The dairy sector in India is playing a critical role in democratizing India's entrepreneurship landscape, bringing rural communities into the mainstream, as we experience a profound shift in value-added dairy, changing consumer preferences and consumption patterns in urban areas.
Suniti Gupta, managing director and chief executive officer, Innoterra Tech, and Dr Ashok Modgil, head B2B Milk Operations, Milklane, shared industry insights with FoodTechBiz. They explained by giving examples of how the new-age technological interventions at the farm or procurement level help the dairy farmers to improve their livelihoods. In addition, they highlighted Milklane's digital efforts at the procurement level for promoting financial inclusion for 5000+ farmers in over 100 villages across India.
FTB - Artificial Intelligence can be a game-changer for the dairy industry in India. Would you please share your opinion on this?
SG & AM - Dairy Industry has already seen, though on a limited scale in India, robotic milking machines, cow comfort brushes, automatic calf feeders on dairy farms. Just imagine a data system to monitor cows' activity 24x7, identify each cow from the face in the farm and utilize the data to guide the farmer on all performance indicators right from lameness to estrous cycle to food or feed intake to maximize production and reduce stress levels on the cows. Artificial Intelligence, though an ever-growing and relevant industry for agri-tech, and now being used for dairying in the US and EU, is a faraway dream for small and marginal Indian dairy farmers producing 85% of total milk but lack affordability and access to such capital-intensive solutions.
Therefore, usage of AI and empowered access to small and marginal farmers can symbiotically support the growth of the dairy sector, with farmer's savings on the production expenses with better productivity. Many advancements in this new-age technology for dairying are just on the surface but would certainly add to the efficiencies of farmers and milk processors. Who knows tomorrow, Indian cows would be wearing a "Fitbit" on their ankles.
In our experience, technology integration at the farm level is easier if the solutions are simple and not very tech-intensive. What works well for the farmers is an amalgamation of data-gathering checkpoints and advisory or analytics. At Innoterra, we have seen a great response from our farmer partners for MIS integration and Internet of Things (IoT) such as trackers and sensors, to help them capture data at the farm level – they need a bit of handholding from us to then make good use of the data and observe trends, improve productivity, calibrate resources and predict upcoming requirements. We believe that as we go on this journey of agri-tech evolution, small steps will eventually lead to the development of useful, easily implementable Artificial Intelligence (AI) modules. Good examples of opportunities where AI is already playing some role for farmers are drone monitoring of fields and cattle, automated observation of cattle for disease, telemedicine, calf birth tracking, and body measurements.
FTB – What are the major challenges pushing modern dairy businesses towards digitization?
SG & AM - Challenges in maintaining milk quality, low milk yield, lack of infrastructure such as cold chains, and fragmented production, low milk density are some of the critical issues that the dairy business in India continues to deal with. Both the backend and front-end supply chains still have several infrastructure-related limitations. Technology-driven goods, facilities, and solutions have benefited the dairy sector tremendously in recent years. Today, the industry relies on technology to manage end-to-end operations and keep things running smoothly. From automated or mechanized milk collection and evaluating milk composition at the village level to real-time milk procurement, assessment of overall milk quality criteria, and automation of dairy plant operation, the importance of digital solutions has increased multi-fold.
FTB - How was the transition phase for MilkLane?
SG & AM - MilkLane was set up to create a modern, tech-enabled and transparent dairy platform. Over the years, we have worked very closely with our farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu to help establish a flourishing collaboration – this results in a regular supply of high-quality milk for us and strong business growth and entrepreneurial support for our partners. We have ensured transparency in pricing and timely payments, enabled digital literacy, regular touchpoints, training, and improved financial inclusion to boost rural entrepreneurship.
Today, over 90% of our payments to farmers are made digitally, directly into their accounts. We are arming dairy producers with the diagnostic and predictive knowledge they need to boost production sustainably while keeping costs down and cattle healthy by integrating technology into their daily procedures. We're always improving and growing the range of services we provide to our farmer-partners, allowing for a gradual but seamless transition to technology-first capabilities while also helping to modernize the dairy supply chain. While there are hurdles in terms of adoption and infrastructure, we see them as challenges to overcome new possibilities. We are committed to changing India's dairy practices and transform the end-to-end value chain in the process.
FTB - What are the critical points where Innoterra Tech offers solutions in the dairy industry?
SG & AM - At the production level, technology-based apps and programs can now determine milk purity, microbiological load, adulterants, and shelf life. Technology is crucial in ensuring timely distribution, maintaining the cold chain, and so on. Participants in the supply chain can also effectively manage inventory digitally. Tech integration also enables farmers and dairy aggregators to provide doorstep services to their consumers through their cellphones. Digitization of operating processes can be facilitated by integrated farm management systems we have developed.
Product innovation, traceability, and quality assurance are emerging as key buying criteria on the consumer side. Traceability solutions that provide consumers immediate information about the source of milk and sustainable, ethical production practices at the dairy level, information about testing and nutritional composition are crucial to reassure the consumers. Tech integration helps consumers access this information at the touch of a button.
And this transformation at both ends is facilitated, not by some major tech intervention, but by the humble, accessible smartphone and data, a ubiquity across India today.
FTB - Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, how does the tech integration help dairy farmers across India?
SG & AM - For Indian farmers, digital advisory and education and cattle extension services provide cattle progeny with increased genetic value, capable of producing more milk and flourishing in a diverse dairy farming system to supplement income. Digital payments boost financial inclusion and access to banking services and easy credit to expand the business. Through these efforts, an empowered farmer can make more money by managing a larger, healthier, and more productive herd with fewer unproductive days at a lower cost of production. They can increase productivity by focusing on skill development, risk reduction, process comprehension, farm and livestock management. Moreover, connecting farmers to consumers by letting them know where their goods are sold and emerging consumer preferences help them calibrate production in real-time. Digital platforms also bolster farmer communities to connect and explore cooperative scale-building and skill-sharing.
FTB - Tell us about emerging technologies Milklane has adopted for its operations
SG & AM - One of the biggest advancements Milklane has achieved, with the support of InnoterraTech's product iDairy, is the traceability for our milk products. We may be one of the first few companies to have the source and testing data available for every batch of milk that goes to market. Our customers and consumers can access that data online. Maintaining this database is a tech-integrated, complex procedure. Through iDairy, we record levels of milk nutrients and quality at the time of procurement at our bulk chilling centers.
As milk is a perishable commodity, it becomes necessary to maintain milk quality through the end-to-end value chain. Our bulk coolers integrate technology in logistics and supply chains to maintain temperature and quality control parameters. Milklane is associated with large dairy farms pan-India with over 10,000 cattle for milk procurement. The traceability feature can go right down to an individual animal level to record variants, age, and cattle health. The use of IoT with milking equipment helps assess milk quality right at the source, helping the farmers rear the best quality cattle and optimize quality yield.
FTB - What message do you want to convey to dairy farmers?
SG & AM - Our sincere message to all dairy farmers is not to shy away from integrating technology, no matter the size of your current operations. Availability of data services has made tech integration easier without adding a huge cost burden. Complex solutions are sometimes misunderstood as very hard to integrate – that is not the case. Most solutions are now also available with local language support. With the right support from your tech partners, you can derive great benefits and realize the potential of your dairy establishment fully.