A Story of Tech-Forged Food Solidarity in Kerala

In health and education, Kerala sets the standard. This southern Indian state features higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than its regional peers and the national average, alongside unparalleled access to primary healthcare and education, thereby setting a benchmark for social welfare. Kerala, known for its pristine beaches, rejuvenating Ayurvedic retreats, richly spiced foods, and the lush Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, is at a crossroads. Despite its acclaim for social strides and vibrant culture, Kerala is now confronting stark challenges in agriculture and environmental preservation.

The root of the problem? A rapid shift towards commercialization and urban sprawl.  Fragmented landholdings and diminishing yields cast a shadow over the state’s agricultural future, threatening its self-sufficiency and environmental integrity.

As land once dedicated to agriculture gets repurposed for booming real estate ventures, farming takes a back seat, contributing a mere 7% to Kerala’s GDP. This shift makes Kerala reliant on neighboring states for food.

In response, the Kerala government is pivoting towards innovation, implementing technological and cooperative farming initiatives to breathe new life into the sector. Supported by a robust network of over 16,000 cooperative societies, over 1,600 Service Cooperative Banks/ Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies (PACS), and an overall 10 million-strong membership, these measures aim to tackle the underlying causes of the state’s agricultural and environmental challenges head-on.

The Kerala government has recently introduced measures to advance its agricultural sector, focusing on cooperatives, collective farming, and the use of technologies such as cloud computing, blockchain, and AI. These technological approaches are applied across the board, improving planting materials, farming practices, agricultural extension services (i.e., educational and support activities for farmers), harvesting, storage, and marketing. A prime example is the Kerala Food Platform, a pilot project supported by the Palliyakal Service Cooperative Bank in Ernakulam.

Understanding the Kerala Food Platform

Building on this, the Kerala Food Platform, developed by the Government of Kerala, aims to use data to create a statewide cooperative network. This ecosystem will focus on producing and distributing safe-to-eat, organic food, incorporating a wide array of cooperatives—including agricultural, banking, and dairy—across various sectors. Arun Krishnan, an Ecosystem Architect, plays a leading technical role in shaping the Kerala Food Platform.

This initiative was announced in the 2020 State budget and is overseen by the Kerala Development and Innovation Strategic Council, K-DISC for short, which serves as the project’s coordinating agency on behalf of the State Government.

Dr. P.V. Unnikrishnan, Member Secretary of K-DISC and key architect of KFP, states, “the Kerala Food Platform aims to establish an ecosystem that connects all participants in the agricultural value chain – including producers, consumers, and providers of value-added services – in a network facilitated by AI-based prediction using transaction data.” This strategy intends to refine demand-supply dynamics, improve production and distribution, and increase farmers’ earnings while ensuring consumer fairness. Unlike traditional platforms, KFP adopts a collaborative model, incorporating farmers through cooperative and farmer producer organizations, and uses AI to enhance services like crop insurance, demand forecasting, and introducing new services at the local level.

The Kerala Food Platform is currently being piloted at Ezhikkara Panchayat in Ernakulam, in collaboration with the Palliyakal Service Cooperative Bank (PSCB). This bank is known for its strong network of Self-Help Groups that provide farmers with extensive support, from production start through to the improvement and marketing of their products. The Kerala Food Platform has utilized this network as a Proof of Concept to develop a comprehensive platform ecosystem.

For farmers, the Kerala Food Platform offers more than just a marketplace—it’s a lifeline. With its user-friendly interface and robust traceability features, it empowers farmers to reclaim control over their livelihoods, ensuring fair prices and a sustainable future. It also offers traceability and predictive analytics to improve decision-making, productivity, and risk management.

For consumers, KFP brings convenience, quality, and transparency, allowing easy access to a wide array of fresh, locally sourced produce through a few taps on their smartphones. This direct farmer connection supports sustainable practices and lets consumers trace their food’s journey from farm to table.

Paliyakal Cooperative Bank’s Role in the Kerala Food Platform

The Kerala Food Platform pilot, a Proof of Concept aimed at enhancing agricultural extension, originated with the Palliyakal Service Cooperative Bank (PSCB) in Ezhikkara, covering an area of 30 square kilometers and located 35 kilometers from Ernakulam, Kerala. A 2019 study revealed that PSCB, founded in 1943, experienced sub-optimal performance for six decades. However, in the early 2000s, following a period of financial difficulties and low agricultural productivity, the bank strategically shifted its focus towards direct agricultural extension, cultivation, and support, marking a significant turn in its operational approach.

