The world of farming in Northeast India has seen great strides ever since the evolution of technology in the region. Farmers can now breathe a sigh of fresh air from the negative notion surrounding the profession. Farming is no longer considered a mundane practice, as a result of the work of several Agritech startups that are devoted to the reinvention of farming as a noble practice through technological solutions.
Frontrunners in the sector
Several founders of renowned agritech startups can be cited as the frontrunners of this new era. For instance, agricultural entrepreneurs Dr. Bijaylakhmi Goswami and Taufik Ahmed, co-founders of Agrithink, have put their foot forward in the fight towards redefining farming in Northeast India through technology.
“Our line of work includes application of economically and ecologically viable technologies in the field so that farming becomes precise. Our applications are developed with high precision real-time data developed in a scientific environment by our team, which are supported with available literature in respective fields,” Goswami tells EastMojo.
These technologies are also planned to be incorporated in areas like tea production and quality enhancement, growing flowers, vegetables, fruits, spices and any other suitable genera.
“Providing instant and constant expert service in a cost-effective smart manner based on real data generated by self-developed measures and devices are designed to be the pillars of this foundation,” Goswami explains.
Ranjit Barthakur, founder of The Balipara Foundation tell EastMojo the aim of his startup in the new dispensation is “to create interdependence between ecology and economy, and to create Naturenomics – whether through his for-profit ventures or this not-for-profit entrepreneurial endeavour”.
The task, although daunting, has been made easier to bear by his team of certified professionals.
For some startups, technology is not used to influence the process of farming, thereby tainting the produce. Instead, it is strictly used to ease the entire process of farming, making it as seamless as possible. This is the aim of the Organic Food Market and Brightcrop Agro Products Private Limited, co-founded by Manjul Kumar Choudhary and Harsh Rakhecha.
“Apart from impacting the livelihood of small and marginal organic farmers in the Northeast, we have also educated farmers regarding proper organic practices and provided constant guidance,” Choudhary tells EastMojo.
The enterprise is working directly with more than 1,000 small and marginal organic growers in Assam, Manipur, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. They have been successful in the certification of over 800 acres of farmland and have successfully developed an effective supply chain for the products,.
Other startups have proceeded to carry the torch to the best of their ability. “Our role 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 revolutionising agriculture through artificial intelligence and the Internet of things, thereby increasing productivity and decreasing production costs,” says Siddhartha Bora, CEO of Agspert Technologies.
The company recently launched its first product, ‘AgSpeak’ – the first multilingual app from Northeast India with Assamese as one of the languages, and became the first to take up such an initiative in North East India.
“This move has untapped potentials with diverse ecosystems having agriculture as the major economic activity,” adds Bora.
No easy way
As with front-lining any endeavour, there are several challenges that these founders have encountered. Most of these, however, come from convincing people to adopt and adapt to the new era of technology. For Gunajit Brahma, founder of Bati Energy and Farmeasy Technologies, his challenge came in the form of ridicule.
“During the initial days, I was ridiculed by a few of my batch-mates and seniors at the campus for being a Student Startup. But a few months later, in January 2011, I was selected as one of the Top 30 Student Startups across India by Wadhwani Foundation’s NEN (National Entrepreneurship Network). That recognition made me realise my true potential, and to overcome the fear of what others were thinking or saying about me,” Brahma tells EastMojo.
Although these entrepreneurs largely faced similar challenges, the intensity varied. Some areas in the Northeast were more susceptible to incorporating technology in farming than others, and as such offered less resistance.
Organics Food Market and Brightcorp Agro Products Private Limited’s co-founder Harsh Rakhecha says, “The market for organic products is still nascent in India with few brands and low penetration levels, especially among urban consumers.”
Subir Sinha, Subir Sinha, Head of Government of India’s Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries (SFURTI) Project and impact investment, who has mentored several entrepreneurs of the region, says the younger generation in the region has shown immense interest in agriculture and Agritech businesses over the last few years. The competition, so far, is not much and the sector is huge with massive work potential, he says.
Finance, according to Sinha, is one of the foremost challenges faced by these startups. “They are not getting funding support to expand their enterprise as the financial institutions are not ready to finance them. Most startups cannot give a collateral security, and therefore, banks do not fund them. Investors, too, do not invest in the early stage of startups,” Sinha explains.
The other major roadblock for agri startups, Sinha says, is marketing. “They can produce but there is either no market or fewer markets in Assam for their products. The small startup cannot afford to opt for large-scale marketing in the initial period outside of Assam.”
According to Sinha, one way forward could be that the incubators guide and accelerate these startups and link them to the government, investors, and financial institutions for funding and other marketing support.
A senior official of the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFI), who spoke to EastMojo on the condition of anonymity, says logistics is another big problem for the startups in the region.
“There are very few logistics support services available in Assam and rest of North East. During the pandemic, many startups could not send their products due to limited logistics support services available and their products got damaged in the godown as a result and they suffered massive losses. We have to explore and invite new logistics support companies from other states to operate in Assam. Krishi Rail Services could be an excellent solution,” the official said.
Sweet taste of success
The struggle is finally paying off for these entrepreneurs. “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 Northeast India. Speaking on some of their future plans in moving agriculture forward in the state, Bora 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” Siddhartha says.
For Barthakur at The Balipara Foundation, they have had nothing short of success stories. “Of late, our focus has been on the cultivation of oyster mushrooms because of ease of access to quality spawn and the relative ease of care for these mushrooms, which allows greater flexibility for women managing cultivation units as the time they have to divide between their household duties and this income earning activity is minimal. Currently 60 women are engaged in mushroom cultivation, with 10 women working in 6 mushroom cultivation units. We’ve witnessed around 40% increase in income for women specifically,” he says.
Good start, but big challenges ahead
For these entrepreneurs, expansion is the only way to guarantee continuity. This is why these entrepreneurs are sparing no cost in spreading the goodwill to every district in the Northeast region and beyond. In addition to the expansion, Bora also reveals he plans to take it a step further with AgSpert. “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 digitise 20,000+ hectares of cultivated land by the end of 2021.”
For Choudhary and the folks at the Organic Food Market, the story is largely the same. “As a young company, we are constantly working on the next best idea for new products. Innovating and developing new products enhances the value of the produce cultivated by our farmers. All our existing products are grown in our farms rather than simply procuring from traders. While we do target a consistent growth trajectory in terms of expansion, it is of utmost importance to us that we do it in a responsible manner that is sustainable for our farmers,” he asserts.
According to an analysis done by a NEDFI senior official, although these startups have come a long way, they still have mountains to climb. “Startups from the region need to be exposed to business possibilities and structure approaches being applied across startup hubs in India such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gurgaon etc. Startups from Northeast India have played on the region’s competitive strengths, including agriculture and allied (food processing, food-tech etc.), local craft (handloom and handicrafts, bamboo, and cane-based etc.), adventure tourism, Edu tech (vernacular language-driven) etc.
“Having said that, there are ventures in deep tech, AI, Ml, and software as a system (SaaS)-based models as well targeting sectors such as healthcare, mobility, employee engagements, enterprise security etc. While there could be a few me-too ventures localising and contextualising their offerings, the bulk of the startups are playing on the region’s comparative advantages,” he adds.
These agritech startups are necessary to salvage what the integrity of these farmers. If given more leverage to work, they will transform agriculture into a highly-coveted profession.
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