Cisco CSR and Social Alpha partner to give impetus to AgriTech start-ups revolutionising the Indian agriculture ecosystem

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The agriculture sector plays an important role in India’s rise as an economic power as it employs 50% of India’s workforce. However, the agriculture and food system in India is fraught with challenges such as low productivity, absence of irrigation, unpredictable weather conditions, inefficiencies in the value chain, volatile markets and unavailability of credit to farmers that has deeply affected small holder farmers in India. Although there has been a surge of agritech solutions to address these challenges, they remain beyond the reach of smallholder farmers.

To bridge this gap and galvanise the growth of India’s agriculture sector, Social Alpha and Cisco India CSR partnered to launch Krishi Mangal—an initiative that brings together the power of innovation, entrepreneurship, and communities for the wellbeing and prosperity of smallholder farmers.

Krishi Mangal follows a two-pronged approach - a scale-up accelerator for agritech start-ups to pilot their innovations in new geographies and promoting a digital innovation platform to expedite collaboration and co-creation in agriculture and allied sectors.

Under the 12-month scale-up accelerator programme, five selected start-ups will collectively receive a grant of INR 2 crore for field implementation, along with support on marketing, fundraising, sales and distribution. The five selected start-ups are Jaljeevika Infotech, TraceX Technologies, Pashu Bajaar, Tan 90 Thermal Solutions and Satyukt Analytics.

Watch the launch of Krishi Mangal — a joint initiative by Cisco India CSR and Social Alpha aimed at promoting agricultural transformation

Exploring new avenues

The partnership was unveiled in a virtual event on April 27, 2021 and the event kicked off with an opening address by Harish Krishnan, Managing Director, Public Affairs & Strategic Engagements, Cisco Systems India and Manoj Kumar, Co-Founder and CEO, Social Alpha. Vivek Aggarwal, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Government of India was the chief guest at the event.

The event also hosted a stellar panel of experts who shared their expertise on how digital and deep tech innovations could transform agriculture and its allied sectors, while enhancing livelihood opportunities. The panellists were S Nagarajan, Venture Partner, Omnivore; Shan Kadavil, Founder and CEO, FreshToHome; Krishna Kumar, Founder and CEO, Cropin; Meetu Kapur, Executive Director, Food and Agriculture Centre of Excellence, CII; Vilas Shinde, Chairman, Sahyadri Farms; Jamshed K Daboo, Partner, TenX2 and Lokesh Lohiya, Director of Business Development, Digital Transformation Office, CISCO India.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the event

Making agritech innovation affordable and scalable

Harish Krishnan spoke about how technology has the potential to be a force multiplier and Cisco India has launched several pilots which have demonstrated this aspect. “While the ability of technology to increase the agriculture sector's efficiency is well recognised, a lot of work still needs to be done to make these interventions more affordable and scalable. This is exactly why Cisco started focussing on agriculture.”

Social Alpha's Manoj Kumar stressed on how the multi-stage innovation and venture development platform is making resources available to entrepreneurs and innovators to scale their ideas, thereby making innovation more accessible and affordable. "We search for innovators and entrepreneurs who are in need of resources like access to an incubation network, market support and capital. At each stage of their journey, these innovators need different kinds of support. So, we partner with central and state governments and organisations like Cisco India CSR to ensure that these entrepreneurs have access to different ecosystem elements," he added.

Need for robust public-private partnerships

Vivek Aggarwal, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Government of India, said that robust public-private partnerships where stakeholders demonstrate the impact of technology in raising the farmers' income and to ensure modern agriculture practices reach them were the need of the hour.

"We are now looking at partnerships with companies and start-ups who can first demonstrate a proof of concept (PoC) and then scale it up at a regional and national level."

He outlined the efforts being taken by the government to implement smart agriculture as a standard cropping methodology for the country and how the digital agri-stack was a step in the right direction. “In the agri-stack, the basic farm data forms the core on which other data sets are built. This data is pooled from satellite images, IoT devices, among other sources. This way, the agri-stack offers information about every farm which can be leveraged by start-ups to design solutions for farmers and other stakeholders.”

Talking about how start-ups and companies needed to work together rather than in silos, he said, "We have set up the National Farmer's Welfare Programme Implementation Society with the aim of creating an innovation hub for exchange of ideas, bringing different stakeholders of the ecosystem together, getting the digital agri-stack up and going, and for launching products which are specific to a particular crop or region for the benefit of farmers."

