Agriculture in India is a big deal. Half of its booming 1.4 billion-strong population work in the ag industry, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, a government-linked organization. It also makes up nearly a fifth of the country’s $2.7 trillion GDP in 2018. The astonishing numbers don’t stop there. India’s also gaining a reputation to be a hotbed for innovation in agritech, with every ninth startup in the global startup space hailing from India, according to a 2019 NASSCOM report.
Last week, nine startups kicked off their journey in Singapore as part of the GROW accelerator. Three of the nine startups have roots in India. Two of which were created to ameliorate big, burning issues in the country’s agriculture industry.
India’s agriculture industry is highly susceptible to risks like droughts, floods and infestations. The country suffered a whopping $79.5 billion economic loss due to climate-related disasters in the last 20 years, according to a UN report. Piling on the calamities, an estimated $36 billion of crops are lost to pest infestations annually. In spite of this, and the huge impact of the agriculture industry on the country, support for the farmer has lagged.
That lack of protection has weighed heavy on the minds of farmers. In November 2018, farmer protests erupted across the India’s largest cities, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, protesting the lack of governmental support. Although India’s home to the world’s third-largest market for crop insurance, the total amount of income from insurance stands at just $3.8 billion. And that’s where Viridis RS steps in.
“I want to help smallholder farmers have access to financial products, like loans and insurance,” says Viridis RS CEO, Heejae Cho. With co-founder, Mark Jeunnette, Cho invented a monitoring system to detect issues within crops early on, so farmers can take action before they become a large problem.
With the shortage of accessible funding come several other logistical issues. How can smallholder farmers keep their livelihoods, if they can’t afford to buy farm equipment? Rajat Gupta, founder of Tractorjunction.com, has identified that as one of the key pain points for farmers in his country. His website, which is an AirBnb of farm equipment in India, has gained lots of traction for allowing farmers in all walks of life to gain access to tractors – be it by renting, selling, or buying.
AFN speaks to… Heejae Cho, CEO of Viridis RS & Rajat Gupta, founder of Tractor Junction.
Tell us what inspired you to come up with your solution?
Heejae (Viridis RS): While taking a year off to do a one-year MBA at MIT Sloan, I decided to focus my research in microinsurance. Quickly, I discovered that the insurance that makes the most difference is crop insurance. This is because of the difficulty of collecting data at an individual level, where most of the farmers around the world were being sold weather-based insurance. That’s when farmers receive pay-outs: when it doesn’t rain enough, or if it rains too much. This is fraught with problems because the farmer may lose crop for other reasons, like pest, disease or even animals like elephants. Fundamentally, it’s a data problem.
And that’s when I met Mark, who had just completed his PhD in crop monitoring at MIT. I thought immediately, perhaps we could do something proactive to solve this. We chose India, as it’s not only a country Mark knows well, but it also has the third-largest crop insurance industry, which is full of smallscale farmers. On top of that, the insurance companies and the government there are always actively looking for data solutions.
Rajat (Tractor Junction): I founded the company in 2016, after realizing the lack of transparency in India’s farm equipment ecosystem. It definitely helps that I was born to a family associated with tractors since the early 1990s and have had experience in managing my family’s dealership operation from 2011 to 2015. This close association to the tractor industry has given me a deep understanding of the issues in the space.
My wife Shivani and I started working on the idea of TJ right after our marriage in September 2016. Since we both belonged to agribusiness families, tractors became a common topic of discussion. So the idea of solving the pain points of farmers slowly took the shape of TJ.
How does your tech help farmers?
Heejae (Viridis RS): We collect plot-level data for smallscale farmers throughout the growing season using a multispectral camera mounted on a light aircraft, like Cessna. This allows low-cost data collection that helps to identify the crop grown by each farmer, the health of the crop, and the estimated yield at the individual plot level.
Our data helps insurance companies with their crop insurance business and we charge them on a per acre surveyed basis. This will help them to verify their underwriting and claims. Our aim is to help the farmers through better data and, in order to provide more direct benefit to the farmers, we will use the same monitoring data to detect any pest and disease during the season to give farmers and their extension agents early warning to take action.
We also keep our website highly informative, with a lot of engaging content and technical information about tractors, as well as farming in general.
Rajat (Tractor Junction): Tractor Junction is a digital marketplace to buy, sell, finance, insure and service new/used tractor and farm equipment in India. Our aim is to give transparency on pricing, information and comparison of tractors, farm equipment, related financial products – all on a single platform.
We bring the ease of buying a tractor to every customer who finds it hard to get one. And it doesn’t stop there. We help them with not just the knowledge, but also the finances involved. We envision TJ as a one-stop solution of all farming solutions.
We capture about 1,000 new farmers’ data every day and have a repository of 500,000 unique farmer data with us, which we are constantly enhancing. We have two main business stakeholders: farmers on one end and companies such as tractor OEMs on the other.
What’s next for you?
Heejae (Viridis RS): We want to help farmers through better data by increasing financial inclusion and reducing loss to pest and disease. It’s been an eventful journey – Mark and I are both moving to India to set up our business. I’ve been touched by the number of people who have generously given us time to help us because they care about the farmers.
With global warming, the risks to farmers are increasing, so developing a good insurance product for the farmers is crucial to lift them out of the poverty trap. Problems like pests and diseases are spreading to new areas as well. And our monitoring service will help mitigate some of that risk.
Rajat (Tractor Junction): We are aiming to raise funds, but to achieve that, we want to build on TJ’s validation and credibility. Our association with the GROW Agrifood Tech Accelerator helps with just that. With the team, we intend to strengthen our value proposition, which is to become a single platform, where farmers can come to us for everything related to tractors.
Stay tuned as we bring you more on GROW’s latest cohort. Next up, we’ll be speaking to Wittaya Aqua and Singrow.