[Product Roadmap] How DeHaat has helped 650,000 farmers across India increase crop yield with technology
was founded in 2012 by IIT Delhi, IIM, and NIT alumni Amrendra Singh, Shyam Sundar, Adarsh Srivastav, and Shashank Kumar. Based out of Gurugram and Patna, the startup aims to help farmers increase their yield using technology.
Today, the technology-based business-to-farmers (B2F) platform offers full-stack agricultural services, including distribution of high-quality agricultural inputs, customised farm advisory, access to financial services, and market linkages for selling their produce.
“We offer full-stack agricultural services to farmers, including distribution of high-quality agricultural inputs, customised farm advisory, market linkage to sell produce and access to financial services and insurance.
"The core idea behind DeHaat has always been to resolve issues within the Indian farming ecosystem through modern technology by bringing together the entire laundry list of agricultural value chain offerings under an integrated platform,” Shashank says.
He explains they have created multiple touch points for different stakeholders enabling different offerings, while also keeping them integrated under a single platform.
Some services are completely digital and provided through apps, while others like the call-centre service may be provided over phone calls or product demos; training sessions and others are on-ground activities.
“Unlike most startups, the problems we aim to solve are not restricted to just one or two things. They are multi-track and multi-focal – and each of them requires technologies at different scales and evolution paths,” Shashank says.
DeHaat’s initial team also included IIT-Kharagpur alumnus Manish Kumar.
Focusing on a phyigital model
He says that the role of technology, while huge, is also mutable – technology needs to combine very smartly with well-designed ground activities. This “phygital” model combines physical, on-ground capabilities with digital technologies.
“The phyigital mode is what we see as the right way to show value to largest segments of farmers and bring them onboard. We have currently built a rural retail network of more than 3,000 DeHaat micro-entrepreneurs for last-mile delivery as well as aggregation, serving more than 650,000 farmers,” Shashank says.
He adds that they have exponentially scaled their output market linkage, from handling 300 MT in 2012 to over 3 lakh MT in 2021, and the focus on being farmer first has helped.
Shashank says agriculture today accounts for over 15 percent of the national economy, implying a $350 billion market. But it has been “severely under-served and under-invested in terms of technology”, and hence — despite its size — continues to be riddled with inefficiencies.
“For all the effort that they put in, the average Indian farmer earns between Rs 70,000 and Rs 80,000 per year. This money is hardly enough for a family of four to five to survive on,” he says.
The DeHaat team aims to change that at two broad levels - advisory and access.
- Personalised crop advisory based on precision farming technologies, provided to farmers at almost free of cost.
- Access to quality inputs at the right time and right price.
- Access to market linkage for sale of produce at higher margin.
- Access to affordable financing and insurance solutions.
“We aim to provide all these solutions in a single full-stack platform - from seed to market,” Shashank says.
The multi-track nature of DeHaat’s offerings means that there is not just a single product. The team had to build a whole suite of tech products as a platform that includes a number of verticals to provide multiple integrated and interoperable services.
“We knew this from the beginning, and conceptualised the platform and its components accordingly. We created an effective blueprint very early on of the product lines we needed to develop to serve various stakeholders in the value chain,” Shashank says.
However, the team knew this wouldn’t be easy as the path to mass-scale digitisation of agriculture needs to have a physical ground where farming happens. It was vital to understand the granular details and the trials and tribulations of farmers at the ground level – this led to the phygital model.
Starting DeHaat Centres
“In the beginning, a major part of our effort focused on ground-level operations. These operations eventually resulted in DeHaat Centres, which have been set up across the states that we operate in and are handled by our network of micro-entrepreneurs. We developed our strategy in a hub-and-spoke model, where these micro-entrepreneurs became our liaison with local farmer communities. We slowly worked on digitising the value chain from end to end,” Shashank explains.
The team went on to develop the DeHaat Business App (DBA) as their first tech offering and worked on onboarding all existing DeHaat Centres to the app. Today, 95 percent of the DeHaat Centres use this app on a daily basis, which means that one key component of the supply chain is now almost fully digitised.
“Our field agents are further connected to each other by means of an internal app, called AIMS, which helps monitor and automate the process of support and sales.”
In parallel, the team worked on digitising farmer solutions vertical.
Shashank explains that more than one lakh farmers have connected with DeHaat using the DeHaat Kisaan App.
“In the last year, more than three lakh farmers have relied on us for agri-advisory generated by our Advisory Engine, which we internally call as AEROS (Agronomical Earth Observations). Our Extensions App is enabling our ground team to maintain a healthy connect with the farmers.
"Product transformation, in DeHaat’s case, has happened in multiple parallel paths, across different product verticals, catering to each stakeholder’s market compulsions and technology requirements,” he says.
DeHaat executive team
Understanding the core problems
The team also noticed that core problems for entrepreneurs were the same in different markets. The major differences occur on a more technical level when it comes to crop advisory, as the nature of crops grown, soil, fertilisers required etc., differ from one place to another.
