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.
World leaders are now congregating at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Summit to discuss the challenges of the new world driven by the twin challenges of sustainability and rapid technological changes.
The discussion around sustainability has repeatedly highlighted the need for balance.The list of things that are in excess and their consequences is a large one: excessive emissions have led to climate change, excessive consumption to waste, excessive water usage to droughts, excessive concretization in cities has caused flooding and so on. It is therefore surprising that many business models of the twenty-first century, largely based around technology, are about disruption or creating an imbalance and profiting from it. The consequences of imbalance are mostly seen in the long term and if allowed to go unchecked, disruption caused by a business at one level may lead to huge imbalances in society.
The desire for growth and human ambition are a given. The growing footprint of the corporation means that ground rules too need a refresh or a new articulation. Data and infrastructure that extends beyond social and national boundaries cannot be left with a few. Data is the new oil is a capitalist’s statement. Data for good is a social intent. The societal contract around data and very large companies must factor in intent, rapid change, the changing role of government and oversight. Balance between profit and public good.
With so much data about ourselves being available privacy and security will be a serious challenge. Your electric car managed largely by computers will know where you go and whom you meet. Your online searches and consumption of news will tell data miners about your likes and dislikes and political leanings. Personal digital assistants Smart TVs, Smart Refrigerators and personal robots who will work on voice activated commands. They will be able to listen in to your private conversations.
Your privacy will be seriously compromised with your data being available to businesses and governments. A worrying trend as this can be used to keep societies under undue surveillance. CCTV cameras are increasingly being used to record activities in public spaces, drone based cameras will certainly pick up speed too. While these are now being used to help people during emergencies, natural disasters and to keep people safe during terrorist threats, misuse is not far away. Technology such as this can easily be used to snoop around and monitor people.
AI will automate many of the tasks and while the long run may create more jobs, the short term may see huge disruptions. The 4 th industrial revolution or 4IR a term coined to represent this technological change will be a force of disruption by excluding people with less education and fewer skills. People
will constantly have to learn new skills to stay relevant and those who won’t will find themselves lost in the new age. Governments and businesses will need to up the ante on jobs and reskilling. Talent development, lifelong learning, and career reinvention are going to be critical to the future workforce.
As we are already seeing today, the economic benefits of technology and its wealth creation ability can serve the interests of small, powerful groups above the rest. The owners of the AI algorithms would gain disproportionately in such a society. According to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report the economic benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are becoming more concentrated among a small group. When talking about shaping a new market architecture at WEF Raghuram Rajan mentioned that while today we benefit from scale and efficiency provided by global platforms, will this continue to promote innovation and equity going forward?
All the more reason for global leaders, international organizations, business organizations, academia, and civil society to address these challenges and create a world that aligns with common goals for the future. Data is an important part of this discussion and is now perhaps the oil that lubricates global business. However, data is the new oil is a capitalist’s statement. Data for good is a social intent which can help address the increasing inequality and create a better world for all by providing everyone equitable access to data and technology.
In the desire to innovate and be quick to change companies are creating disruptive models. While speed and efficiency are gaining priority, customer trust is at an all-time low. Some of the disruption is caused because a new technology comes in and the company stops supporting the previous one. Customers are forced to either invest in the new product or live with an unsupported product. Therefore, no matter what the company may do in terms of path-breaking strategy, it may not achieve the intended goals of better reputation management, risk management and better brand positioning.
Take the case of almost every gadget you own. Phones, air purifiers, washing machines, televisions, computers, it’s a long list of things where the use and discard economy functions. Obsolescence is built into many of the products, especially electronics. When the economy is booming and disposable income high, a constant re-purchase cycle may function well; not so in times of a downturn.
The other big concern is the enormous amounts of electronic waste that companies are now being asked to factor in as part of their business models. Governments and consumers are equally concerned that the perpetual purchase cycle also needs to factor in constant waste management.
Long term support models like the recent case where Apple replaced batteries of over 11 million iPhone users worldwide points to an emerging trend. The customer and brand interaction which ends after purchase, is now seeing a rework towards longer journeys. Continued service and support is a significant opportunity for the brand to stay in the customer ecosystem, build trust and loyalty.
The linear customer journey – Build, Communicate, Sell, Service, Discard
Is changing to
The circular customer journey – Build, Communicate, Sell, Service, Communicate, Take Back, Re-sell / Recycle
Take the case of printers. Printers have mostly been sold at a lower cost because companies felt that the printer cartridges would make more money for them. They further persuaded customers to buy original printer cartridges and discouraged refilling through IP protection of the printer. However, obsolescence was always in-built into the model. Printer repair was almost prohibitively expensive with parts of older printers costing as much as a new printer. This discouraged repair and customers were made to buy new printers at regular intervals with newer types of cartridges. Additionally, customers had no easy way to recycle, so the cartridges and printers mostly went into a garbage dump.
Could this change to a better way of doing business?
- Customer buys a printer with cartridges that allow refill and re-use
- Printers can automatically order supplies through a subscription model
- Printers regularly serviced and repaired if needed
- Damaged printers and cartridges can be taken back by the company and recycled
Customers need a regular supply of printer cartridges and quality printers. Can the customer journey be eased with a new business model? A simple, sustainable subscription model which redefines the connection between the company and the customer.
Subscription models which support convenience, personalisation and a constant conversation will emerge stronger in 2019.
In the recent past, the trend of connecting causes to people has been catching on. For instance, connecting hand-washing to people’s need for better health can be seen as connecting to the cause (better health). Consumers are coming to expect that the products they use meet social requirements or at the very least, that they do not harm people and the environment. Brand seem to feel that connecting to causes of a strategic nature builds brand trust. It showcases a company’s desire to stand for something more than just itself.
Why then have some cause based campaigns received such a backlash? The recent one being Gillette’s campaign against toxic masculinity.
While there are many answers to this. I believe that responsible branding is far more than advertising. It’s about understanding the customer journey’s and building authenticity and believability across the value chain.
Products are made in factories. Brands are made in hearts. And today both are important.
The growth in consumers’ access to information has resulted in products available in the market being viewed very differently than in the past. Consumers are not just interested in better quality, they also want to know how products are made. Additionally, building a brand is more than just advertising. While a brand may associate itself with a cause, customers may not readily trust it. Should a shaving product company be talking about responsibility when the product is made from plastic which never degrades and adds to the growing menace of waste? Should the company be sweeping all core consumers with the same disposable plastic brush?
When you take on the mantle of responsibility, you need to walk the talk across every touchpoint. Responsibility is not a video but the way you act. The dominant brands actions and inaction’s are noted equally by customers. They need to create a compelling narrative of Businesses actions before the story of the ads is taken seriously.
- Products are responsibly made
- Excellence in product and service quality
- Dominant business should not seem to be exploiting customers by the sheer scale of their dominance
- Social actions on the ground that take the message forward and not just ads
There is talk that business responsibility gives you a license to operate. However, it is only applicable if you operate from an area of difficulty. Business responsibility is an obligation, a belief in a better way, in a different world, a positive contribution to society. This belief helps brands in delivering on their promises not just for the quarterly numbers but for the long term. Delivering on the promise each and every time builds authenticity and therefore such brands scale up faster, whether these are consumer brands or business to business brands.
More on this in my book:
BALANCE – Responsible Business for the Digital Age