Aditya Agarwalla, a computer science undergrad student at Princeton, was back home in Delhi-NCR for his school break. At dinner one night, he happened to have a long conversation with his father, Sanjay K Agarwalla, on the challenges Indian farmers faced while looking to sell their crops. He realised that not only were the problems huge, they were also well documented. They included opaque pricing, limited knowledge about best markets to sell produce, delayed cash and installment-based payments after sale, and poor local logistical support. From a dorm to a network of 50k farmers The conversation led Aditya to start Kisan Network, a tech-enabled, pan-India agri produce supply chain, as a computer science undergraduate thesis project at his Princeton University dorm. During his third year, he realised the problem was bigger than he had envisaged. In 2015, Aditya decided to turn Kisan Network into a startup with his father.
Now, apart from being a Y-Combinator Startup and part of the Thiel Fellowship, Kisan Network has raised $3 million led by Atsushi Taira at Mistletoe, with participation from Y Combinator, the Thiel Foundation, Venture Highway, FundersClub, Lynett Capital, Gokul Rajaram, and other angels. Kisan Network is a team of 70 people, and has built a platform that touches over 50,000 farmers in over 6,000 villages across multiple states in India. Speaking on why he felt the need to start Kisan Network as a full-fledged startup, Aditya says that the problems faced by farmers’ supply chain have been present for generations, but there has been little to no improvement at a large enough scale to impact them directly. Teaming up with his father It made sense for Aditya to team up with his father as Sanjay has been an entrepreneur in India for nearly three decades. In 1992, he started Integrated Digital Systems (IDS), a company specialising in the field of Geo Spatial Analytics (GSA). In the early stages, Sanjay had pioneered the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in tea plantations for better yield and drainage management, and assisted many FMCG and telecom companies in their rural coverage endeavours using GIS technology. He was also involved in development project assignments for AusAID and USAID. At USAID, Sanjay created an exhaustive Agriculture Information System for Afghanistan. The innovative use of GIS technology in the AusAID project was termed “as a best practice use and demonstration of the GIS technology for development projects” by a leading consultancy. Understanding problems on the ground “The issue of distrust permeates throughout the ecosystem. Once we decided to work on the startup, our feet on street started having grassroot-level interactions with farmers and other stakeholders across geographies and demographies. We found that the distrust was justified,” Aditya says. He explains that farmers feel they are mere spectators, with limited decision-making powers, and are constantly in fear of being exploited by others in the trade while engaging in kind of financial transactions. This feeling of distrust is especially acute when it comes to their primary mode of income – the sale of produce. “The rest of us, living in urban centres and in more developed parts of the world, might find it hard to relate to this, especially with information and the ability to act on the information available at our fingertips owing due to the digital revolution. But if we think that the same is true for farmers, we couldn’t be further from reality,” Aditya says.
How does Kisan Network solve the problem? The team started by addressing two things to solve the problem of distrust: Access to information: This relates to market prices, detailed crop quality reports, transportation rates, and every other minute detail that makes a crop sale transaction possible. All of these are readily made available to a Kisan Network farmer. Resources to act on the information: A pan-India farmer-to- business supply chain that brings together all stakeholders (such as buyers, transporters, and packaging partners) on one platform is available. This is tech-enabled, and involves zero use of paper and digital on-time payments directly to farmers. “With these two at his disposal, a farmer is finally able to trust the system and is well equipped to face hurdles in the crop selling process. In addition to these benefits, Kisan Network makes the farmer the centre of the ecosystem by improving his crop selling experience,” Aditya says. What does the platform do? The team then decided to build a digitally enabled supply chain that brings in transparency. This was important as presently there is little-to-no data being collected and made available publicly. The Kisan Network supply chain works on 100 percent granular data acquisition at every step (like crop quality, quality-based pricing, and payments). This is then made available to all stakeholders involved in a transaction, including the farmer. “Our supply chain has been built in a manner that makes it easy to replicate across regions very quickly. In particular, our use of computer vision to remotely assess physical characteristics of crops has gone a long way in helping us make quick and accurate decisions about produce quality and the prices it will fetch,” Aditya says. The end-to-end integration also benefits farmers. All steps, from farm to business, are taken care of, irrespective of the distance between the farmer and the market. “This can range from a few hundred kilometres to thousands of kilometres criss-crossing the country. The farmer does not need to leave his farm for a transaction,” Aditya explains. Investment and future plans With 157.35 million hectares of agricultural land, India has the second largest area of arable land in the world. It is this scalability factor that has evinced strong interest in agritech startups from venture capitalists and private equity firms. Speaking of their investment in Kisan Network, Atsushi Taira, Managing Director, Mistletoe Singapore, says, “We see immense value in Kisan Network’s focus in providing market linkages directly to farmers, and their progress so far in building out each aspect of their tech-enabled supply chain is highly promising. We are excited to partner with them in scaling rapidly to every nook and cranny of the country, and empowering farmers to become entrepreneurs by providing various kinds of services through Kisan Network.” Examples of the early success of this technology-led disruption can be seen in agritech startups such as Stellapps, CropIn Technology, Skymet, DeHaat, and Tiger-backed Ninjacart. Speaking of Kisan Network’s future plans, Aditya says, “This investment will aid rapid expansion into new regions across the country, bringing lakhs of more marginal farmers into the fold and helping them ship hundreds of more trucks directly from their farms to businesses. A portion of the round will also go towards introducing new farmer-centric products and services on our network.”