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Govt's AI-Warehouse Pilot Project To Cut Onion Wastage A Right Step, But Not Foolproof

While cold storage could reduce the rotting of the kitchen staple, it may not prove to be a sustainable solution due to a lack of economic viability

Govt's AI-Warehouse Pilot Project To Cut Onion Wastage A Right Step, But Not Foolproof
POSTED ON January 17, 2024 11:58 AM

The Union government is looking to take another step in its bid to cut down on onion wastage in the country, according to a report by Mint. India is the second largest global producer of this kitchen staple after China. 

The government has planned to set up Artificial Intelligence (AI)-equipped warehouses for onions. Using the Internet of Things (IoT) can help collect data like dryness and percentage of rot. 

Industry watchers lauded the move but cautioned about keeping in mind the ground realities and limitations. 

"It is indeed a promising step towards reducing post-harvest losses, a longstanding issue in the country," said Professor Anjal Prakash, a Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business. He added that AI can help optimise storage conditions, predict market demands, and facilitate efficient distribution, thereby curbing onion wastage significantly. 

Professor Anjal Prakash, a Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director at Bharti I
Professor Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business

While the government's planned 5 per cent reduction in onion wastage out of the total losses worth Rs 11,000 crore might not seem significant, preventing any amount of rotting is appreciable and essential. In India, onion wastage often goes as high as a third of the total produce, forcing prices of the staple in every household to go through cycles of wild fluctuations throughout the year due to the mismatch in the demand-supply equation. 

"As the government pivots towards harnessing AI for onion waste reduction and price stabilisation, the potential impact is transformative," said Harish Swaminathan, head of product, Ninjacart, a fresh produce supply-chain agritech start-up

Some others doubled down on the potential of using cold storage to address the losses of onions during warehousing. 

"We firmly believe that we are currently equipped with multiple solutions to address issues like crop storage. The rest of the world already employs advanced techniques, such as storing onions in cold storage, and we are on the path to adopting similar practices here," said Hemant Gaur, founder of SV Agri, a WayCool enterprise. He also felt that the cold storage industry is on track towards "significant growth, reminiscent of the potato industry's evolution, marking an exciting prospect for the future of onion cultivation." 

However, others had their reservations about the viability of cold storage. Due to the fluctuating prices of onions in India, the economics behind cold storage do not add up. 

Anand Chandra, co-founder and executive director of Arya.ag
Anand Chandra, co-founder and executive director of Arya.ag

"The cost of onions is fluctuating in India and, hence, it will give low returns on investment for cold storage managers," said Anand Chandra, the co-founder and executive director of Arya.ag, an agritech start-up. 

While acknowledging that the move is likely to make identifying rotten onions more accurate, Chandra stressed that the AI warehouses won't increase the longevity of those onions – which, he said, remains the challenge that needs to be addressed. 

This is not the only cog in the wheel that needs to be fixed if such an initiative needs to take off in the way expected by the government. 

Others also point out the gaps that need to be filled, including farmer training around the usage of AI-enabled technology, investment in research and development of the country's storage requirements and understanding the manner of storing onions for optimum results. 

Ninjacart's Swaminathan is convinced that the viability of the move hinges on fostering collaboration between public and private entities.  
"To make a substantial impact, the government must ensure that farmers can access the technology, provide training programs, and invest in robust infrastructure," said ISB's Professor Prakash, who has also been actively involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

However, despite all these efforts, the government may have to go the extra mile than just AI-enabled warehouses if it were to increase the shelf-life of the rotting onions. 

These warehouses may help with identifying the spoilage so that the lot can be sent to the market and sold on priority, but to increase the longevity of these onions, a low-cost "jugaad" (workaround) may be required in a country like India to make it a viable solution, said Arya. ag's Chandra. 

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