Power of I 2019

Harvest of plenty

Farming tools no longer mean just a plough and a tractor, but smart devices guided by big data and analytics. Make way for the tech-savvy kisan!

In 2010, Peepli Live had farmer Natha Das trapped in a dark comedy. His only escape seemed a televised suicide. But now the story can be rewritten. Today, Das can whip out his smartphone and know that his land is best suited for an alternate crop, say millets. He would also know where to get the seeds, what fertilisers to buy, and how to water them with the little that he had. Finally, he could alert a big retailer a month before his harvest and strike a deal over an app. It might have sounded improbable then but agri-tech start-ups have changed the script.

About 40 kilometres from Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport, lives 31-year-old Ravi Kumar, a fifth-generation farmer. On his one-acre plot in Karahalli, the foothills of Nandi Hills, Ravi predominantly grows tomatoes. His field is neatly divided into three — two sections for tomato and the third, for chrysanthemum. “I grow the flowers between two harvesting seasons to help retain soil nutrients,” says Ravi, as we walk through the rows of plantations. 

He taps open the ‘Smart Farm’ app, created by agri-tech firm CropIn, on his tab. Profiles of 150 farmers in the area, who largely grow vegetables, pop up. Ravi double taps on the screen and shows us the information displayed. It has everything a farmer can ask for — literally. There is info on what to grow and how, and warning about possible pest attacks and suggestion on pesticides, and all of this has been customised according to his field’s soil quality and harvesting pattern. If he encounters a new problem during this cycle, he can click a photo of the plant, upload it and the answer is delivered in 24 hours. When his crop is 70% closer to harvest, the app even sends an alert to buyers about the expected yield and quality. If an order is placed and produce delivered, payment is made directly to Ravi’s bank account within three days. Smooth! CropIn has come up with this dashboard using technologies such as geo-tagging, big data analytics, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). “My yield has gone up 3x over the past year, from 10 tonne to 40 tonne per season,” says Ravi with a smile. With better quality produce, he gets Rs.8 more per kg. “Namage Olleya dinagalu bandide (Better days are here),”  he adds.

Most agri-tech start-ups provide three services: agri input, crop advisory and market linkage for farm produce. CropIn is one of the biggest start-ups in this space with a presence in 46 countries, across which it manages 365 crops and 3,600 varieties. At last count, it had digitised 5.6 million acres of land and reached out to 2.1 million farmers. “We have divided every acre of land into pixels. So I can literally tell you which farm, what area is doing well or what the yield is likely to be, or what is the historical yield,” says Krishna Kumar, who founded this start-up in 2010 as a business-to-business (B2B) platform for all stakeholders. It has everyone from farmers and seed and fertiliser companies to banks and buyers on it, and it captures data to provide customised services to each of them. Seed production companies, the government, NGOs or farming inputs companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and BASF buy CropIn’s solution and distribute it among farmers. While Krishna refuses to divulge revenue, he says that the company became operationally profitable in FY18 and has raised $11.7 million from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chiratae Ventures. 

The databank that CropIn has is now being used to launch a new vertical called Smart Risk. “Banks are hesitant to lend to farmers because of lower ticket sizes and higher risk. So we help them in assessing risk accurately,” says Krishna. This is how it works: when a farmer approaches a bank for credit, the bank has to just search for his plot on the system. CropIn will be able to accurately detect what he grew on his land in the past three years, how much money he might have made based on historical satellite imagery and weather patterns that are updated every ten days. The start-up will assess a farmer’s repayment ability, and continue to monitor the plot even after the bank lends him credit. Krishna says the data can also help micro-finance institutions identify regions with higher yield, so that they can open their branches accordingly. 

Technology has also found its way into the farm of Dharmendra Kumar Rai, a 42-year-old resident of Bihar’s Manora village (Vaishali district). He faced a pest attack in 2014 but as the nearest agri-input retail shop was 12 kilometres away, he went to the newly opened DeHaat centre which was just two kilometres away. He had heard about the start-up at one of the mandis where he was selling his vegetables. 

On his 1.5 acre land, Rai had been growing vegetables such as brinjal, cauliflower and pumpkin, but yield had remained consistently low. He had often thought of moving to the city to work as a security guard or a daily wager. After he reported his pest trouble to DeHaat, a coordinator from the centre visited his farm, assessed the damage using a DeHaat mobile app and, on the same day, called Rai with a solution. The pesticide was then supplied by DeHaat Bibipur. Ever since, Rai has been leaning on DeHaat for advice on various aspects. “My profit has gone up 70%, and now I am hoping my son joins me in this profession,” he says.  

DeHaat, founded in 2012 by Shashank Kumar, works with 140,000 farmers in states including UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. It connects them via an app and a helpline number, in case they do not have a smartphone, for timely alerts and support. It also gives the growers access to 122 bulk buyers including traders and corporates. The start-up employs over 200 micro-entrepreneurs, like the one who visited Rai. 

