Hundreds of millions of people in India depend on farming for their livelihoods, but many of them struggle with losing crops to disease, getting them to market or achieving the right price when they do. Several startups are trying to change that.
Piggybacking on India’s mobile boom, these companies are using smartphones and the internet to help farmers grow, harvest and sell their crops more efficiently. India is self-sufficient in food staples, but faces a constant challenge to feed its population of 1.3 billion and rising. The country accounts for a quarter of the world’s hungry people and is home to over 190 million undernourished people, according to the latest estimates by the United Nations.
“There is a lot of financing and talent which is coming in this space,” says Rikin Gandhi, co-founder and executive director of Digital Green, a social enterprise that began as a research project backed by Microsoft (MSFT).
The company started by helping farmers produce videos about best practices and tips that could be shared in their communities, uploading them on YouTube and building a searchable database. Those videos are now used by more than a million farmers across India, Gandhi estimates, and Digital Green has grown from a three-person team in 2006 to more than 150 employees across seven countries.
It is now branching out, launching two new apps called Loop and Kisan Diary earlier this year.
Gandhi describes Loop as “an Uber Pool for farmers to take their fresh fruit and vegetable produce to the market.” Farmers enter their location and the type and quantity of produce, which is then picked up by vans and transported to the nearest market or grocery store.
Kisan Diary, named after the Hindi word for “farmer,” is an app that helps farmers track their production, sales and profits in one place. Both apps have racked up about 10,000 users in the last few months, Gandhi said.
An online crop doctor
While Digital Green is helping farmers grow, sell and transport crops, Plantix is focused on saving them. The app, created by German company PEAT in 2015, has 80% of its 1.1 million monthly active users in India.
Plantix uses artificial intelligence to help identify diseases in crops, with farmers able to upload a picture using their smartphones to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. It also offers online guides on pesticides, fertilizers and nutrition.
“We hope to become the farmer’s trusted advisor throughout the crop cycle,” Akshat Mittal, Plantix’s head of international growth, tells CNN Business.
The app is currently able to identify more than 450 diseases in around 50 different crops, and those numbers are growing rapidly.
“As you keep on feeding more images, the algorithm gets better,” Mittal says.
Farming by smartphone
Both companies credit India’s explosive smartphone growth for the success of their apps. There were less than 50 million smartphone users in 2011, now there are more than 400 million. And most of the country’s population still isn’t online, which means that number is only likely to increase.
“Five years ago there weren’t as many smartphones, and if we go back even five years before that then solutions like this could not have existed,” says Mittal. “The penetration of smartphones is absolutely essential to a product like Plantix.”
A plunge in the cost of internet access has helped too. The price of mobile data has dropped from $3 per gigabyte in 2016 to less than 20 cents, largely thanks to the Reliance Jio network — created by India’s richest man — which gave users cheap access to 4G services.
Digital Green’s YouTube channel has around 50 million views, but until 2017 “pretty much nobody watched these videos,” says Gandhi. “48 million views have come over the last two to three years because of Jio and the penetration of smartphones.”
Gandhi and Digital Green’s latest project is building a database of farmers called FarmStack for other startups to use -— and there are many. India now has more than 450 “Agritech” startups, according to a report from the country’s top tech association NASSCOM.
“We want to make it so that we don’t all have to be reinventing the wheel,” Gandhi says, adding that the database would give farmers control over the services and companies they want to use.
“Farmers can control the data and they can share access with people, as long as it’s following a common standard then it can drive a lot of interoperability across these different apps and services,” he said.
Digital Green has parlayed its success in India to expand to other markets like Ethiopia, Ghana and even the United States; Plantix is available in 150 countries, but has most of its users in India.
Both agriculturally and technologically, they say India serves as a model for future growth.
“India has been a great stage for us because of the high degree of variability that we have within the country itself,” Gandhi says, adding that the tech infrastructure in different parts of India mimics developed markets like the United States as well as emerging ones in Africa.
Mittal compares Plantix’s strategy to that of companies like Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOGL), which have gone on a spree of adding “India-first” services in recent years that are then rolled out globally.
“If you’re able to understand India, the diversity, and the problems, then that works as a very good template for international expansion,” he said. “[The country is] becoming a laboratory for emerging market solutions.”