“Over the years we have managed to build a wide-ranging repository of data that we now use to service these wide-ranging needs,” Shashank says.
The core factor that went into the making the MVP was “a keen focus on user experience”. Most target consumers had limited exposure to smartphones and the team had to be extremely conscious about this while designing the interface.
“The first thing we learnt, and which in turn shaped our product evolution, was the importance of transparency for our users. The second learning was that our target audiences are, essentially, sticky. If they see value in the offering, they will keep coming back. Doubling down on catering to their needs has since become the root of our evolution,” Shashank says.
The problem statement initially centred on getting users to order for their requirements through DBA. However, in those times, it was much easier for them to place their orders via phone calls rather than having to pick up a smartphone and download an app.
“But since user experience was one of our core principles, we kept working on it and cracked the barrier after multiple iterations,” he adds.
Working with data
The team works around user feedback while sifting through analytics data.
Shashank says the team makes sure that their product managers, design team, and tech team are constantly in touch with users, and even encourage field visits that offer deeper insights into the user’s lives and requirements.
The third feedback collection mechanism is through the on-ground team, the “ears and eyes on the field”. Even when the pandemic restricted the tech team from visiting farmers, the ground team ensured that their opinions and concerns still reached those that needed it.
"The insights that we collect become the cornerstones for problem identification and prioritisation,” Shashank says.
When it comes to ‘eureka’ moments, “one decisive moment that comes to mind was when we realised how activities undertaken through the app, apart from easing the supply chain functions, were also adding to crop research understanding”.
This data is otherwise available, but the level of accuracy with which the team can provide advisory is unparalleled at the moment, he says. This is made possible through the data platform AEROS, which collects ground acreage reporting through remote sensing technology, AI, other IoT devices and the ground-proofing teams.
“Furthermore, we are currently having pilot conversations to enable end-to-end tracking for the input supply chain companies that work with us. This will enable them to track the usage of their product till the farms through the DeHaat app and correlate the use of their products with crop yields,” Shashank says.
Working amid challenges
However, the biggest challenge was creating a behavioural change. Making people in a rural setup use smartphones and apps in unorganised sector was the biggest challenge.
Secondly, the tech offerings are designed for livelihood, not for lifestyle. Using technology to drive business operations was something farmers and micro-entrepreneurs were not familiar with.
The team had to show significant value and provide understanding on how their technology solutions would improve lives and livelihood.
"Once we discovered the critical elements that mattered to our user base, we started building the solution in an intuitive manner to ensure that it forms a habit. We’ve maintained a consistent focus on ensuring that whatever we build is of use to the end user, even if it means that we have to retract a feature after considerable testing. Overall, it’s been a process of constant discovery and evolution,” Shashank says.
He adds AEROS is a pivotal piece of technological innovation that the team has built. The precision farming data repository uses location-specific data captured through remote sensing satellite imaging and cadastral maps, and correlates it with farm data captured through drone images and IoT devices to create personalised crop advisory for every farmer.
This data is customised to each farmer’s specific situation - his farm, soil type, water availability, preferred crops, cropping frequency etc.
“We continue to add more data and locations to it, but the very fact that such a level of accuracy is achievable is a huge leap for us,” Shashank says.
Precision farming will continue to be major focus area for DeHaat and the team plans to introduce more innovations to help refine existing tech capabilities. Crop identification that helps index what crop is currently being grown in what farm, the health status of the crop, providing inputs to farmers on crop diseases etc., are some of the things that are currently being worked on.
“We are conceptualising one of the industry first approaches to optimise our commodity and agri-input purchasing. An approach that is near real-time emulating the models of crowdsourcing. This requires a significant convergence of user behaviour, algorithms, and computing power, and our future investments are channelled into these pivots,” Shashank says.
He adds that DeHaat has accumulated “the most authentic multimillion data points based on our transactions and on-ground teams across India”. These data points will help feed some of the ML algorithms to significantly improve price discovery, market intelligence, and crop intelligence.
“We aim to realise these by building state-of-the-art data platforms. In India, agri commerce value-added services like warehousing, commodity trade financing, and systemic quality reporting have not realised their true potential yet,” Shashank says.
The DeHaat team will also focus on ‘Khetibook’, a feature that will help increase engagement the farmers.
Khetibook puts precision farming right at the farmer’s fingertips – it provides daily, task-by-task instructions on what the crop requires for a healthy harvest, and handholds the farmer through the entire farming cycle.
“This removes the guesswork and legacy farming practices that may not be efficient anymore. This also makes it easy for farmers to provide crop status feedback in images and videos and directly connects them to our agronomy experts for problem resolutions. This is a hyper-personalised and precise feature that no one else will be able to offer.”
In the last seven months alone DeHaat has witnessed 5X growth, and are well poised to replicate this success in all major agricultural clusters of India in the next 12-15 months. The team aims to onboard five million farmers by 2024.
We will continue to build on our technological capabilities across all verticals in the platform, Shashank says. The newest offering at this time is “Financial Services for farmers as well as micro-entrepreneurs”.