MUMBAI, 18 September 2020: An idea born out of curiosity and isolation, the Creative Sandbox provides an online platform to highlight creativity in communications through discussions uncovering industry-specific approaches to navigating this ‘new normal.’
The thirteenth edition of the Creative Sandbox brought together senior communicators across the Agriculture industry in a virtual setting to discuss the needs of the hour, share key learnings, and collectively reimagine the future of the industry in the midst of a transitioning world.
Aman Pannu: Head of Corporate Communications at DCM Shriram, Saswati Panigrahi: Communications Business Partner for Crop Science division, Bayer South Asia, and Joydeep Chakraborty: Head of Communications at CropLife India discussed and share their insights on the latest industry trends.
Agri-Tech and the advent of digitalization
The commonly cited proverb, Necessity is the mother of invention, is more apt than ever in today’s times. Revolutions that were previously imagined to be difficult or distant at best have been sped up due to the crisis, with an example in the Agriculture industry being the advent of the Agri-Tech (or Agriculture and Technology) revolution, and of digitalization.
Using tech at a far greater level than ever before, the Agriculture industry has seen the shift from simply using tech for weather predictions, to ‘everything to do with data.’ Examples were shared of how agronomists are using farmer and farm data to increase the speed and effectiveness of agri advisory to farmers amidst lockdown-related travel and movement restrictions. This has extended previous contact that limited agronomists to 2-3 farmer visits a day, to covering 30-50 farmers in the same region through virtual digital connects.
Digitalization in the industry has also changed the way companies interact with customers, with increased connect through alternate routes such as e-commerce, which has been in full swing since the onset of the lockdown. E-commerce has also benefitted farmers directly, with agri-input companies making essential agri-inputs such as seeds and crop protection products available to farmers at their doorstep. Farmers can place their orders from the comfort of their homes and limit their travel to agri retail stores to do this in person.
Covid-19 has, without a doubt, accelerated the pace of digitalization, and discussions surrounding this are now extending to more novel and niche focuses, such as mechanized farming, the use of drones or precision farming in further revolutionizing the industry.
Connections- with farmers, agronomists and industry experts; between companies and consumers; across industries, have been emphasized as the central learning and takeaway at the heart of all this change. Farmers have been connected across geographies and to the Communications team through WhatsApp groups, and over time this extended to connecting farmers with industry experts over Zoom calls, audio conferences etc.
Technology has brought together groups of people in ways we previously didn’t know were achievable; allowing people to reach across sectors and physical barriers. Communications has played a leading role in creating visibility, as was touched upon by Saswati. She discussed the many opportunities to connect with experts across industries, explaining how increased external visibility through effective communication campaigns had ripple effects that not only helped reach out to buyers, but also in bringing multiple industries together.
“Even when such connections don’t instantly result in a partnership, it helps kickstart multi-stakeholder conversations and opens up a whole new world of possibilities,” she said, highlighting the silver lining of these unprecedented times.
Another focus brought to attention was the importance of timely communications, and in realizing opportunities in the midst of a crisis. Aman, for instance, shed light on how the onset of the pandemic was a time not for advertising and releasing new products, but for focusing on educating and raising awareness, and building thought leadership when people were actively seeking advice, answers, and information. As Saswati put it, “Timely communications help bring along multiple partners and unite them for a common larger cause.” We must look beyond our borders and boundaries and focus on how to come together and help each other navigate these times.
While highlighting all the positives and new opportunities that this new age of communication has granted us, there are also some difficulties when left to solely virtual communications. Joydeep discussed this, explaining challenges faced in communications and outreach across states, specifically hinterland areas, where media presence was minimal, thus making communicating with farmers in the area a more taxing ordeal. He mentioned the lengths regional newspapers, local stringers, and NGOs have gone to truly aid these communications and ensure accessibility of important messages to farmers.
