When the Russian space program first sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957, they couldn’t have foreseen all the possible uses for satellite technology. But today there are thousands of satellites collecting weather data, playing a key role in broadcasting and communications, underpinning the Global Positioning System and peering deep into space in search of life.
And then there are the less glamorous uses, like the Indian startup that’s making use of the same infrastructure to help small farmers gain access to financial services and improve their farming practices.
Space-age imaging that helps farmers and bankers
Bangalore-based Satsure takes commercially available satellite imaging and combines it with weather information, soil data, social and economic datasets, land title records, as well as data collected by the farmers themselves and uploaded via an app.
“We are able to capture data from a very, very large area at one go with a very fine resolution, which means what’s happening even within one hectare of land we can see accurately,” says Prateep Basu, Satsure’s Founder and CEO.
Those detailed images are then fed into machine learning systems, subjected to big data analytics and proprietary algorithms, and turned into actionable insights, which banks and insurers can use to make decisions about loans and payouts.
Banking on small farmers
Satsure’s direct customers are primarily financial institutions, which use the service to manage risk, and government departments, many of which are also closely involved in financial inclusion and risk mitigation for unbanked communities.
But Basu says the real impact of the system is at ground level, with farmers the ultimate beneficiaries.
In India, 82% of farmers (roughly 126m people) are small landholders, and the average farm size is slightly larger than one hectare. Less than half of these operators are able to borrow from any source, and only 30% are borrowing through the formal financial sector.
Part of the obstacle to raising finance is the fact that banks and insurers struggle to get verifiable information about these properties; collecting data is a monumental task involving personal visits to properties to assess an insurance claim or to find out how a loan is performing.
But now, the satellites that regularly pass over the farms allow the financiers to “visit” the properties remotely, and to collect necessary data by examining the latest images. SatSure’s analytics can also generate risk reports which help financial institutions to manage a large portfolio of loans or policies from behind a desk.
For farmers, the benefits are reduced financial friction. So far, SatSure says, its systems have helped two million farmers secure loans, and 400,000 farmers settle their insurance claims much faster than was previously possible.
“If money to invest in your farm is available at a minimal rate of interest and at the right time, that actually helps the farmer,” says Basu.
SatSure’s tech can also help farmers better manage their crops by providing predictive analytics about markets, weather conditions, even pests.
“If they know how much yield they should expect beforehand and the price they can get at the local market, if they know they are going to make $1,500 for their one hectare farm, then they’ll know how to manage their cash flow better,” Basu says.
In addition to detailed imaging, the satellites also collect infrared and microwave data that can reveal things that might not be evident from regular photography, such as water stress and pest infestations. And SatSure’s analytics capabilities can help farmers prepare for events that might be predictable, even if they’re not controllable.
“If they know that there’s going to be too much rain a week from now, they will be able to take better care of production at the farm,” says Basu. Similarly, if they know that pests are likely to attack, they can stock up on their crop protection and apply it so there is no crop loss.”
Expansion in Asia
Satellite data has been used by farmers and agribusiness for some time. But typically it’s been larger farms and agricultural conglomerates in the developed world who have led the way.
SatSure operates in Switzerland and the UK as well, but its technology has been developed with the typically smaller farms of the Asia Pacific region in mind.
“In the US, you can have a satellite imaging company providing the footage, because the farms are about 300 hectares. There’s too much diversity in India,” Basu says.
He hopes that the technology will prove especially helpful to farmers as climate change starts to bite, not just because of its predictive capabilities, but also because for many farmers, “insurance is the only social security they have”.
Beyond India, the company already has customers in Myanmar and the Philippines and hopes to offer its services in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia in the coming years.