Editor’s Note: Cal Foulner and William Taing are the cofounders of Beanstalk AgTech, an agriculture innovation practice based in Australia, bringing together startups, producers, and investors across the Asia Pacific.
The Mekong AgriTech Challenge (MATCh), the Mekong region’s first AgTech pitch competition and market access boot camp, launched for the first time last week.
The week-long program, focused on supporting local AgTech startups to scale and foreign companies to develop connections and strategies to enter the rapidly growing market, was the brain-child of Mekong Business Initiative (MBI) which is jointly funded by Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. When asked why they backed this approach to development, Dominic Mellor of ADB and head of MBI painted a picture of, “rapid population growth in the Asia-Pacific and technological advancement creating enormous and fast-growing market opportunities for the Mekong region to become a leading supplier of safe and nutritious food for all.” He continued, “ADB is therefore interested in scouting high potential agritech solutions that can be deployed and scaled for impact in emerging Asia-Pacific markets.”
When it came to rolling out the competition, MBI brought in local domain expertise from Singapore-based investor and curator of Future Food Asia, ID Capital, to support the program design and selection process. Founder of ID Capital Isabelle Decitre sees her firm as “ecosystem builders, in that we are here to foster the nascent ecosystem of Asian ‘Agripreneurs’.” She further explained that the greater Mekong subregion required a uniquely tailored program because: “innovation doesn’t end with just the technology, it’s also in how they deal with the traditional sales channels and approach execution.”
The MATCh program received 127 applications from local and international startups, selecting the top 13 local startups from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam for the startup accelerator program as well as 10 applicants from around the world including Australia, China, Thailand, India, Israel, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. The finalists represented a diverse range of opportunities including animal genetics, food processing, IoT, agriculture wast-to-profit, artificial intelligence, marketplaces, supply chain traceability, precision agriculture, farm support tools, and agri-financing.
Getting the Lay of the Land
The week-long boot camp kicked off in Hanoi with participants discussing stories from Hieu Dinh Minh head of R&D at VinEco and Mr. Nguyen Trung Anh from Pan Group, two companies that represent significant players in agriculture in Vietnam. Both Vin Group and Pan Group have both only started to build strong capabilities in agriculture over the past five years driven by strong strategic motivations. These groups have existing assets in real estate, retail, hotels, and healthcare and are moving into agriculture to vertically integrate their business models. This was summed up nicely by VinEco’s Hieu Dinh Minh: “The only part of our business that the production of safe, nutritious, and sustainable food does not support is our hospitals because healthy people do not require our services.” It was clear that moving forward they will be the customers with the most voracious appetite for new agtech innovation coming from both Vietnam and abroad. However, getting crystal-clear on how their production systems work and tailoring technology solutions to fit their specific needs is of critical importance.
The startups had the chance to tour the regions and saw first hand the challenges and opportunities involved in developing technology solutions to support the nearly 200 million smallholder farmers across the region with the target customer only farming around one half to two acres on average.
Despite the small farm sizes, in Vietnam, smallholders make up more than 70% of national production.
As we discussed the market dynamics of the Mekong region, it became clear that the real experts on this subject were founders of the local startups including Tun Yat from Myanmar (tractors as a service), Intello Labs from India (smartphone-based app using AI for grading produce) and Bolaven Farms from Laos (value-added waterless coffee processing).
The week culminated in a final pitch competition, which was attended by investors, industry as well as government players.
Winner of Local Startup Accelerator Pitch
The winner of the local startup group was Cricket One, which produces sustainable and affordable protein from crickets by developing technology to rear crickets intensively on agricultural by-products. Cricket One’s business model is to provide farmers the tools and methods to farm crickets, secure and process the output, with Cricket One taking responsibility for the marketing and distribution, primarily in Europe. Over the next two years, they plan to scale up production to several hundred tons per year and move into producing value-added cricket-based products to increase consumer acceptance and secure increased income for their farmers.
Cofounder of Cricket One, Nam Dang said “we were so fortunate to meet our mentors who gave us good advice, network with companies like Pan Group & VinEco who acted as potential buyers and investors, and other startups who we learned a lot from. ADB’s support has been helpful, and we hope that there will be continued cooperation in the near future.” Cricket One currently have their seed funding round open for investment.
Winner of the Market Access Accelerator Pitch
For the international cohort exploring market access opportunities into the region, AgUnity took out first prize. AgUnity deploys a mobile app using blockchain technology to enable smallholder farmers in the developing world to plan, share, cooperate, and trade more effectively with each other leading to improved productivity, increased incomes, and financial inclusion. Over the next 12 months, AgUnity will commence four new regional projects, growing its user base to 3,000 farmers.
We caught up with Nick Miller of AgUnity after the event and he told us “while agtech still feels like it’s in its infancy, there is significant opportunity for agtech startups to visit these countries, to understand their unique set of challenges and investigate how introducing their technology can lead to improved productivity and/or profitability for end users.”
AgUnity said that their biggest challenge moving forward is to efficiently screen the overwhelming number of requests for partnerships from private companies and research institutions. “We don’t anticipate adoption being the problem, quite the opposite”, says Nick. AgUnity currently has a seed round open for investment.
Where To Go From Here
The good news for local startups from the region, as well as those looking to enter into the market, is that there is every intention to continue the program. Mekong MATCh is the first event of its kind for AgTech in the greater Mekong subregion so there was a lot of uncertainty about what to expect. After the MATCh event, MBI Deputy Project Director Phan Vinh Quang, who is was in charge of the program, told us “the enthusiasm from the industry was a lot more than we expected. People were really interested in the solutions that MATCh finalists shared and we were able to invite the largest players in the sector to share their views and open their farm gates to startups and explore partnerships We did not expect that we would have ‘instant noodle’ success like this”.
There is no doubt the agriculture supply chain has plenty of challenges to solve and with the pace at which the industry is developing there will be a lot of opportunity for strong financial as well as social and environmental returns to be made throughout the Greater Mekong region.