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12 agtech takeaways from 12 global agriculture experts

March 25, 2022

Rhishi Pethe is the creator of “Software is Feeding the World,” a free weekly newsletter about tech trends in food and agriculture, and head of product management for Project Mineral at X.

The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AFN.

It is believed the English accent changes every few miles in England.

It is a rare Professor Higgins who understands the nuances of different accents, and places them within specific London neighborhoods. Many of these differences are related to the historical development of English in the British Isles.

Similarly to accents, agriculture changes by region. Agricultural practices, challenges, and opportunities are different in, say, Iowa compared to India. There are differences at regional levels as well – for example, between east and west Nebraska.

To better understand some of these differences, I had conversations with 12 agriculture experts from Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, and the US.

These countries account for 48% of the world’s population, and the plurality of the farming population. The conversations I had with the agriculture experts highlighted stark differences – not just in land holding size, crops, and access to technology, but also in go-to-market strategies, infrastructure, and improvement potential.

Here are 12 key takeaways from the 12 conversations:

Connie Bowen (US, AgLaunch; The Yield Lab Institute)

Agtech needs diversity in financing, as the VC model is not always the right fit. US agriculture is homogenous, in terms of who farms. The industry needs to be intentional to increase the diversity of voices and solutions within agriculture.

Carl Lippert (US, FeedX)

Most problems are culture problems – and that’s true for agriculture problems, too. Tech people need to understand farming culture, which is an ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ culture in the US. If we believe in a “definite future” philosophy, we should work towards making it happen.

Kim Keller (Canada, The Do More Agriculture Foundation)

Agriculture is not just about inputs, machinery, and yields. Humans are a key part of it, and farmers’ mental health is fragile due to factors outside their control [and] unreal expectations of themselves. Farmers need mental health help and support.

Mark Young (US, LandTrust; ex-Climate Corporation)

Farmers need to find new sources of value outside of yield, as yield in row crops is a commodity. Technology and automation will redefine what it will mean to “farm” in the future.

Sarah Mock (US, journalist and author)

The prevailing narrative of a small family farm in the US needs to be re-examined. The current carbon market euphoria in agriculture is not founded in science — yet — and we should think hard before deciding to pay farmers for carbon sequestration.

Eli Pollak (Kenya, Apollo Agriculture)

In Africa, access to financing for inputs — and the ability to provide a flexible product bundle of financing, inputs, and technology which meets the needs of a farmer — can not only be a profitable business at scale, but also put farmers on a path to prosperity and entry into the middle class.

Megz Reynolds (Canada, The Do More Agriculture Foundation)

Policy needs to be science-based and is an important lever to help with the adoption of technology. An ‘us-versus-them’ mentality — farmers versus consumers — in agriculture is counterproductive. Respectful conversations will lead to better understanding and better outcomes.

Venky Ramachandran (India, analyst and consultant)

You cannot push the developed world’s model of ag and agtech to a developing country like India. A typical zero marginal cost mentality for technology does not work well in India.

After overtaking Alibaba, ag marketplace Pinduoduo is focusing on foodtech to hit profitability – read more here

Xin Yi Lim (China, Pinduoduo)

A laser focus on customer value, while providing a fun experience, will create deep engagement and scale your business. A direct connection between consumers and farmers accelerates the learning and feedback loop, and can be used to drive innovation at the farm level.

Patrick Gerlich (Indonesia, Bayer Crop Science)

Digital tools should augment the human relationships inherent in smallholder farming. You cannot reach millions of smallholder farmers without collaboration and a multi-tier distribution network.

Kellan Hays (Zambia, Good Nature Agro)

Smallholder farmers in Africa need full farm support. Innovative financing models which combine cash and in-kind can provide that support. Farmers can benefit through valuable supply chain connections, access to better inputs, and markets for their products. 

Jehiel Oliver (Nigeria, Hello Tractor)

Mechanization, access to good quality inputs, and a market for products can improve the lives of millions of farmers in Africa. Farmers are looking for access to basic infrastructure.

The 12 conversations with agriculture experts are compiled, in full, in my e-book:Global Perspectives on Agriculture Technology.” All proceeds from sales of the e-book (minus any taxes and transaction fees) will be donated to a charity working to improve food and agriculture systems. I will match the first $1001 in sales dollar-for-dollar with my own money.

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