm-to-fork ecosystem would then have to be energized to succeed at transforming India's food production systems.
ExoCortex was formed to address the production problem – the 'farm'. We understand that the rapid evolution of the e-commerce, logistics & online retail industry, would eventually address the distribution problem – the 'to'. We also understand that emergent actors would eventually address the delivery problem - the 'table'. However, no broad based transformation of the ecosystem is possible without a fundamental restructuring of the bottom of the value chain – food production. This is why we have decided to start at the bottom of the pyramid – the ‘farm’.
Agriculture is at a crossroad – the physical world is being connected to the digital world. The future of food production will be built on data sciences and autonomous machinery. Agriculture is becoming an information science. However, India today lacks the mechanisms to adapt to the rapid changes an information science, driven by data, requires. To succeed, India has to control its farming on a national scale. It needs a national infrastructure for automated agriculture at a colossal scale – an 'Agricultural Internet'. Such an infrastructure would integrate our current 40 million hectares (of the potential 160 million) under a unified network so that our ~6500 experts spread across our 64 agricultural universities and 98 ICAR institutions, can deliver the promise of precision farming to 100 million farms. Today, China leads Asia on this front (Refer: Appendix III - How China Plans to Feed 1.4 Billion Growing Appetites). We have to catch up.
ExoCortex as an organization was formed to deliver that national infrastructure. Since its inception in 2017, ExoCortex has also acted as the prime mover in partnership with TNAU, UTS & IIT to foster crosspollination across the academic community and bring together the brightest thinkers in the space to address the issue. Our current grant applications with academic partners drives 2 crore of R&D funding into the ecosystem.
Progress has been slow, but certain. The grants we collaborate on today are demonstrable proof of our commitment to working together to address the issue.
The diagram above, visually describes how we think about the ecosystem, who our current partners are and who potential participants could be. However, given the nascent stage of this new industry, engagement with participants will have to be in lockstep with both maturity of technology and potential market.
Precision Farming Consortium
In early 2018, ExoCortex in conjunction with Dr. Renu Agarwal of University of Technology Sydney, decided to create a consortium to govern and guide the evolution of the entire ecosystem. As of Q1,2018, a draft outline of the proposal has been shared with several organizations and the following organizations have expressed interest in participating and leading the development of such a consortium:
- Irrigation & Farm Equipment Manufacturers: Mahindra & Mahindra, DripTech from Jain Irrigation
- Information Services : Planet Inc. (an earth-imaging company)
- Academic Institutions: IIT Kanpur, IIT Madras, University of Technology Sydney, University of Western Sydney.
The formation of the consortium is in its nascent stages and ExoCortex continues to drive and catalyze its evolution.