Indian agriculture today stands at a crossroad. On one hand, it suffers from less-than-optimal productivity, low income for smallholder farmers, lack of irrigation facilities, unsustainable agricultural practices and vagaries induced by climate change; and on the other, it has opportunities to tap into its tremendous growth potential by embracing innovations powered by digital technology. This is where the role of Cisco – a worldwide leader in IT and networking, and Social Alpha, a multistage innovation curation and venture development platform, come into play.
Their joint initiative, Krishi Mangal – comprising a scale-up accelerator for five high-impact start-ups and an open innovation platform that encourages problem-solving through collaboration – can be a game-changer for agriculture and its allied value-chain like livestock, goatery and fishery.
Harish Krishnan, Managing Director, Public Affairs & Strategic Engagements, Cisco India & SAARC, and Nikhita Nadkarni, Portfolio Director – Agritech, Social Alpha, shine light on the intiative’s rich offerings for start-ups.
Q. From communication networks to agriculture, Cisco India has come a long way. How does the firm straddle these two very different worlds – one of cutting-edge technology while the other concerning the livelihoods of smallholder farmers?
Harish Krishnan: India is undergoing constant transformation across sectors, and we are slowly progressing towards an inclusive future that aspires to present equal opportunities to 1.35 billion citizens. Technology is the greatest equalizer of the 21st century; it is the most effective way to empower people and is agnostic of cultural and geographical barriers. However, innovation and experimentation in the IT sector are essential for transforming the socio-economic landscape.
Farmers constitute one of the most underserved and under-connected economic groups in the country. About 58% of the Indian population is engaged in farming, while the sector’s GDP contribution is only 18% at present. Over the last two decades, the real income of small farmers has fallen by 30% due to weather-related yield shortfalls and lack of access to technology. Digital technologies can help improve farmers’ income by delivering tailored recommendations to farmers based on crops, planting dates, varieties sown, real-time localized observed weather, and projected market prices.
An array of digital solutions has already been provided to farmers, and more intervention is required. But the key is to provide an end-to-end solution. Any gap in the chain will lead to a complete breakdown of all efforts, and this is where we believe that Cisco can be a bridge to solving challenges. Today’s evolved technology has also enabled us to expand our footprint in new and innovative ways, be it in the usage of 5G for smart farming or the Internet of Things (IoT) in managing crops with less water and fertilizers.
In addition to building cutting-edge solutions,Cisco has brought together the ecosystem players to create comprehensive end-to-end solutions that will pave the way for digitisation of the farm sector.
Q. As an active partner in the Krishi Mangal initiative, how does Cisco’s association benefit the 5 selected start-ups?
Harish Krishnan: From shaping the future of work to building resilience through a year of change, Cisco technology has been at the core of transformation across the globe. As part of our work, we seek to inspire and empower a generation of global problem solvers who will not only survive – but drive and thrive – in our increasingly digital economy.
With the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital technologies connecting devices and data, innovative ideas now have the ability to make a difference more quickly than ever before – and we’re here to help. While the prize money will help accelerate the adoption of breakthrough technology, products, and services that drive economic development and/or solve social or environmental problems, engagement with Cisco mentors during the program will mean that the organisations and entrepreneurs can leverage great domain expertise and strong market knowledge.
Q. Integral to Krishi Mangal is the agri-tech innovation platform. How will a platform-based approach encourage problem-solving and collaboration in the agri space?
Harish Krishnan: According to a recent EY report, the addressable agritech market potential of India is expected to touch $24 Bn by 2025, out of which India’s agritech start-ups have tapped just $204 Mn in 2020, which is less than 1%. Digital infrastructure is key to the success of products and services today. With innovation in the agritech space on a steady trajectory of growth, there is a need to avoid duplication, increase collaboration and make the most meaningful impact.
Our objective is to consolidate the ecosystem architecture stack through an innovation platform created by Social Alpha that will enable mission-driven agritech innovators and entrepreneurs to interact and collaborate with various stakeholders along the value chain. This will provide impetus to the village economy as producers and consumers, and help startups navigate the ecosystem to accelerate their scale-up journey.
The platform will provide a level-playing field for innovation-based social enterprises by reducing information asymmetry. A collective approach and aggregation of stakeholders will also lead to the discovery and creation of new use cases and revenue models.
Q. Since its inception, Social Alpha has had a deep association with start-ups working in the agri space. As an ecosystem enabler, how does it aim to plug the sectoral gaps through this program?
Nikhita Nadkarni: The Social Alpha thesis is built around the smallholder farmer who, despite taking enormous risks, gets paltry returns. It’s the trader, the retailer, and the wholesaler that reap maximum profits in the agriculture value chain. Social Alpha’s Agri thesis isn’t restricted to traditional agriculture. It includes the entire value chain – from pre-sowing cultivation, harvesting to post-harvest logistics, supply chain and market linkages. It also includes the allied value chain like livestock, goatery and fishery.
When it comes to innovations in Indian agriculture, which is popularly called agritech, it’s safe to say there is a thriving innovation ecosystem. Agri research institutes, incubators, and corporates are continuously focusing on innovations to improve productivity, intensify yield and achieve the best quality. However, these innovations haven’t exactly percolated down to the hands of the smallholder farmers. The uptake of technologies is slow; it often requires a sustained push to drive the adoption of technology. Hence, innovators need to keep the specific needs of the smallholder farmers in mind while innovating. This entails improving affordability, accessibility, and user experience.
Thinking from the perspective of agritech startups, agriculture isn’t an easy sector to operate in. While initial sales may seem easy, for agritech startups sustainability and scalability have been big challenges. As a multistage innovation curation and venture development platform, Social Alpha’s mission is to address some of the challenges that these start-ups face. At Social Alpha, we work with start-ups in different stages –product development, market-ready, early revenue, and even at a mature stage – to provide them with customised support for scaling up.
We have categorised these challenges into six different buckets:
Product Development: We understand that for early-stage start-ups, product development can be a formidable challenge, especially regarding access to labs, certification institutes and experts with specific knowledge. We help them overcome these obstacles.
Sandbox Facilities: We provide sandbox facilities, especially to ensure that there is early-market validation from communities. We also provide access to farmers, FPOs, and community-based organisations as well as help start-ups forge early partnerships with corporates and commercial partners to test, scale and commercialise technologies.
Business Advisory: We work closely with entrepreneurs to understand their vision and objectives; helping them draw up business plans, frame and execute their go-to-market strategy. Our portfolio management is instrumental in tracking outcomes, both at the start-up and end-consumer level.
Sales and Distribution: Helping with sales and distribution is part of our services. We realise that the end customer, ie the farmer is quite sticky and, therefore, there is a need to drive adoption through the creation of trust among farmers, which is a tough task.
Human Resources: This is a bit of a challenge for start-ups that are unable to attract or afford high-quality resources. We give them access to technical experts, field specialists, business advisors and mentors.
Finance: We also look at a whole range of financing options. Depending on the type of technology and the stage of the startup, we look at equity, debt financing, and grant.