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Startups break new ground, use tech to help farmers

These firms are tapping governments, insurers, banks, farming co-operatives, development agencies and corporate social responsibility programs to create a business and help farmers.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 26, 2019, 12.12 PM IST
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The government’s increased focus on improving farm incomes is also resulting in more pilot projects in the agri-tech space.
Startups and technology firms are trying to break into India’s agricultural landscape using newer business models. These firms are tapping governments, insurers, banks, farming co-operatives, development agencies and even corporate social responsibility programs to create a viable business and help farmers. Most farmers have small holdings. Some even rent the land they farm on from others. Farmer distress is widespread.

Farming contributes around 15% to India’s gross domestic product. In short, India has few large farms that can pay for technology solutions. When CropIn Technologies first started out in 2010, the company tried selling its agri-tech solutions directly to farmers.

After investing lakhs of rupees, however, it managed to earn just Rs 6,000. Now, it tailors its solutions to specific needs. “Each customer segment that we deal with, we have a different value proposition for them,” said Jyoti Vaddi, head of business development at CropIn Technologies. Large companies that depend on agricultural produce want information on sowing and pre-harvest activities up to harvest.

Development agencies are keen to develop sustainable farmer livelihoods, Vaddi said. CropIn is working with the World Bank in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh on a climate resilience project. It is also identifying a model where farming communities can adopt technology to create sustainable benefits — such as weather alerts on phone, best practices on farming, and advice on taking care of pest attacks. Agri-tech companies such as CropIn are also finding a market in banks and non-banking financial companies that give agricultural loans. The lenders are seeking CropIn’s expertise to help manage risk.

“If they have invested money in certain loans with farmers, the bankers want to know if it performing, how the crop is doing. Sometimes, a farmer takes a loan to sow one crop and then sows half his field with something else. There could be a genuine reason, but this is information a banker would want to know,” Vaddi said. CropIn is working with public and private sector banks as well as NBFCs. For banks and insurers, the company provides a platform that has data on the historical crop yields of a district. This helps in forecasting yields using machine learning.

The company also uses remote sensing satellites to determine what crops are sown in a region, using crop signatures it has collected over the past five years. Large technology companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, too are involved in the agri-tech space. The Weather Company, an IBM unit, provides hyperlocal weather information to farmers, along with data on soil moisture and temperature, which aids farmers in making informed decisions on how and when to irrigate. The company has tied up with agro-tech startup AgroStar to create crop disease prediction algorithms. “We are not expecting marginal farmers to pay for this.

We work with governments, banks, insurers, corporates who have business interests in agriculture and corporates that want to do meaningful CSR work,” said Himanshu Goyal, India Business Leader at The Weather Company. “It is not very expensive. It is cheaper than what a normal software costs and it is affordable,” he said. The company looks at delicately balancing value and cost, which even a company can appreciate, and one where people can build in affordability in business models, he said.

Microsoft is working with agrochemicals company United Phosphorus and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to provide agri-tech solutions to farmers. State governments and government-promoted organizations are also potential markets for agri-tech companies. The agriculture ministry signed a statement of intent earlier this month with IBM for a pilot study on using artificial intelligence and weather technology solutions in agriculture.

Tie-ups with governments also use sensors in agricultural fields to measure soil health and ground-level conditions. Pilots that require placing sensors on farms are also underway. Eka Software, which has built a digital commodity management platform that is used by the likes of Cargill and Rio Tinto, has built a blockchain platform for coffee farmers in a tie-up with the Coffee Board of India. The platform aims to help farmers get a good price for their product, while offering coffee roasters and exporters data on crop quality. “There is a lot of scope to use technology to digitise agriculture in India and curb waste,” Manav Garg, CEO of Eka Software, told ET in an interview earlier.

“We have built this platform for coffee, but we can also create similar platforms for other agricultural commodities.” State governments are also looking to invest in blockchain technology to help cashew and shrimp exports. “India is one of the largest exporters of shrimp to the European Union, and the EU has put in requirements to disclose the health of the shrimp. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the governments are putting in place blockchain (technology) in which the manufacturers of the shrimp feed the content and that is made available to buyers. Kerala is doing the same thing for cashew nut,” said NG Subramaniam, chief operating officer of India’s largest IT services company Tata Consultancy Services. The blockchain technology is being launched by the state fisheries department, the Marine Product Export Development Authority and Tata Trusts, the Tata Group’s philanthropy arm. Business models are still evolving at the farm level, experts say, whereas at the retail level — organic food or providing farm produce directly to homes — it is more established.

The government’s increased focus on improving farm incomes is also resulting in more pilot projects in the agri-tech space. “Future scale-up models will need farmers to have a stake, both to have ownership over and to demand accountability from the services. This is an emerging context,” said Amit Vatsyayan, Partner - Government and Public Sector Advisory Services, EY India. “A platform approach is very much needed for greater acceleration and adoption.”

Agritech Startups in India

CropIn
Offers farm management solutions for agricultural sectors. Works with farming companies, agri-input companies, crop insurance providers, seed production companies and government.
Total Funding: $16 million
Investors: Chiratae Ventures, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ankur Capital and 8 Other Investors

AgroStar
It provides agri-inputs including fertilizers, seeds, manures, farm equipment, etc. to farmers.
Total Funding: $15 million
Investors: Accel Partners, Aavishkaar, Chiratae Ventures and 3 Other Investors

FarmBee
Has an online platform providing data-driven agricultural solutions. It offers agricultural content, commodity prices, weather data, and contextual advice to the farmers. Enterprise customers include TAFE, RBL Bank, Pepsico etc.
Total Funding: $9 million
Investors: Sandeep Bhammer, Ravikant Banka, Shailaja Reddy and 23 Other Investors

NinjaCart
Has a B2B marketplace connecting farmers with retailers. Initially started out with a hyperlocal grocery marketplace but pivoted to B2B marketplace for sourcing fresh fruits and vegetables, staples and FMCG goods directly from farmers and brands after 6 months of launch. Currently works with about 120 retailers.
Total Funding: $48million
Investors: Accel Partners, Syngenta Ventures, Neoplux and 13 Other Investors

Stellapps Technologies
Uses IOT, mobility and data analytics to improve agri- supply chain parameters including milk production, milk procurement, cold chain, animal insurance and farmer payments. Offers a platform SmartMoo, which gathers data via sensors that are embedded in milking systems, animal wearable, milk chilling equipment & milk procurement peripherals and provides insights for management of cattle, organization of dairy farms and for logistics management.
Total Funding: $11 million
Investors: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IndusAge Partners, Qualcomm Ventures and 8 Other Investors

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