When I was small, I remember that farmers in my village could smell the soil to decide if it was ready for sowing. For people who lived off the land, taking these decisions based on gut instinct and traditions was common. Over time, I noticed that many of them had started talking to the scientists from an agricultural research university which was near our farm. The scientists would give them knowledge about what to grow, how to protect produce from pests and more importantly how to maximise yields on their land parcels. The farmers who listened to them mostly did well, and sometimes I wondered whether other farmers would be able to get the same amount of insight.
Over time I did notice a large number of apps that frequently emerged to address farmer needs around knowledge and market access. We then undertook a study to understand how technology was helping farmers. We found that while a plethora of apps existed, their use was at best sporadic or non-existent. Not just India, this finding was consistent across Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chile, China, Ethiopia, Fiji, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, Zambia and more. While the phone had penetrated the rural communities, it was used mainly by farmers to stay connected. The services which technology companies had launched with much fanfare and copious amounts of funding had barely any traction.
Today, five years later, the situation hasn’t changed much, as most farmers as who are in dire need of support barely get any help from solutions which seemingly have been tailor-made for them. While I am no expert on farming, I do know that at a basic level the farming ecosystem consists of land, seeds, equipment, irrigation, labour, finance, market access, information and some kinds of livelihood protection schemes.
Most agri-tech ventures including large multinationals are broadly attempting to organise this sector through some of these services:
- Organizing and providing access to information
- Equipment access and delivery
- Integration with market models and platforms
- Financing and Livelihood Protection schemes
- Efficiencies through process automation
- IOT solutions for soil and water management etc.
The reality though is, while the suite of services and solutions is growing, few are getting enough on ground traction. Whichever way you look at it, the situation boils down to a few fundamentals:
- DISCOVERABILITY – Getting people in the agricultural ecosystem to be aware of what is on offer and why they need it is a discoverability challenge that needs to be surpassed in a country as diverse as India.
- NEW MODELS – Twenty-first-century models have moved from ownership to on demand. Explaining this to people is still a complex conversation even in the urban areas. E.g. Ola vs buying a car. A trustworthy person or brand who can build confidence around the offer and ongoing services is needed.
- SCHEMES – Similarly, there are other decisions around livelihood protection schemes, market access schemes and more which need to be decoded in the ways and nuances so that people can relate to them better.
- TECHNOLOGY – With IOT and cloud-based solutions being offered convincing the customer on the efficacy of the product or service is invariably another challenge.
- VIABILITY – Many of the agri-tech companies may be startups whose own source of funds may be limited. Should the farmer be asked to sign up for the latest, greatest today with someone who may not be around tomorrow?
- REPUTATION – For the simplest of things today we read reviews to judge whether the investment is worth it. In agriculture-related decision making what is the measure of the reputation of a company?
In other words, the customer journey map has many personas who have specific needs that can be addressed across business models:
- People within the Ecosystem, Organisational Stakeholders,
- Information delivery and User experience
- Payments and service models
- Partner Ecosystem
- Data Management, Analytics
- Devices and Technology
- Training and ongoing Learning
We need to keep in mind that this is an emerging ecosystem within an increasingly fragile community. The lessons learnt from the excesses of the recent techno era need to be applied here first. We cannot afford a scorched earth situation for this community in times of climate change. While technology solutions exist, a relevant and trustworthy framework to farming needs and real-life situations is the real need of the hour.