• Issac Jeffries

Insights from The Digital Directory

Over the past six months, I have worked with Grow Asia to interview and profile more than 60 businesses who are using technology to improve the lives of smallholder farmers.

Together we have created a Digital Directory listing interesting and innovative agritech solutions that are gaining traction in Asia. It can be used by any agribusiness, investor, funder, donor or aid organisation to identify groups already doing great work, rather than reinventing the wheel.

This makes sense for everyone; funders get more bang for their buck, innovators get to expand their work into new markets, and smallholder farmers benefit from world-class ideas. Putting this directory online means that it can be shared, expanded and measured.

It’s a live document that can send traffic to the vendors and make it easy for interested readers to strike up a conversation.

The process of creating the directory raised some interesting insights, which may benefit founders and readers alike:

Agri-tech entrepreneurs are working towards the same goal

Whilst cultures, languages, landscapes and infrastructures might differ between countries, entrepreneurs tend to approach agri-tech product development in a similar way Creative thinker have looked at basic mobile phones and asked themselves: how can this device improve the way we farm?

Sure enough, entrepreneurs around the world have come up with the same ideas with slightly variations. For example, a mobile phone service or app that sends farmers price and weather information, encouraging them to plant the right crop at the right time based on their circumstances. The reality is this description could apply to multiple solutions of varying natures, and this is why differentiation is so important. It’s important for platforms like Grow Asia to help stakeholders understand the nuances and unique advantages of each solution.

Maximising existing technology

Many sharp entrepreneurs have worked within the constraints of existing technology, rather than asking farmers to buy or loan a new device. This is limiting, but limits are often the fuel of creativity – advertising legend David Ogilvy used to say: “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”.

Today’s infrastructure presents some challenges, but it also presents opportunity. An application for Android can be downloaded and used by almost every farmer in the ASEAN region, with no upfront investment required. This lowers the perceived risk and the perceived cost of trialling a new way of farming, which therefore makes participation more appealing.

Price is an incredible motivator

Smallholder farmers don’t seem motivated by shaping what crops consumers eat – they just want to grow whatever gives them the highest income.

That’s why information on pricing is so valuable. If a farmer can track the price or demand for a crop, they can make better decisions about what to grow, and forecast their future income. For example, if cocoa prices are rising, there’s added incentive to diligently prune cocoa trees, or if a local business is paying good rates for tomatoes, a farmer can have a valuable harvest ready to sell within 90 days.

Information is power – it lets farmers make better decisions and helps restore the supply/demand equilibrium within a market.

Technology is a workforce enhancer, not a workforce replacer

It’s very unlikely that we will see robots replacing the role of smallholder farmers within the next decade. However, technology is able to greatly enhance the capability and earning potential of a farmer, through their physical planting as well as their strategic decisions.

For example, an empowered farmer can order higher quality inputs online, learn best-practice methodologies, access the best price for what they grow, and make electronic payments without unnecessary middlemen.

They can also choose higher value crops, optimize their planting/harvest times, make better use of their land, and detect pest/disease issues in their earliest stages.

Different customers, different value propositions

Many of the solutions highlighted in the directory have multiple types of customers, who each have a different vested interest. For example:

  • A farmer might appreciate the access to credit and an increase in income.

  • An inputs manufacturer might appreciate the access to new farmers.

  • A bank might appreciate the access to a new pool of borrowers.

  • A FMCG company might appreciate the increased stability in their supply chain.

  • A government might appreciate data that can influence their policy decisions.

For this reason, vendors need to be able to speak their customer’s language. J.P. Morgan said, “Behind every decision are two reasons; the good one and the real one.”

By focusing on the real reason behind a customer’s decision, vendors can build partnerships that also have tremendous positive benefits for smallholder farmers.

Visit growasiadirectory.org to browse the Grow Asia Digital Directory to learn more about the agri-tech solutions that are transforming South East Asia’s food chains.

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