As part of Grow Asia’s ongoing Digital Learning Series we hosted Amit Mehra, founder of Reuters Market Lite (RML), one of the very few commercially successful digital applications specially targeted on supplying the information needs of small scale farmers. During the event, Amit discussed his learnings on what had worked, and what were the mistakes that others following a similar path need to avoid. Having the opportunity to learn from someone who had made a success out of digital farming information was especially valuable.
I have been following RML closely from its inception in India in 2007 when, as a World Bank agriculturist in South Asia, I commissioned a study of the effect on farmers of receiving 4 daily SMS messages. Our researched showed that access to the price information boosted prices between 8-9% when selling to visiting traders at the farm gate.
After listening to him at dinner the previous night, and his presentation form the morning of November 24th I have set out below what were my personal takeaways as to the success factors, the mistakes to avoid.
One serial investor in digital businesses, Bill Goss, did a presentation in TED talks on what were his distilled learnings as to critical success factors. Top of the list was timing.
RML was in many ways ahead of the wave, initially working with SMS messages to feature phones. But where able to hang on long enough for two important factors to come to their rescue:
1. The rise of the smart phone in drastically reducing the unit cost of information delivery coupled with the emergence of a cadre of younger, more technologically-savvy farmers who valued information, and were prepared to pay for it. For new entrant to the market, the technology and the tech savviness of farmers is now so much more advanced.
2. Persistence, sometimes called ‘grit.’ This is a more universal truth, a common theme among all successful people. RML was no overnight success, it took about eight years before it started covering costs.
In the meantime, staff and managers had to take salary cuts, there was an on-going stream of challenges, disappointments and cashflow crisis to deal with. But they did not give up.
3. Focus on the customer. From the very beginning, RML concentrated on finding out what their customers really wanted, rather than being focused on the technology. This taught them that local weather forecasts, technical information, timed to match the stage in the crop cycle, and market information were all key asks, but only for the crops, locations, and markets that they specifically ask for. A process which continues today, with constant refinements of their operations, content, and bringing in new products, and information to the farming community. All in the light of feedback loops that the company have in place.
Amit, in his talks highlighted many lessons, including:
The importance of aiming to get the business model right before attempting to go to scale
Understanding the unit costs and how being frugal in the early years is important in giving more breathing space before the next tranche of funding materializes.
The importance of stickiness, enable farmers to get into the habit of using his application and RML’s information sources.
What a dangerous distraction for his core business were all the accolades and awards that RML received in the early years.
Ultimately, the value of selling the application and its information services through other businesses for whom better informed and more professional farmers would underpin their business model.
A great learning event in the continuing Grow Asia digital learning series.