Debunking the technology myth in agro startups landscape

Agro

For Sachin Khote, agro tech startups proved a boon. He gets all the crucial information of soil variability moisture and nutrient levels, rainfall variability, timing of key operations like planting and harvesting, and market price volatility at the swipe of an app. The agro tech startups have changed his life like never before.

The agro tech startups are offering solutions for agriculture requirements. Well, that’s a typical narrative in the media on the use of technology by farmers in India.

But, experts say that the word technology is a misnomer here in the agro startup sector, when they are just a facilitator than a technology developer.

Sahil Kinni, Principal, Aspada Investment sternly criticizes the word agro tech. “Currently, there’s little scope of technology to offer in this space and most of the agro startups are working as enablers in the agriculture space.”

Aspada’s portfolio companies include EM3 Agri Services, SV Agri, LEAF, INI FARMS and Allfresh. Besdides EM3 Agri Services, which is in farm mechanization, the other three companies are in supply chain of farm produce.

Hurdles identified

Kinni continues and adds that data is the key element which can be real technology differential in the agriculture sector. However, collecting accurate and granular data at the farm level — crop-varieties, soil quality, moisture levels, productivity and the weather — remains the real challenge.

“It is true that there is a lot of technological development going on behind the scene than the farmers facing front. The access to high-end technologies is going to take some time to reach the farmers,” admits Shardul Seth, CEO and Cofounder, AgroStar.

He, however, gives another perspective and says that technology differs from person to person. What mightn’t be technology for him, it can be a game changer for others.

“It’s true that startups are offering various solutions in the agriculture sector, but the hype over the use of technology by the latter isn’t true as claimed,” says Vikas Goyal, Founder and CEO, Ravvgo, a marketplace for latest farming equipment and construction machinery.

He adds that a large number of farmers are not yet ready to accept the new technologies. He has persuading farmers to do online booking of farm equipment available on his platform, but he sees little enthusiasm in them. They rather prefer to do it through phone calls.

EM3 Agri Services, which is one of the known agro startups, is working to connect farms of the country with machines — which is mechanization of agriculture. However, the startup works through various physical centres (Samadhan Kendra) spread across the country.

“Post demonetization, we hoped farmers will adopt online transactions but of little vain. However, we did observe the rise in online activity after the Jio launch,” says Adwitiya Mal, Co-founder, EM3 Agri Services.

Not beyond IT

Experts reason that most of the agro startups are banking on smartphones to provide new technologies to farmers with a presumption of availability of the phones in every farmer’s hand.

A media house recently published a report claiming feature phones may continue to rule India’s handset market in 2017, replicating the scenario last year.

It quoted JP Morgan and said that feature phones dominated total handset shipments in India in 2016 and it expects this trend to continue in 2017. India is the biggest feature phone market globally, comprises about 30 per cent of total volume.

The report said that affordability, durability and longer battery life are some of the factors which slowed down the migration from feature phones to smart phones.

“AgroStar, which also sells quality branded agri-inputs like seeds, crop nutrition, crop protection and farm implements through its app, receives just 10 per cent of the order through the app,” informs Seth.

Bengaluru-based BigHaat, an e-commerce platform for farmers, accepts the on-ground challenges when it comes to sell products online in this space.

“To address the exiting issue, we follow ‘feet on the street’ model, where our sales people directly interact with farmers to help them place orders,” says Sachin Nandwana, Founder and CEO, BigHaat.

Besides, the platform also offers ‘missed call’ service through which farmers request a call back and place the orders on the call.

Nandwana adds that his end consumers are not that technologically sound and the agriculture sector requires offline channels to make online business successful.

What’s the future like?

Industry experts say that undoubtedly, once the system is finally developed, agro startups will be equipped of enough technology to fall in the agro tech category.

“In future, after we have enough data in our repository, we aim to provide customize information to farmers about crop protection product, seed quality and productivity estimation. We are already building algorithm in our farmers facing product to provide more targeted and accurate insights to farmers than providing, say simpler weather forecasts,” says Seth.

He explains that he wants to be more specific by saying that over the next week, there’s 70 per cent of the chance of rainfall and so the farmers who have a standing crop of one month may face pest attack, in case of rainfall. But, they can avoid it using a particular preventive measure.

CropIn is one of the oldest stakeholders which has been working on data technology and building a farm data-base for quite some time. However, the technology offered by the company is for corporates and doesn’t go directly to farmers.

On similar lines, startups like Aarav Unmanned Systems and Airwood are using drone technology to map farms and accumulate data.

Aarav’s three major focus areas are topography mapping, industrial inspections and agriculture.

In agriculture, the startup offers solutions in terms of availability of real-time data, which agronomics and crop genetics companies can use. Besides, based on this data, farmers can know the maturity state of their crops, can assess the need of water and other nutrition their farm require. This can result in the increase in production by more than 20 per cent.

“We have fully automated drones, which collect multiple data through multi-spectral imaginary. The whole process includes image collection followed by processing it over cloud to get indices; and agronomics get the soil data, correlate it to maps we have generated and finally give prescriptions to farmers. On the basis of collected data, it gives vegetation indices which can be correlated to the relative health of crops,” says Vipul Singh, cofounder, Aarav Unmanned Systems.

However, even in this case, the collected data can’t be used directly by farmers but can be read by agronomists only, who can further translate it for farmers.

But, the use of technology is severely underutilized due to government regulations.

Experts say that the in reference to data technology, the segment will prove a driving force to alter the nature of agriculture by using real technology. However, we will need more years to see the realization of dream in the agriculture space.

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