Why Farmers in India Are Committing Suicide—and How a New App Is Poised to Change That

SourceTrace aims to help small farmers get paid quickly and connect directly to buyers.

(Photo: Prakash Singh/Getty Images)


Dec 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

From 1995 to 2005, India saw a historic number of farmer suicides: more than 30,000. This year, in just the state of Telangana, there have been 350 farmer suicides.

Small family-run farms are plagued with debt and financial problems brought on by insensitive and demanding money lenders—to the point where it’s driving them to sacrifice their lives, said Venkat Maroju. However, he says he has the solution: a new mobile-based application that can help small farmers get paid quickly, track their produce, and connect directly to clients.

Maroju is the CEO of Massachusetts-based agritech company SourceTrace. Originally from the suicide-plagued region of South India, he knew the distress of these farmers growing up. So Maroju quit his corporate job in the U.S. and in 2013 joined SourceTrace, a company with a mission he believed in: empowering farmers.

With more than 450 million small-scale farmers around the world, Maroju sees this population not only as an untapped, unorganized market but also a potential food source to feed the world’s burgeoning population. With a more organized agricultural sector, he said, India can also drive down its food waste, bringing down prices in the process: According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 40 percent of fresh food grown there rots because the country’s farmers don’t have access to sophisticated storage techniques as the produce makes its way to consumers. That can add up to $8.3 billion in lost revenue each year.

“That’s why we are taking technology to the last mile of agriculture,” Maroju said.

Maroju argues that technology can not only help farmers get a fair price for their produce, eliminating the role of greedy middlemen, but also monitor deliveries, ensuring that they get to the customer on time. With the added feature of “geo-fencing,” a device using the SourceTrace platform can be seen entering or leaving a particular area.

Currently, SourceTrace is working with 200,000 farms across the world. Maroju wants to make that one million farms by 2016. To date, the company estimates that it’s been able to provide a 15 percent increase in prices paid to farmers for certified produce and has accrued $16 in savings per farmer annually from eliminating waste and pilferage. While it may seem like a small sum, Maroju says, the numbers add up in scale.

Co-ops, in particular, are adopting the technology. Sitaram Birar, a mango and cashew farmer in the western state of Gujarat, sells his harvest to the local Dixal Co-operative. He travels to the collection unit near the city center and then waits in line for his produce to be weighed, a process that can easily take all day. As farmers wait in line, traders try to lure them away from the co-op, offering to buy their load, but at a lower price. Those who can’t tolerate the long lines at the collection unit often give in.

This year, Birar was surprised by the short wait time. It turned out Dixal had adopted the SourceTrace software for billing its farmers. Jignesh Patel, director of the co-op, said it cuts down on the wait time significantly, produces higher-quality receipts (before, the ink would smudge easily and be hard to read), and allows transactions to be completed in the field as well. While Patel might be sitting at the collection center, he can monitor the activity of his staff in the field in real time using the SourceTrace platform, which operates on phones and tablets.

India is a low-bandwidth nation; though cell phone usage is at historic highs with over 900 million subscribers, Internet and 3G connections are still weak. Maroju acknowledges this. In fact, he says, the company works in a number of low-bandwidth countries, such as Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana. To combat this issue, the SourceTrace software can be used offline without 3G and Internet connectivity; when the device is in range again, it automatically syncs the information.

The technology is helping not just farmers but also regulators. Narayana Upadhyaya is the director of Aditi Organic Certifications, a company that issues the organic stamp on farms free of pesticides and chemicals in India. This year, it went from a pen-and-paper model to completely digital using SourceTrace. Upadhyaya says the remote access to information has been particularly useful to inspectors who want to keep an eye on farms and monitor data over a period of time. While Aditi has rolled out a pilot program in India to digitize all its data, it’s considering expanding it to Vietnam and Ethiopia as well.

“These small farmers are feeding the planet, but they’re also some of the poorest people on earth,” Upadhyaya said. "We can change that by making agriculture more efficient.”