In 2002, the PSCB embarked on a distinctive venture by promoting a special rice variety known as ‘Pokkali‘. Recognized for its unique traits and geographical specificity, Pokkali rice obtained a geographical indication (GI) tag in 2008, granting farmers exclusive global rights to cultivate and market the rice as ‘Organic Pokkali‘. Flourishing in the coastal districts of Alappuzha, Ernakulam, and Thrissur in Kerala, Pokkali rice exhibits saltwater resistance and robust growth, making it ideal for climate-resilient farming practices. Moreover, it boasts medicinal properties, featuring high antioxidant levels and low carbohydrate content, appealing to individuals following a low-sugar diet.

In addition to promoting Pokkali rice cultivation, the bank established self-help groups across seven sectors: fruit and vegetable production, dairy, poultry, medicinal plants, fisheries, and floriculture (specifically bush jasmine). These groups received support through interest-free loans and agricultural marketing assistance, with a primary focus on increasing Pokkali rice production. This initiative successfully boosted local economic development by fostering cooperative efforts.

Furthermore, small and marginal farmers were organized into self-help groups involved in dairy farming. They supplied milk to the bank’s collection centers and regional cooperative milk federations.

Recently, the PSCB expanded its services by launching fair-price consumer outlets like Gramasree supermarket and Palliyakkal Neethi Medical Store. This move aims to provide quality medications to local residents at affordable rates.

The bank has responded to the financial challenges posed by the Covid pandemic by establishing Joint Liability Groups, initially targeting smaller groups of 200 members. Agriculture officers from the bank provide support to these members, closely monitoring their productivity.

Under the “Family Farming” scheme, the bank facilitates crop cultivation in limited spaces and offers financial aid through NABARD schemes. Essential resources like grow bags and seedlings are provided at subsidized rates, with regular crop inspections and advisory services to ensure project success.

Additionally, the PSCB markets Pokkali rice and its value-added products such as packed rice, flour for steam cakes, and seasonal herbal porridge under the brand name “Pokkali Organic Rice.

One distinctive aspect of the Palliyakkal Service Cooperative Bank’s operations is its commitment to organic and “safe-to-eat” food production. While self-help groups engaged in cultivating vegetables, fruits, and flowers minimize their reliance on fertilizers, the bank’s agricultural extension officers closely monitor fertilizer levels. Notably, paddy cultivation is entirely organic, reflecting the bank’s dedication to sustainable agricultural practices.

Hence, in line with the initiatives pioneered by the primary credit cooperative bank at Palliyakal, the Kerala Food Platform was launched in collaboration with the PSCB. This platform aimed to integrate existing and new production and consumption lines for agricultural products from Ezhikkara panchayat.

A marketplace platform and app with traceability features have been launched to enhance the downstream marketing of vegetable produce from the cooperative self-help groups associated with the Palliyakkal Bank. This initiative facilitates direct distribution to end consumers. Developed by a Kerala-based private company with expertise in similar platform solutions deployed in Dubai, the app draws inspiration from the UAE Food Platform.

The app’s digital inventory backend is managed by Palliyakkal Bank staff, who regularly update the quantities of vegetable produce available at the cooperative’s procurement point. Consumers can place retail orders directly through the app’s shopping cart or a linked WhatsApp number, with inventory automatically deducted upon each order. Order fulfillment is handled by the cooperative staff using dedicated vegetable delivery vans and teams.

Presently, the marketing officer of the Palliyakkal Service Cooperative Bank has onboarded 60-70 households from nearby towns such as Paravur and Aluva onto the app.

The bank also aims to expand the platform’s enterprise solution. Upon concluding the beta testing phase, a consumer-facing app will be accessible via the Play Store. This will enable seamless purchase and delivery of food and agricultural products to end consumers.

Creating a Scalable Digital Ecosystem for Food Security

The Kerala Food Platform (KFP) is developing an IT infrastructure designed as a federated network. This infrastructure aims to scale the platform to meet the food safety and security requirements of the state.

As the pilot platform gains momentum, its influence extends beyond Ernakulam district.

With a vision for a federated network scale and fair data governance, the platform has significant potential to revolutionize agriculture globally. From fostering local connections among cooperative ecosystems to facilitating translocal business matchmaking, the opportunities are boundless.

