AgTech and the opportunity for social and environmental impact in India

Srinivas Ramanujam is the Chief Operating Officer and Lead of Agribusiness at Villgro, an early-stage startup incubator based in Chennai, India. Since its founding in 2001, Villgro has helped grow over 200 businesses, ranging from healthcare, to education, to agriculture. With Indian farming systems in desperate need for innovation, we sat down with Srinivas to discuss Villgro, India’s current farming needs and how GRAFT can impact India’s agriculture. 

Could you tell us a bit about Villgro and its contribution to the Indian and global agri-tech spaces? 

SRINIVAS: Villgro Innovations Foundation is a Technology Business Incubator approved by the Department of Science and Technology and Government of India, and founded in 2001 by Paul Basil. Since then, we have supported over 250 impactful, innovative and successful enterprises in the sectors of Agribusiness, Education and Employability, Healthcare and Renewable Energy.

We have always envisioned Villgro to be an organization that moves away from the traditional form of charity to a more sustainable approach wherein the poor are stakeholders in their own growth. We therefore focus on harnessing the power of innovation and social entrepreneurship to lift the marginalized from poverty and deprivation. Over the years, we have demonstrated success in creating an impact that is sustainable, scalable and replicable through a model that supports early-stage social enterprises. We have also generated significant expertise in developing test tools and methodologies that enable capacity building in multiple stakeholders within the ecosystem.

In order to provide the much-needed follow-on support to the entrepreneurs, we have created an incubator-investor platform with our investment partner Menterra. Currently, we are replicating the successful Villgro model across low-income states in India, through the INVENT program supported by the Technology Development Board, Government of India and DFID of the UK government. We are also deploying it overseas in Kenya and across South East Asia, ultimately leveraging our decade long experience of supporting entrepreneurs and market perspectives, to lift people out of poverty. We seek to reach out to entrepreneurs in India, and through our network of partners, entrepreneurs across the world.

What value do you think the GRAFT Challenge brings to Australian startups?

SRINIVAS: The demography of farmers in India and Australia are quite different. In India, the farm sizes are small, with most farmers in the small and marginalized category. Appropriate technology innovation and business model innovation are therefore required to make the solution affordable and accessible for such farmers. The Graft Challenge provides a perfect platform to first-hand experience and build connections in the Indian Agri-Startup ecosystem.

How will Villgro help Australian startups localize their technologies for Indian circumstances, and what can you offer Australian startups in terms of technology adaptation?

SRINIVAS: Villgro is one of the oldest incubators in this space and has seen the challenges agri-startups face in starting up as well as scaling up their operations. We can share our learnings with the Australian startups in navigating the market and connect them to relevant people within the ecosystem.

 

According to the experience Villgro has, which prime areas in the Indian Agri industry need technology intervention and why?

SRINIVAS: There are multiple points in the agri-value chain which needs intervention and innovation. But we would like to focus on the following areas:

  • Integrated Farm Advisory: For many years, government and non-profit organizations have propagated the right package of practices among farmers which have shown phenomenal results. With the advent of technology and mobile penetration in rural India, many opportunities have opened up to provide the right agri-advisory to the farmer when needed. Companies like Lean Agri, Bharat Rohan, and Fasal are trying various different methods to solve this problem.

  • Market Linkage: The Indian agri-value chain is very fragmented with multiple middlemen between the farmer and consumer resulting in low income. There is an urgent need to disintermediate this value and increase the income of the farmer to keep farming viable and profitable for him/her. Multiple companies like Ninjakart, Aibono, and CroFarm are trying to solve this problem by creating an alternate supply chain powered by technology.

How open is the Indian market to adopting new technologies?

SRINIVAS: In our experience, we believe Indian farmers are open to adopting newer technologies and methods but these solutions should solve their problem and should be accessible to them both in terms of price and reach.

Can you describe the following challenge spaces based on your experience? 

SRINIVAS:

- Water Use Efficiency: Overexploitation of water resources over the years coupled with more erratic rain due to climate change has resulted in a lot of farm distress. Traditionally the space of irrigation systems like drip irrigation and other methods has been over-dependent on government subsidies making it difficult for startups to penetrate into new markets. But at the same time, startups can also create innovations which can circumvent the need for subsidies.

- Soil Management: Soil Management plays an important part in ensuring the best yield and productivity of the farm. In 2 major areas, Testing and Diagnosis or Advisory, we have seen multiple innovations occur and believe that an integrated approach of testing followed by tech-enabled advisory can help increase productivity and reduce the input cost for farmers.

- Waste and Stubble Management: Finding an alternative and economically feasible solution for stubble is important to reduce the incidence of stubble burning. There are multiple startups currently using stubble to convert into usable products like the wooden board. The most important piece of this puzzle is to ensure the product is economically viable and to find a market for it. 

- Alternative Income Source for farmers: Finding alternate income for a farmer is important however it should supplement her/his agricultural practices like providing income and employment during the non-growing season.

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