For a country where more than a third of the population depends solely on agriculture as a source of income, we are awfully ill-informed about the industry. In fact, if you’ve been a mostly urban-dwelling individual, it is highly unlikely that you’ve ever seen a farm in real life. And that apathy is often reflected in the condition of farmers in our country. For an industry that we rely so heavily upon, we’ve seen little to no innovation in agriculture. That is until Indian startups turned their attention towards the industry.
There’s a wide array of challenges for agritech startups to solve. Decreasing agricultural land with growing population levels, decreasing groundwater levels, lack of mechanisation, the absence of organised marketing structure, inadequate transportation and storage facilities, lack of credit – the list is endless. But the startups involved in the currently growing agritech sector are looking to change all of that. Be it getting the produce to retail at a better price for the farmer or building a better crop of farmers with know-how and expertise in good farming practices, these startups are bringing the much-needed innovation that most other industries in India are seeing right now. But is it really doing anything to make the lives of our farmers better? Let’s find out.
The middleman problem
One of the most significant pain points in the current agricultural ecosystem is the impact of middlemen. Do not mistake their role to be that of logistics – it’s way more. On one hand, middlemen try and give farmers the lowest possible rate for their produce. On the other hand, the same produce gets marked up multiple times before it gets to a customer. The lion’s share of the price paid goes to the middlemen, which leaves both the customer as well as the farmer on the losing ends of the deal. But certain startups are trying to change that by removing the middlemen from the equation.
Take Farmily, for instance. The app-based platform allows farmers to list their farm and produce online. They can specify details pertaining to availability, expertise and even add pictures of their farm. Customers, on the other hand, can look for particular produce by a text-based search on the app, within a specific radius of their current location. When they find it, they can get in touch with the farmer on the app itself and eventually establish a trade. Farmily takes care of the rest and ensures that the product is delivered properly. They are responsible for taking charge of the crop at the farm gate and delivering it to the buyer. While verification, payments etc are mostly on manual intervention basis right now, they are working on digitising the entire process. As for monetisation, Farmily goes for a commission on sales generated, margins on logistics, financing and other value-added services.
On the opposite side of the demand-supply spectrum, Truce allows users to specify requirements, in terms of product, variety and grade, and then it highlights quotes from sellers. Once you’ve finalised on a suitable price, payment is processed digitally and the seller dispatches the product to you. In terms of maturity, Truce’s offerings are up there with some of the best in the market.
Another startup that is doing some interesting work in this area is Crofarm. Rather than going for the discovery-based approach of Farmily, Crofarm is based on replacing the archaic middleman of the system with a more proactive, helpful one. Crofarm allows farmers to list themselves with them, along with the crops they can provide and the cities they can service (based on proximity). On the other hand, based on market demand, Crofarm advises farmers regarding the harvest to ensure that their crop is optimally used. And with a digitised supply chain to connect it all, they also aim for a zero-wastage supply chain, that greatly reduces operational costs for them as well and allows them to properly execute doorstep delivery.
With these startups and all the different approaches they’ve taken to bridge the gap between the farmer and the consumer, the days of the middleman could very well be over. Now it remains to be seen how well their offerings are taken up, considering how we are used to ordering everything from one place – a la Big Basket, Grofers etc. (which also happen to be customers for Crofarm, along with Big Bazaar)
While the middleman might be one of the biggest problems in the agriculture sector, it is by no means the only significant one. Existing aspects of the industry face a lot of roadblocks on a regular basis and that is another area where startups focus their attention. Yes, we are, at some level, talking about farming-as-a-service.
To solve the problem of availability of equipment, startups like EM3 Agri are providing farming equipment and services on a pay-per-use basis, under the Samadhan service banner. This includes services spanning across sowing, crop management, harvesting, post-harvest farm management as well as land preparation. They currently operate in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and have also forayed into Delhi.
CropIn wants to digitize the entire farm operation through its family of apps. For instance, SmartFarm is a farm management app that lets you manage your farm field force, monitor pest status and more. And if you view this from an ERP perspective, then SmartFarm is the monitoring ERP and similarly, CropInSights is the analytical aspect of it. SmartChat brings enterprise-style messaging to a farming organisation. These and other apps offered by CropIn bring the power of software-based organisation tools to farming enterprises.
Another important aspect of farming in India is storage of the crop produced. Typically, large-scale cold storage facilities are utilised by many farmers. But even in this area, startups like Tessol are providing a touch of innovation by implementing Eutectic cooling solutions and providing services like cold chain logistics and last mile deliveries.
The advantages offered by such services are many. First of all, farmers don’t have to maintain expensive equipment and tools around the year and can avail them as and when needed. And since it’s on a pay per use basis, farmers can avail far better equipment and services at the same or even lower expenditure than before.
Beyond removing roadblocks or improving existing services, Indian companies are also bringing in innovation that is entirely new and fresh to solve problems that cannot be tackled by traditional methods. Mahindra, while not a startup, is planning to bring something revolutionary to the farming sector – autonomous tractors. They’ve already demonstrated the product and are planning to launch it by 2019, whereas a driver assisted version will be launching as early as 2018. Thanks to the culture of innovation around agriculture rapidly growing and evolving, we might be looking at the inception of an entirely transformed ecosystem where the farmer forms a significant and powerful component, as compared to the current role of a mere supply provider. With the correct legislation facilitating the same and increased customer awareness, we might finally be able to do justice to the hands that have been feeding us all this while.