Aman also brought to focus the evolution of media relations at this time, with local-level storytelling more necessary than ever but also proving to be challenging. Technical and logistical issues with stringers unable to receive products in certain areas, and the shift from physical product launches to virtual press meets have all been issues to be deliberated on. Projects and campaigns have to evolve with the transitioning of media, and once trends in this field have been established, companies will do well to establish a newer, more in-tune rhythm.
The pros of communications and the technological revolution must not fail to highlight such challenges and understand the barriers that a solely digital way of going forward could pose for certain groups of people.
Safety has always been a priority
As the conversation veered towards safety and health regulations in the time of Covid-19, the preparedness and safety-focus prevalent in the Agriculture industry from pre-Covid times was touched upon. “Farmer safety has been our motto for a long time,” said Joydeep, discussing the need to ensure farmer safety due to their close proximity to pesticides, amongst other health hazards that had to be treated with caution and safe use practices. He recalled a direct outreach to farmers done in February, where during a session on explaining how to deal with pesticides amongst other things, farmers were educated intensively on wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) kits to safeguard health during handling and spraying of crop protection chemicals.
Given that they have advocated for wearing PPE kits and taking other health and safety measures for a long time, Joydeep added, “There is no starting now (in reference to Covid-19 safety measures), because we never took a break.”
There were certain Covid-19 specific health and safety regulations that were, however, also introduced and adhered to. Aman explained the emphasis in communications on education and awareness, with examples including dissemination of helpful How-To tutorials in a video format on wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Further, while safety equipment and adherence to safety norms have been a constant in the Agri industry long before Covid-19, Saswati highlighted that the pandemic did aid this even more in terms of a greater, stricter adherence to outlined regulations. It ensured an air of seriousness in following the regulations, even in groups of people who previously questioned the need for excessive safety equipment.
To sum this up, Joydeep said of the Agri industry, “We were geared for such a pandemic- that’s how we’ve been trained; always ready.”
Shining a spotlight on #CovidWarriors: Our Farmers
The conversation highlighted the crucial role of farmers as #CovidWarriors on the front lines, ensuring food security during such unprecedented and challenging times. Living in lockdown, food became a central and constant topic of discussion, and in some cases, it became increasingly difficult to bring food to the table.
Saswati summed up this admiration of farmers, the unsung Covid-19 heroes, perfectly when asked what she had gained a renewed appreciation for during the lockdown, responding “I have a renewed respect for the role of farmers and the work they do to ensure a steady supply of food.” She continued, “I’m trying to advocate the importance of reducing food wastage in my immediate family and friends. Wasting food is simply not permissible, especially when communities are also grappling with food shortages and malnutrition. As a society, we need to respect the toil and hard work put in by farmers and the entire agri-supply chain to get the food we eat on our plates.”
Agriculture is truly coming to the forefront again, with spotlight stories on farmers and the work they are doing, as well as with increased Government support and significant market reforms that benefit this essential industry. Media stories on agriculture have shown a shift from the typically negative stories of farmer suicides and alike, to a plethora of diverse stories of how the industry is transitioning at this time. The youth has also shown increased interest in agriculture, in farmers, even in the migrant labour crisis and in understanding what can be done to lend a helping hand to the industry to transform and support its growth. Agriculture has always been an essential and beneficial part of India’s culture and economy, and it’s finally getting the due credit and recognition it deserves.
Joydeep linked this conversation of farmers, increasing awareness, and focus on food security to communications, highlighting how “we as communicators became a part of this revolution.” Communications is now more important than ever and is evolving with the times. We are at the precipice of crises and revolutions, and now is the perfect - and right- time to reimagine the industries we are in, and reconsider ‘what works.’
The article is jointly communicated by Aman Pannu: Head of Corporate Communications at DCM Shriram, Saswati Panigrahi: Communications Business Partner for Crop Science division, Bayer South Asia, and Joydeep Chakraborty: Head of Communications at CropLife India