Gautam Singh, 37, is one of them. He had been working as a driver in Delhi for over 12 years at a monthly salary of Rs.10,000. He could not afford to move his three children and wife to the city, so his wife stayed back to cultivate their two-acre plot in Jaitipur, a village in UP’s Vaishali. The district still depends on rainfall for agriculture and has a highly calcareous soil variety including sandy, loam, light clayey and usar. In 2016, when he visited his family, he heard of DeHaat, took their help to know what to plant and signed up as a micro-entrepreneur. Now, he helps 726 local farmers, earns Rs.17,000 a month and sends his children to a private school. 

Kumar claims that by working with DeHaat, farmers have seen cost savings up to 15%, increment of 20% in yield and 12-15% better price for their produce. “We are aiming to serve 320,000 farmers by March 2020 in the same geography and to expand the farmers network to one million in other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra by 2022. We have also started working on crop insurance and credit a few weeks ago,” he says. While they don’t charge the farmer for advisory, they make a commission on the sale of agri-inputs such as seeds. 

Mark Kahn, managing partner of Omnivore, who led DeHaat’s pre-Series A funding of $4 million, feels that full-stack models such as DeHaat are sustainable for both farmer as well as the company. “DeHaat helps farmers increase their yield, realise higher output prices via market linkages, and reduce the cost of their agricultural inputs and credit, leading to higher profitability and a healthier agricultural value chain,” he says. Reportedly, DeHaat clocked revenue of Rs.450 million in FY19, compared with Rs.210 million in FY18. 

Like DeHaat, Odisha-based eKutir employs micro-entrepreneurs too. Founded by Krishna Chandra Mishra in 2009, it runs an e-platform for farmers’ soil-to-sale needs. “We aim to bring systemic changes using IT, and by partnering with farmers, meet their full circle of needs,” says Mishra. The app is currently used by agricultural companies, to sell products to farmers and to buy their produce, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. With 270 micro-entrepreneurs and over 60,000 farmers on its network, it is running profitably, claims Mishra. He states that eKutir’s revenue has been about Rs.15 million over the past three years. 

The start-up’s home state is where farmers make the lowest monthly income — a paltry Rs.1,407 per family — in the country. Odisha has been witnessing a drop in the number of people engaged in agriculture over the past decade. Several reports attribute this to natural calamities, poor irrigation facilities and crop loss. Speaking to Outlook Business over the phone, Sadananda Taladhi, who owns 2.5 acre plot in Badakhirapada village, Odisha, says that he cultivates tomato, chilli, brinjal and cabbage on his land, but has consistently had poor harvest. “In this region, most of the soil is acidic, but we never knew that was the reason for the poor yield,” he says. The region has a mix of alkaline and acidic soil, and each requires a specific type of fertiliser to retain its nutrients. “We would get advice on soil inputs from local dealers, who would give us biased advice, depending upon the products they stocked,” he says. However, over the past few years, eKutir’s micro-entrepreneurs have been frequenting the village, educating them about practices such as ‘soil health management’ and ‘disease control’, terms Taladhi had never heard all his life. After using the start-up’s app for a year, he is more confident. “Now I know how to maintain the health of my soil and get a better price for my produce,” he says, adding, “Aamara utpadana brudhi pai chi (My yield has improved). After eKutir, he has been making 20% more on his produce. 

Agri-tech companies have started making a difference over the past few years. “This space has started seeing a lot of action in the last 18-20 months,” says Prashanth Prakash, partner, Accel. “I think it is because people are looking at e-commerce activity beyond the top 75-80 million people. A significant percentage of our population is involved in agriculture. So it was a natural extension of taking online engagement to that universe.” 

Focal point

While CropIn, DeHaat and eKutir provide a full-stack approach, agri-tech start-ups such as Skymet, Fasal, TartanSense and AgroStar have adopted a niche positioning. 

Skymet is one of the earliest private players in weather prediction, founded in 2003 by Jatin Singh. Their 6,500 weather stations across the country use IoT and sensors to predict weather, air quality, lightening and climate change. “We have worked with 10,000 farmers, and saved lives by predicting cyclones and droughts,” says Singh. Skymet also provides data to media houses and to the power sector. 

Under the agriculture vertical, it provides data to banks, agro companies and government departments, and hopes to cater to micro-insurance firms in the future. The company clocked revenue of Rs.400 million in FY18, with an average growth rate of 36% for the past five years. The start-up makes money from data subscription and ads on its app and website. But bulk of its topline comes from crop insurance under their GramCover vertical today. Set up in 2017, it offers life insurance, crop insurance and livestock insurance to rural households via its mobile insurance platform. It has partnered with companies such as IFFCO-Tokio, National Insurance, SBI General and many more. These companies can onboard customers digitally and issue policies instantly. It also offers customised  premium collection options for rural customers. They have worked with close to 200,000 customers across 3,000 villages in six states under this vertical. Within two years, the platform has facilitated nearly 1,200 claim settlements.