To scale up and unify operations, the Kerala Food Platform is set to create an interoperable public platform backbone, adopting a federated model to achieve network scale. This entails bringing onboard multiple cooperative service banks, farmer producer organizations, member groups, consumer groups, and local businesses. The onboarding process will adhere to established standards to ensure fairness for all ecosystem members. In particular, the KFP will prioritize establishing three types of connections for cooperatives.:

  • Agricultural labor – facilitating local connections between labor cooperatives and producer cooperatives to fulfill the demand for farm labor;
  • Value-added products and services – enabling local and translocal collaborations between businesses providing agricultural value-added services and producer cooperatives;
  • Aggregated produce and common consumer brand – establishing translocal connections that link end consumers dispersed across the state to a public platform marketplace. Here, aggregated produce from cooperatives across the state is sold under a single, state-backed food label. The unique selling proposition (USP) of this label is its assurance of ‘safe-to-eat’ food.

The primary features of the KFP technology platform

Normative operational and design features

1. Optimizes process efficiency
Robust and data protection policies: protecting data privacy, rights of stakeholder groups

2. Maximizes resource utilization within platform ecosystem
Agriculture journal and calendar: to map various project initiatives in line with the agri-calendar.

3. Maximizes farmer returns

Produce management

4. Traceability of safe food
Retail order management

5. Multi-stakeholder integration (not an app or website alone, but a multi-sided platform for integration of a multitude of ecosystem players)
Platform modules developed for Palliyakkal Pilot project (Proof of Concept) has integrated:
Vernacular (Malayalam) language support,
Cooperative Bank Dashboard,
Agri-asset management.

6. Support local economic development through sharing economy practices, Linking LSGs and ULBs to local economic development
Farmer app and Consumer/end-user app (front end interfaces)

7. Optimal pricing for each player based on value creation & participation. Ensures safe food to the end user at a reasonable price
Online/E-commerce web platform
Cooperative Agri-ecosystem management (CAM) Web app
Producer/retailer – Backend application

Reflecting on similar experiments from across the world, such as the Preston Model, originating from the city of Preston in the United Kingdom, which embodies principles of economic democracy and collaboration among local stakeholders to foster a more equitable and sustainable economy. Through strategic partnerships and local procurement initiatives, it aims to retain wealth within the community and promote inclusive growth. Similarly, the Open Food Network (OFN) is a global initiative that fosters collaboration among diverse stakeholders in the food sector to create sustainable food systems. By federating local platforms and sharing digital infrastructure, the OFN enables economies of scale and supports the economic viability of local food chains. On the other hand, the UAE Food Platform is an innovative endeavor in the United Arab Emirates that leverages technology and collaboration to connect food producers directly with consumers. By promoting transparent supply chains and supporting local producers, the platform aims to enhance food security and resilience in the UAE.

Drawing parallels with the Kerala Food Platform (KFP), we discern common threads of collaboration, sustainability, and economic empowerment. Just as the Preston Model underscores cooperation among local stakeholders, the OFN and UAE Food Platform prioritize collaboration to forge resilient food systems. By embracing akin principles and harnessing technology, the KFP endeavors to embolden farmers, advance sustainable agriculture, and nurture inclusive growth in Kerala.

There exists vast potential for the expansion and adoption of the Kerala Food Platform across various sectors, including primary sector cooperatives, credit societies, agricultural collectives, and state agri-procurement bodies on the supply side. Moreover, integrating it beyond individual customers entails the backing of residents’ associations, gated communities, apartment-flat associations, urban and rural local bodies, as well as supermarket chains.

Kerala’s agricultural landscape teems with diverse stakeholders including farmers, Joint Liability Groups, advisory services, Krishi Bhavans (agri-extension centers), credit institutions, logistics providers, value-adding enterprises, retailers, wholesalers, and aggregators. Each entity operates at disparate developmental stages within their respective spheres. The platform is strategically crafted to enhance the extant business practices of these stakeholders by amalgamating efficiency-boosting technologies, thereby fostering value creation, augmenting operational efficacy, and optimizing resource utilization.

Learn more about the author.

This article has been developed with significant inputs from KDISC, KFP platform developers, community members at Palliyakal, Ernakulam, and from ITForChange’s working paper titled “An institutional roadmap for platform collectivism – Insights from the Kerala Food Platform for the 21st-century frontiers of the cooperativist movement” by Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami (dated October 31, 2022).