Startup Mantra: Making sustainable agriculture a new normal
With climate tech emerging as a sunrise sector globally, and with all the critical data lying with FarmERP, Sanjay and Santosh have now launched another platform ‘FarmGyan’ to help companies get carbon credits along with Green-House-Gases (GHG) or carbon reporting
PUNE Drones, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technologies are revolutionising the agriculture sector in India and around the world. In agribusiness, automation is assisting with rising production and profitability. The potential of new age technologies (AI & IoT) is harnessed by FarmERP, a data-driven agri intelligence business platform, conceptualised by co-founders Sanjay Borkar and Santosh Shinde of Pune-based Shivrai Technologies, to serve agribusiness with mid- to large-sized farms of between 1,000 and 100,000 hectares. The platform helps businesses form elements of strategies for procurement, processing, supply chain, financial management and data-driven analytics. From grower reporting and farm mapping to inventory supervision and quality control (cleaning, grading, packing) to food traceability and exports.
With climate tech emerging as a sunrise sector globally, and with all the critical data lying with FarmERP, Sanjay and Santosh have now launched another platform ‘FarmGyan’ to help companies get carbon credits along with Green-House-Gases (GHG) or carbon reporting.
Borkar and Shinde, both computer engineering graduates and college friends, started a small company in Borkar’s outhouse in Bibwewadi. Coming from a farmer family background and with no experience in entrepreneurship, the duo started approaching industrial estates around Pune and secured several small projects.
Borkar says, “Back then, agriculture and IT were poles apart. To begin with, we worked with corporates on different applications, leveraging our expertise in multimedia content. We then got an opportunity to work with IT leader and educationalist Vijay Bhatkar. At that time, a tender was floated by the Department of Agriculture in Maharashtra for developing multimedia content for farmers. With our expertise and Bhatkar’s guidance, we grabbed the opportunity and started developing the content. We recorded agriculture-related videos, photos, and content on-site, which gave us the confidence to do government projects. Later, we approached agri-companies who gave us work, providing insights into the business and facilitating interactions with many agri-companies, experts, and farmers, which further fuelled new business ideas.”
With Bhatkar’s guidance, the duo connected with Prof Ram Takawale, who was working with NETRA (Network for Educational Transformation) organisation.
“We suggested a project on agriculture to Prof Takawale to which he agreed. We then approached Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited (MKCL), which had 300 centres for the MSCIT and ran programmes on the NETRA Parivartan network. We created a web portal with 1,200 pages of Marathi content related to agriculture, including seeds and crops. We also set up a system where users could post questions and receive answers from 40 organisations, including BAIF. With this initial success, government officials later floated a tender, but with the entry of big corporates, some delays were caused. Eventually, we withdrew from the project. However, our passion for agriculture did not wane. Meanwhile, we got a chance to work with a hedge fund in New York and delivered a few orders,” added Sanjay.
FarmERP was one amongst the early enterprises to bring software to agriculture. The scalable, configurational, and future-ready software platform helps stakeholders to practice digital agriculture 4.0 to achieve profitable and sustainable agribusiness. It services sub-industries in the agriculture sector, such as plantation farming, contract farming, processors, and exporters.
Borkar recalls, “With the 2009 collapse of the US economy, our New York project was also stalled. We thought let us develop software for farmers. But the moot question was, ‘Why would farmers use software since there was no motivation for them?”
“We got hold of the Global G.A.P. (then Euro GAP) content and converted that information into Marathi. We also came up with a framework for FarmERP on the basis of that information, which was later converted into software. With this software, we went to Nashik and met 80 farmers. We asked them to use our software and demonstrated its advantages. The farmers initially thought we were trying to sell them computers, but later after using the software they realised its importance,” said Borkar.