Even as Skymet is changing the landscape in this space, Fasal, founded in 2017, provides an added advantage over others — of deeply localised solutions for farms. Ananda Verma and Shailendra Tiwari’s start-up began by experimenting with imported hardware costing Rs.200,000 in its early days. The hardware collected data on weather, wind speed direction, rainfall, temperature and moisture, and with this data, Fasal guided farmers in Chhattisgarh and Karnataka on aspects including disease and pest management, irrigation and fertigation (injecting fertilisers into the irrigation system to better soil or water quality). Within six months, the farmers saw a sharp spike in productivity and income, and therefore the founders set out to build the same hardware and software in India. In February this year, they accomplished that task and began selling the device at one-fourth of the cost of the imported one. So far, they have sold 50 units. Farmers are connected through their app; and for farmers who do not have a smartphone, information is delivered through SMS. 

Tiwari cites the story of Kiran Patil, a grape farmer who owns one hectare in Maharashtra’s drought prone Sangli region. Patil, too, like most farmers, used to irrigate everyday for 1.5 hours and spray fungicides on any sign of downy mildew or powdery mildew, and other common crop diseases in his region. Tiwari says that farmers often overuse pesticides because there is no proper guidance and this compromises their produce’s export value. “There is high chemical residue in fruits and vegetables,” he says. The contribution of agriculture exports to India’s GDP is as low as 2%, despite being an agrarian country. Last year, in November, Patil decided to try out Fasal’s solution and chose to be guided by data and analytics.

He also irrigated only when needed this time around, with a preventive approach instead of a reactive one. Consequently, he saved considerable amount of water and had an overall monetary benefit of Rs.78,250. “Kranti honaar aahe (this will be revolutionary),” he says, when asked about his experience of Fasal’s data-driven approach. The start-up’s solution is today deployed across 50 farms (or 3,000 hectares) — cultivating chilli and grapes — in India, even to help large clients such as Grover Zampa vineyards. The founders are going one crop at a time since they offer tailor-made solutions, and Verma says they are now experimenting with 19 other crops including pomegranates and tea. 

While these start-ups are chasing innovation with wider scope, of managing cultivation in fields and sale of produce, there are individuals tackling smaller but equally important concerns — like weeds. If you happen to be walking through the cotton fields of Gujarat or Maharashtra, don’t be surprised if you come face to face with a two-legged bot called the BrijBot. It is a weed killer from the workshop of TartanSense, founded in 2015 by Jaisimha Rao, and is targeted at small cotton farmers. Currently, removing weeds, which compete for nutrients with the crop and bring down the yield, is a tedious and manual process. Cost of labour is increasing by the day and tractors have too wide a maw to target these interlopers. Enter BrijBot — this hump-backed bot captures images from the field, runs an algo on the photographs to detect a weed and releases killer chemicals on the target. The pricing is yet to be fixed and Rao is even considering a rental model. “Automation is the need of the hour in farming,” he says. According to prototype results, the robot can weed one acre of land within an hour. In comparison, manual weeding takes about two days. Rao is optimistic about commercial deployment of the robot by the end of this year.

The bots and algos are largely focused on the fields, but farming also involves sourcing inputs on time. There is shopping to be done. Therefore, there is the AgroStar app — which helps a cultivator flip through a well-designed catalogue of fertilisers, pesticides or the latest machinery, just as we do for essentials on Amazon or Bigbasket. “The AgroStar Agri-Doctor app is available in 11 languages and helps farmers browse through multiple crops and categories, seek expert advice (driven by AI and ML) and order multiple products,” says Shardul Sheth, CEO, AgroStar. The company has more than 200 brand partners such as Kalash Seeds, BASF, Advanta, Bioseed and Rallis India. Orders can also be placed through a missed call on their toll free number. Started by him and Sitanshu Sheth in 2013, the company operates in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan and serves close to 500,000 farmers. Accel’s Prakash, who has invested in AgroStar, says that the products they sell are incidental. “The knowledge of what to use, when to use and guaranteeing authenticity of product is their moat,” he says.

Harvesting support  

While these are promising ideas and have created significant impact, start-ups in this space are still fine-tuning their revenue models. They will need all the help they can get from the administration. For instance, in March this year, CropIn finished the phase one pilot in Karnataka that would also help in payment of claims under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. The Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) has launched Cultiv8 accelerator programme, which has incubated start-ups across sectors. In agri-tech, they have incubated Fasal. Under this, the 11 shortlisted ones will receive guidance, industry connect and a grant after assessing their performance. A collaborative mindset is what will help this bunch of start-ups, believes Verma. He says, “The agricultural market in India is so huge that no one start-up can own the market.” Mishra agrees, and says that there is a lot of research going on in agricultural universities, but it doesn’t reach the farmers. Thus, universities can work together with agri-tech start-ups, which can help in getting the research implemented on field. Natha Das would have definitely appreciated this reformative zeal. A phone with smart answers would surely have been reassuring for him, in the otherwise arid expanse.