Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Sow seeds, reap data

Income support to farmers won't lift productivity levels. Agri-tech can reverse the downtrend

Brian Carvalho
Published: Feb 15, 2019 07:41:08 AM IST
Updated: Feb 15, 2019 03:24:44 PM IST

Sow seeds, reap data

A few months ago, Forbes featured a Silicon Valley startup called Farmers Business Network (FBN) that has nearly $200 million in venture capital backing it. One of its founders is of Indian origin. CEO Amol Deshpande told Forbes that he wants to build the “the biggest agricultural business in the world”. Which means that he and co-founder Charles Baron want to grab chunks of the action from multinational giants like DowDuPont and Monsanto.

What the California-headquartered FBN also wants to do is shift the spotlight to the farmer, by offering information on, say, seed prices, selling the seeds along with herbicides and pesticides from an online store, and extending marketing support. The goal is to put more money in the hands of farmers by helping them get better prices on both the goods they buy and the crops they sell. In the process, FBN has built a seemingly viable business model with a network of over 6,500 farms. It’s not for nothing that FBN has been referred to in the US media as the ‘Amazon of farm products’ and the ‘Amazon of seeds’.

Thousands of miles away, back in Deshpande’s home country, similar efforts are under way with the use of software programs, algorithms and farmer data to improve prices, productivity and seed quality. Such efforts are perhaps more critical in India, where agriculture still accounts for roughly a sixth of GDP (in the US its contribution to GDP is in single digits) and almost half of employment, and where most farmers (86 percent) are small and marginal. Which is why the government is keen to double farm incomes by 2022, and has proposed to spend ₹6,000 annually by way of direct income support to 12 crore small and marginal farmers.

The proposal—made in the interim Union Budget and just ahead of general elections—will arguably go a longer way in gains at the hustings than alleviating farmer strife. Doles, after all, can do little to lift productivity levels. What can reverse that downtrend is agri-tech.

In this fortnight’s cover story, tech writer Kunal Talgeri shines a light on a clutch of homegrown agri-tech firms that has been growing via generous doses of venture capital. These are startups that are linking agri produce to customers, building technology to manage inventory and algorithms to manage warehouses. In the process, they are sitting on tonnes of data that can influence farming decisions, like when to sow or harvest a certain vegetable. Talgeri likens agri-tech to a third big-bang reform in farming, after the Green Revolution in the ’60s and Operation Flood in the ’70s. “Coders have now pried open opportunities to apply software, harness data and solve logistical challenges in agriculture,” says Talgeri. For more on its implications, turn to “The Hunt for Green Data”.

Our other big feature is on brands that survive up to the third generation and beyond. The internet is littered with scary statistics of the number of businesses that perish by the time the third gen comes in, but much of those may be out of context, out of date and out of sync with India’s cultural realities. But suffice it to say that it gets more challenging to stay relevant for every subsequent generation. Our bouquet of stories deals with some storied brands that are still at it with the third generation in the saddle, a few that lost their mojo and are fighting to regain it, and a few others that saw the writing on the wall, and either sold out or are considering that option.

Brian Carvalho
Editor, Forbes India
Twitter id:@Brianc_Ed

(This story appears in the 01 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)