Global agriculture industry is witnessing a technology revolution. Drones, robots, AI-ML and intelligent monitoring systems have been researched upon and some have even undergone field trials. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says global population would touch 9.2 billion by 2050 which means farm output would be under strain to feed an extra 2 billion stomachs within three decades. And this could be possible only if there is a greater focus on Agri-Tech in the coming years.
India has lagged desperately behind in farm sector technology, leaving the farmers poor ever since the effects of the Green Revolution waned in the 1990s. With no capital investment forthcoming and support prices remaining stagnant, farming is increasingly being seen as an unviable business. However, Dr. Venkat Maroju, CEO at SourceTrace.com believes that the times are changing. Predictive technology could change the mood and do so quickly, he says in an interaction with CXOToday. Read the excerpts :
CXOToday: What was the idea behind SourceTrace? How exactly are you helping the farming / agricultural sector in scaling up to remain sustainable?
Venkat Maroju: We began operations in 2007, but at that time, it was focused on branchless banking and agent banking – operating in the financial inclusion space. With its registered office in the U.S., and a development office in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, the company went through an overhaul in 2013 and that’s when we started focusing on the digital agriculture. SourceTrace works with stakeholders in the agriculture value chain; farmer producer organizations, cooperatives, agribusinesses, Govt. or development agencies who in turn are working with farmer cooperatives. The company’s Data Green platform helps these agencies by providing solutions in farm management, advisories, traceability, certification, supply chain management, market linkage, monitoring, evaluation and financial services.
CXOToday: What are some of the biggest challenges in agricultural practices you are trying to solve with technology? What technologies are you offering farmers to maintain and scale crop diversity and intensive farming?
Venkat Maroju: The agriculture sector is facing a number of challenges today. On one hand is the increasing population, estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, and on the other, the decreasing amount of land for cultivation. All this puts pressure on the available land to be productive and profitable, as well as pressure on the farmers to be able to sustain themselves. Most of the world’s agriculture is carried out by 450 million small farmers who produce 70% of the world’s food and support 2 billion people in their households. Yet they are at the margins and struggling to sustain. They are at the mercy of unpredictable weather events owing to climate change, lack of organization, and lack access to external resources like weather and crop advisory, credit, insurance, market linkage and technical know-how on innovative farming techniques.
At SourceTrace, our effort is to help make farming profitable, efficient and sustainable by enhancing productivity through technology use. Our mobile application helps in managing the agriculture value chain all the way to the first mile to enable small farmers to participate in global markets. The app provides complete visibility from field to market and tracks the value chain at the source even in remote, low bandwidth environments. The solutions are being used by farmer cooperatives/producer companies, agribusinesses, government agencies and development organizations who in turn are working with smallholder farmers. The platform helps to capture all interactions at the touchpoints of the smallholders at the field level for enhanced traceability and improved accountability of the value chain. The increase in farm productivity ultimately improves the standard of living of the farmer communities, helping them become healthy, productive and successful. It also reduces environmental impact which otherwise leads to degradation and renders the fields unproductive. Our solutions are particularly targeted across the developing countries. Currently SourceTrace solutions are impacting more than 1 million farmers in 27 countries across Asia, Africa and South/Central America.
CXOToday: In a cost sensitive market like India, how can small entities afford your technologies? Besides, are farmers willing to trust such high-end tech solutions and researchers more than their age-old traditions?
Venkat Maroju: SourceTrace follows a Software-as-a-Service model. SaaS models have come as a boon in digitizing the agriculture value chain. Agriculture value chains are very fragmented and there are no big margins to invest in technologies. However, SaaS models made the enterprise-class software accessible to the smallest players in the agriculture ecosystem. For example, SourceTrace is able to provide their platform to the smallest cooperatives having 400 marginal tribal farmers in Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh.
