India has a massive farm economy but the supply chain suffers from major inefficiencies that prevent farmers from optimizing farm profits.
Ecozen Solutions, a Pune-based startup on a mission to help, started out developing a solar-powered irrigation pump to help farmers irrigate their crops effectively. But soon the company realized it needed to do more to make a difference.
“We met a bunch of farmers facing challenges around irrigation, and we saw that they needed power, so we built solar-powered irrigation solutions. They were able to improve production substantially – it doubled or even tripled – but their income did not grow commensurately,” company CEO and co-founder Devendra Gupta told AFN. “That’s when we realized that what they were producing was not reaching the consumer. It’s a value chain problem.”
Today the startup has three products to help fresh produce farmers navigate each stage of the supply chain. The irrigation product Ecotron has transformed into a decision-making tool that uses IoT, diagnostics and predictive analytics to optimize irrigation. Ecofrost is a portable cold room which enables pre-cooling and on-farm storage of perishable crops, reducing spoilage while helping farmers realize higher prices. Finally, Ecozen has recently launched an online marketplace to facilitate pre-cooled, fresh produce sales from Ecofrost units, creating a market.
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This week Ecozen closed a Series A round of funding from some heavyweight investors including impact investment fund manager Caspian and Hivos-Triodos Fund, which is affiliated with Triodos Bank from the Netherlands. Omnivore, which originally invested in Ecozen in 2015, also participated in the round.
For Mark Kahn, managing partner of Omnivore, Ecozen’s progression has been natural. “We originally met the Ecozen founders back in 2012, when it was a campus startup at IIT Kharagpur. They’ve come a long way in the past few years, building the most successful agritech hardware startup in India. We’re looking forward to working with Caspian and Hivos-Triodos Fund as Ecozen scales to new heights.”
The power of Ecofrost
Ecofrost allows farmers to take advantage of on-farm cooling and storage for perishable commodities immediately after they are harvested. This means that farmers can hold onto their harvests for a longer period of time and wait for periods when the prices are at all-time highs throughout the year. The Ecofrost cold rooms can be leased or purchased upfront and they are run through solar power or regular electricity.
But a cold storage facility is often cost-prohibitive for farmers, especially in India where access to financing is a massive struggle. This is just one more inefficiency in the country’s agricultural supply chain, according to Gupta, and the reason why the company allowed farmers to lease the cold storage containers instead of only being able to purchase them outright.
“Selling Ecofrost to farmers upfront is not so easy because they need financing, but if you can provide them a lease, it’s very simple to access the service,” Gupta explains. “Many of the farmers also don’t need the product year-round. They may need it for three-to-six months at a time. That allows us to then lease that product to other farmers during the rest of the year.”
Push to B2B2C
With the new funding, Ecozen is preparing to launch a new product that is a major makeover of the cold chain product. The company has switched up its sales strategy, targeting B2B2C channels instead of offering the final solution directly to farmers, finding a more efficient process.
“A lot of the companies that we are now selling the technology to, already have a network and feet on the ground to reach out to farmers and convert them. It makes more sense to go through a B2B2C route because we can deploy a lot more products,” Gupta explains.
Ecozen has also recently launched a marketplace that connects Ecofrost customers to potential buyers including exporters, retailers, and processors. A few other companies have started offering similar digital networking opportunities including DeHaat (an AgFunder portfolio company).
“Even though many players are operating marketplace, they are not able to handle perishables very well, which require proper cold storage. We focus on pre-cooled specialty fresh produce crops like lychees, cherries, strawberries, and flowers which other marketplaces ignore,” Gupta says. “Ecofrost farmers can then identify the best possible markets across India for selling their produce.”
Marketplaces in India are Booming
Technology is offering India’s massive farming population a number of new advantages recently, with India-based CropIn recently winning Rainforest Alliance’s AgTech Developer Challenge for its AI and satellite-powered cocoa solution.
DeHaat’s rapidly expanding farmer network provides agricultural inputs, customized crop advising, and market linkages for farm produce. It’s on-boarded 50,000 new members in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the last three months, bringing its membership to 100,000 farmers. It recently added financial services to its model to help farmers access credit. TheKrishi App is also aiming to boost Indian farmers’ finances by aggregating multiple stakeholders on a digital platform.
Ninjacart recently raised $89 million from Tiger Global in India’s largest-ever farm tech deal, while TartanSense is focusing on building robots to assist small farmers throughout the country with pesticide application and Intello Labs is applying computer vision and deep learning to measure the quality of crops.