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High Yields for Small Farms: AI elevates chili farming in India with smarter yields.

Indian farmers used chatbots and computer vision to produce higher yields at lower costs.

What’s new: The state government of Telangana in South India partnered with agricultural aid organization Digital Green to provide AI tools to chili farmers. 

How it works: The program, called Saagu Baagu, initially engaged 7,000 small-farm growers of chili peppers. Saagu Baagu provided AI-based tools developed by various Indian tech firms to help the farmers collect market data.

  • Digital Green developed a WhatsApp chatbot in partnership with open-source developer Glific. The chatbot, which converses in the Telugu language, alerts a farmer throughout the day with suggestions depending on a crop’s maturity. Farmers can also ask questions about their crops.
  • Agritech startup KrishiTantra opened a chain of local soil testing centers. Farmers test soil samples using a machine-learning-powered device that analyzes acidity, nutrient levels, and other qualities. Where traditional soil testing might take several weeks to return results, KrishiTantra’s system sends results and fertilizer recommendations to a farmer’s mobile phone in less than an hour.
  • AgNext provided a computer vision system that assesses the quality of individual chilis in the field. The system detects surface defects and estimates properties such as color, shape, and size, all of which can help reduce crop waste and increase sale prices.

Results: The pilot program lasted 18 months, or three cycles of planting, growing, and harvesting peppers. Farmers in the program grew 21 percent more plants per acre while using 9 percent less pesticide and 5 percent less fertilizer, according to the World Economic Forum. Moreover, with a higher-quality harvest, the farmers increased their sale prices by 8 percent. The Telangana government has expanded the program to 500,000 farmers who grow a wider range of crops including chickpeas, cotton, groundnuts, rice, and turmeric.

Behind the news: The promise of AI-driven agriculture is attracting investments around the world. Last year, Microsoft open-sourced a suite of AI tools to analyze overhead imagery and sensor data to map soil conditions in real time and forecast temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture for days ahead.

Why it matters: Many of the Telangana farmers rely on what they can grow and sell to support themselves and their families. That makes them especially vulnerable to market fluctuations and climate change. Their situation is not unique to India. Programs like Saagu Baagu could help support small-scale farming across the world.

We’re thinking: Saagu Baagu worked in part because WhatsApp is widely popular throughout India and the chatbot spoke the local language. Smart localization that addresses local technological infrastructures, languages, and agricultural practices can proliferate the benefits of AI in agriculture.


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