Whereas in Agriculture, the average smallholder farmer also earns Rs 2,00,000 – Rs 3,00,000 per year and the amount of produce and inputs transacted through the system would have certain scale and can justify paying for the technology at least at the rate of Rs 50 – Rs 100 / farmer/ year. As the highspeed internet has evolved and became ubiquitous and affordable, there was no need for software to be installed within the walls of the customers and supported by internal teams. The software vendors are hosting the applications in their own data centers and providing it as a service to their customers based on the usage or subscription, which has come to be known as Software-As-A-Service or SaaS models in the industry which has drastically reduced the overall cost of using the software and hence making it accessible for smaller organizations.
CXOToday: According to you, how are intelligent devices, such as robots, IoT, AI and drones enabling smart farming worldwide? How is it different in India?
Venkat Maroju: Smart farming as a concept does not exist in isolation. Rather, it is strongly related to three interconnected technologies. The first is MIS (Management Information Systems) which collects, processes, stores and disseminates data needed to carry out operations and functions on the farm. The second is precision agriculture, which is the management of spatial and temporal variability to improve returns on investment, while creating minimal environmental impact. The third is agricultural automation and robotics, which is the process of applying robotics, automatic control and artificial intelligence techniques to all levels of agricultural production. The combined application of ICT solutions includes mobile applications, precision equipment, the IoT, sensors, geo-positioning systems, big data, drones, hyper-spectral images and robotics– bringing in not just spatial precision, but the smartest treatment too.
From the farmer’s point of view, smart farming provides added value through support to decision making and bringing in more efficient ways of operations and management. Smart farming technologies have been adopted by big farms in developed economies having hundreds and thousands of hectares of land. They have used these technologies to optimize irrigation, early pest detection, yield estimation and even for crop insurance. IoT is used to measure soil moisture and optimize irrigation. But it’s not that easy to apply these technologies in the developing countries, where the holding size of farms is an average of just 2 hectares.
We need to understand that agriculture as a sector has always faced an information challenge, and where traditional approaches are simply not enough to answer these questions, smart farming can. Smart farming calls for complex information for better results – that’s a prerequisite. Through the analysis of such information, it can help establish the fertility of a particular farm along with comparison of satellite images and use the data to determine the yield potential of a given land. Similarly, when GPS technology is applied to tractors, farmers can transmit data on the vehicle’s position, enabling the land to be cultivated uniformly, allowing huge savings on fuel. What these examples indicate is that just about every aspect of farming can benefit from technological advancements – from planting and watering to crop health and harvesting. When advanced technologies are integrated into existing farming practices, it can increase the production efficiency and the quality of agricultural products. With increase in demand for food and the need for sustainability, it is becoming necessary for farmers and other stakeholders to invest a lot in knowledge and more sophisticated machines and devices.
CXOToday: What do you see as the future of farming in terms of using smart technologies?
Venkat Maroju: In the next 5 years, we are going witness one of major changes in how agriculture due to interventions of technologies. Data will be paramount important aspect of these technologies and all aspects of agriculture will become data driven. How we produce food, market it and conduct financial transactions in the value chain. There will be increased use of technologies in all aspects.
CXOToday: Where do you see the company 5 years from now?
Venkat Maroju: We are already collaborating with ICRISAT and Germany-based Geocledian in remote sensing, AI/ML and big data and are working on some innovative models to predict yields, pest disease and crop insurance. We would like to establish ourselves as the leading provider of software solutions to sustainable agriculture covering end-to-end value chain reach 10 million farmers in 50-60 countries. We would be expanding our solution offerings in remote sensing, Big Data, AI/ML, IoT and blockchain. Expand footprint in digital finance related to famers and agriculture. We are scaling well, having doubled our farmer count and revenue since 2018. In the next 3-5 years, we are targeting to impact 10 million farmers worldwide.
CXOToday: What is your leadership mantra for young entrepreneurs?
Venkat Maroju: The first and the most important thing is to choose a field or a problem you’re passionate about and then focus on a very narrow set of objectives and goals in the beginning and nail them down. Think radically out-of-the-box and don’t care about the naysayers. If you believe in something, simply go ahead and you will find a way to succeed if you persevere. Having the initial quick wins/successes is vital to sustain and thrive later on. Finally, it is vital that you treat your employees as the biggest asset.