How IoT can eliminate human errors

Namita Jain, Digital Transformation Research Lead, NASSCOM emphasised on how IoT-enabled approaches can address the twin challenges of low productivity and declining profitability of the non-digitised agriculture sector.

“We are seeing a lot of investment coming to the agricultural sector due to the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) as the entire economics of the technology is becoming more favourable,” said Namita.

Talking about the role of IoT in reducing the scope of human errors in gathering, accessing and analysing data, she said that while there was more awareness about the technology among farmers, they are still hesitant to leverage it.

Why market size and target audience matter

CropIn's Krishna Kumar stated that one thing that entrepreneurs should think about before designing a solution is how big is the problem they are solving for and understand the customer's pain points. "My team understood the importance of this back in 2010 when we got an opportunity to work with Safal in Bengaluru. We designed a tech solution to boost the productivity of their farms. Although we got a lot of appreciation, we realised that the solution wasn't scalable."

Meanwhile, FreshToHome's Shan Kandavil said that agritech entrepreneurs should choose their market wisely and ensure that it's a large addressable market. "Unless the target audience and market is large enough, it's really hard to scale. It's already hard to launch a startup and you're making your journey harder by choosing a niche area. For example, our target market is the meat-eating and fish-eating crowd, which is valued at around $90 billion in India. There is a lot of room to grow.”

“Also, entrepreneurs should make sure that they get their product-market fit right and are not trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. You have to develop an advantage for yourself," he added.

Both the entrepreneurs stressed on the need for rapid deployment of cold storage solutions over the next few years, with active involvement of farmers in the process. “There will be multiple success stories with the right technology platforms paving the way for technical solutions at different levels, whether it is pre-harvest, post-harvest or at the supply chain and marketing level," shared Sahyadri Farms' Vilas Shinde.

Big players need to make big moves

Delving into how innovations by agritech start-ups are benefiting farmers by making retail chains more efficient, Jamshed K Daboo, Partner, TenX2, shared that he feels the biggest accelerator for technology in agriculture would be when big players enter the retail side of the sector. "Today, there are small farmers at the producing end and small retailers at the selling end, which makes the market very fragmented. Hence, it becomes difficult to adopt technology in an accelerated fashion."

The way forward, according to him, is modern retail. "Big businesses have not really engaged in agriculture As bigger companies start entering the agricultural retail segment, you will find there will be enough funds and wherewithal for quicker adoption of technology," he added.

Omnivore's S Nagarajan pointed out how technology has reached farmers over the past decade. “It started with taking technology to the farmers in boxes. The second wave involved the application of pre-existing models to agriculture. The third wave, which we're seeing now, is all about digital first and involves hyper-scalability. We believe that this wave will continue over the next 3-4 years, while the next wave will be all about data-based innovations and life sciences.”

Achieving scalability through replication and standardisation

Cisco India's Lokesh Lohiya elaborated on the company's observations based on the extensive research they conducted before focusing on the agricultural sector. He delved into a pilot project launched by Cisco India in Kerala involving IoT deployment for integrated farm management. Cisco India depended on the three-point strategy of 'connect, automate and secure' to bring start-ups, other stakeholders and farmers together to leverage technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to increase farm yields and farmer incomes.

“When the project concluded, we observed that with the adoption of digital tools, there was an increase in productivity and input costs were also reduced,” he added.

CII's Meetu Kapur said that markets, replicability of solutions, and uniform standards are the three key things to consider when it comes to ensuring scalability for Indian agritech start-ups. She said that to boost start-ups' access to markets, there should be efforts to simplify the integration of ventures with government procurement portals.

“In terms of replication, we see start-ups on the input side struggling with licensing, agriculture inputs and products, as they often don't have the manpower or expertise to execute these tasks. There is a need to simplify such processes to help start-ups scale.”

Explaining how standardisation could help start-ups scale up, Meetu said, “While we are developing new hardware/quasi-software solutions, we still don't have prescribed standards. So, when a company shows interest in a product which is still being developed, they tend to back out from leveraging it in the absence of a set of standards. As a result, it often keeps agritech start-ups out of the market," she added.

The panellists' views underscored how bullish they were about the future of agritech in India and that convergence of data could be the game changer over the next few years. At the same time, collaborations between various stakeholders like venture capitalists, accelerator programmes and the government could reap rich rewards for the agricultural sector. With investors looking for new opportunities in the agritech space and the markets being buoyant in terms of liquidity, the timing couldn't be any better for an entrepreneur who’s looking to scale and grow a business.

You can watch the entire panel discussion here:


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