Utilising technological solutions in solving the most recurrent challenges that farmers have faced over the years has proven to be one of the most efficient ways of protecting them.
A wave of agri-tech startups has emerged in the last few years in India. A report stated, “India’s agri-tech sector has come a long way with 43 startups in 2013 to more than 1,000 startups in 2020, driven by rise in rural internet penetration, rise in post-harvest and supply chain losses, growing investors’ interest in the sector, lack of finance and high-quality inputs for farmers.”
Startups like Assam-based AgSpert, which although hasn’t been around for too long, has greatly contributed to the protection of farmers by building smart and modernized farming solutions to recurrent challenges and addressing their needs using tools like Artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT).
With a team of experts, including thorough-bred professionals and young, vibrant individuals at their disposal, AgSpert is taking agriculture to a whole new level. At the core are Siddhartha Bora, CEO and head of business development, marketing and product management; Akash Sharma, CTO and lead software development; Dhritiman Talukdar, data scientist and DBMS; Kookil Goswami, lead IoT; Manik Mittal, COO machine learning, and Nitin Chauhan, lead, hardware development.
The startup may have officially launched last year, but the entrepreneurial journey began a lot earlier. The concept was birthed from the idea of using technology and proper branding to not only solve the problems farmers faced but also to give farming the necessary glamour that it deserves. It also seeks to exploit the power of content and personalized information in increasing productivity among farmers. All this gave rise to the “smart agriculture” initiative that seeks to promote the goal of building a smart farming ecosystem at AgSpert.
According to Siddhartha, the main aim of AgSpert is to “build a unilateral platform for all agricultural stakeholders and pave the path for forward vision at a faster pace. It started with one goal of revolutionizing agriculture through artificial intelligence and Internet of things, thereby increasing productivity and decreasing production costs. We recently launched our first product ‘AgSpeak’, and became the first to take up such an initiative in North East India. It is also the first multilingual app from North East India with Assamese as one of the languages. This move has untapped potentials with diverse ecosystems having agriculture as the major economic activity.”
Many other startups have attempted to solve these problems plaguing farmers by bridging the technological gap. However, AgSpert stands out in a few key areas. As they allude, “AgSpeak uses complex machine learning and crop simulation models to analyze historic and real-time farm health data trends through automation, as well as user generated interactive feedback features to determine patterns. Also, rising concerns of food security and transparency which contributes substantially to the value of farm produce can be overcome with the right hyper-local data tools like our IoT enabled AgSpeak smart farming platform that can monitor crop health and farm weather continuously throughout seasons.”
Driven by hyperlocal crop data coming from satellite and smart IoT devices, AgSpeak considers up to 20 local crop parameters which are key indicators of their health like temperature, rainfall, sunlight hours, and soil health status to alert farmers about probable crop threats in advance and best practices to tackle the incoming threat, hence optimizing the resources used and maximizing profits. The platform also helps the farmer manage their yield by creating gravest records, get one-on-one expert advice from professional agriculturists, get their farm soil tested and integrate soil health to their crops being grown.
Additional features include recommendations on good quality agri-inputs from multiple vendors and in some case directly from manufacturers and connect to buyer pools, thereby creating a virtual marketplace to enable multi-faced farming transactions to occur over one place. The platform creates a digital database of entire crop seasons and farm health which can be leveraged by institutional stakeholders to analyze climate risk zones, crop insurance claims and produce quality to create better transparency in food value-chain and security. AgSpeak got quite a stir when the education minister of India Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal tweeted about it recently.
During the short period of its existence, AgSpert has seen tremendous growth. This is evident in its total turnover. Speaking on the revenue generation model and turnover, Siddhartha says, “Multi-revenue streams including marketing fees for agri-input businesses, data analytics for agri-data banks/institutes, direct sales and rentals of AgSpeak smart IoT devices and subscription services for commercial farming groups and Farmer producer companies. AgSpert is bootstrapped as of now, with an initial investment of just Rs 200,000. Last month (Jan-21), we clocked revenue of Rs 120,000.
“Because of our price leverage business model and collaborations with some of the best public agri-institutes like Assam Agricultural University and Tocklai Tea Research Institute, we have been net cash positive since day one of operations,” he adds.
But are farmers willing to trust technology and researchers more than their age-old traditions? According to Siddhartha they are witnessing first-hand behavioral shift in all businesses and not just agriculture making profitable use of the sea of knowledge that data insight brings with them. “Agriculture is no different but actually a much more dynamic entrepreneurial venture. When we first started, it was difficult to convince farmers to change their innate way of managing their farms and trying something new that’s completely out of the blue, but we were lucky to partner with some start-ups working directly with farmers. We got the opportunity to pilot our prototype of AgSpeak with one progressive farmer from Jorhat. Post three months of real-time monitoring of his 4 acre horticulture farm, creating and curating advisory and enabling one-on-one interaction with our agri-experts; we were able to establish some positive case studies.”
These case studies helped them onboard more farmers and generate word-of-mouth among the community. Meanwhile having “Assamese” language as a novel feature to push advisory in their app made a stronger case among local farmers as there are almost no other option for farmers in that domain, except media channels like YouTube. “Farmers are such a wonderfully close-knit community that even if they are getting 1% of the benefits that you propose, they are more than willing to try it out.”
Currently, AgSpert is in partnership with over 2,500 farmers and two popular agricultural institutes in Assam in order to lead the charge in the promotion of digital agricultural initiative in North East India. Speaking on some of their future plans in moving agriculture forward in the state, Siddhartha says, “We are working on some very interesting projects in collaboration with some premier institutes of the region to understand and bring forth technologies like drone-tech and computer vision into the ecosystem of modern commercial farms like tea, which can be game changing for the otherwise dwindling productivity.
“We are also investing in R&D into innovations in post-harvest shelf life enhancement that can help farmers explore avenues like exporting and fetching better prices for their harvest. These ventures are expected to bring forth our vision of more sustainable agriculture into reality in the future. In a nutshell, we have the goal to impact 10,000+ farmers and digitize 20,000+ Hectares of cultivated land by end of 2021.”
Siddhartha firmly believes in community entrepreneurship. “The sea of problems for agripreneurs and agri-tech companies is vast, uncharted and the vision can never be achieved with a singular mindset. We need more and more people to build a strong community, and our core belief has always been ‘collaborate to create lasting impact’.”
With agri-tech startups like AgSpert leading the charge on innovative and smart solutions, the future of agriculture in North East India is looking ever bright and promising.