Challenges to scalability
Borkar said, “We implemented projects in more than 20 countries, but despite our efforts, we struggled to scale up our business. Each project required constant changes and improvisation, and without proper mentorship and advisory, we could not find the right path to expansion. However, we continued to work with several corporates in India. Realising that we were not progressing fast enough, we decided to raise funds. A Singapore-based company provided us with about ₹10.5 crore funding in September 2019, when our turnover was ₹1.85 crore then.”
“The investor company had some plans of combining our products with offerings of another investee, a $2 billion company in Dubai operating in 30 countries. Unfortunately, the company faced financial difficulties due to the pandemic and had to shut down its operations in March 2020. While we managed to navigate the challenges of the lockdown, our real challenge was finding global business opportunities,” Sanjay stated.
Borkar further said, “Following the Covid-19 pandemic, we decided to focus on digital and online marketing which brought in a lot of orders. Our operation is massive and involves several steps such as farmer registration, sales and production planning, yearly supply of produce, and involving farmers in produce quantification. To streamline this process, we have developed a farmer-facing app that provides good practices and advisory services.”
Beyond ERP solutions
Explaining the new trends in agriculture, Borkar said, “In the past 1.5 years, we have noticed a lot of discussion around AI-ML and deep learning, and we started exploring this area too. We came up with the concept of FarmGyan. Clients register their entire business data with us, including information such as the quantity of chemicals and fertilizers used, labour and machinery hours, and other relevant details. If we apply AI-ML to this data, it can work wonders.”
“FarmGyan is an AI-based advisory service that can assist with pest and disease detection, quality assurance, grading, and more. We also use drone imagery to give plant and weed counts using our AI model, which distinguishes plants from weeds and helps farmers save money and reduce losses. We also launched an AI-based labour attendance system that utilizes face recognition to eliminate fraudulent practices. Our approach is to focus on solving simple problems with the help of AI and ML technologies instead of flashy endeavours,” Borkar explained.
“We collaborated with the smart device and IoT companies to integrate FarmERP with sensors, and we also partnered with legacy software systems. This enabled us to consolidate data into a single container for generating data insights. Our unique selling point is providing a single sign-up experience for integrating with various systems, including automated irrigation systems, weather stations, soil sensors, and vehicle devices. In the future, our product strategy will primarily focus on AI and ML technologies,” said Borkar.
FarmGYAN has been successfully implemented in Madhya Pradesh so far. Borkar informed, “We had initiated the ‘Uberisation’ of smallholder farmers by deploying FarmGyan in Narayangaon area of Pune district, where we engaged with 100 farmers. This project was carried out independently, capturing data from pre-sowing to buyers. We linked two buyers to the farmers and recorded their entire journey digitally. In 2021, we received three international awards for this project, which we subsequently incorporated into our offerings. We provided advice to farmers throughout the pre-sowing process, and after receiving the produce, we created a dashboard for buyers to view the available produce for the week. The buyers then went to the farmers’ location to purchase the produce, and the farmers learned why certain produce commanded higher prices than others through our FarmGyan offering, which we had self-funded.”
Futuristic carbon reporting
Says Shinde, “Our B2B platform focuses on predictability and requires us to integrate AI ML and other technologies into our existing ERP tool. We have developed optimized water usage algorithms that leverage weather patterns to predict how much water crops require in the coming days. Considering the growing discussions around climate tech globally, we believe that leveraging the data in our ERP can help us provide Green House Gases (GHG) or carbon reporting services. Our future direction is to move towards this goal and assist companies in obtaining carbon credits and sequestration opportunities.”
Sharing their expansion plans, the duo said, “We have acquired an 11,000-acre land in the US and collaborated with a university in Houston for software development. Additionally, we have registered a company in the US and plan to do the same in UAE. Our team comprises over 100 members, mainly based in Pune, but we also provide onsite deployment services abroad.”
“In pursuit of our goal, we are partnering with multiple companies that specialize in soil sensors or drones. Our AI service is provided on a SaaS basis with charges per hectare per year. Our target is to achieve ₹150 crore revenue in the next three years,” the duo said.