Food For Thought: Agritech Startup Fasal Turns To IoT To Brighten Farmers' Lives
With farming being a $400 Bn industry in India, leading investors are infusing capital in agritech startups that work towards revolutising farming. There are more than 1,090 agritech startups in India and according to Inc42 DataLabs , the total funding in agritech startups in India grew from $46.1 Mn 2017 to $66.6 Mn in 2018.
From being a family-funded venture in 2018 to recently grabbing seed funding from leading agritech investors Omnivore and Wavemaker Partners, precision agriculture startup Fasal is making hay while the investor attention is trained on the agritech sector.
"At Omnivore, we see horticulture as a fast-growing, high margin segment of the agricultural economy. Within that space, Fasal is focussed on progressive horticulture farmers linked to export or food processing supply chains, such as grapes, pomegranate, tea, coffee, and chili," Mark Kahn, managing partner of Omnivore, told Inc42 .
Fasal raised seed funding of $1.6 Mn led by Omnivore and Wavemaker Partners in October this year. With a model that combines of internet of things (IoT) and SaaS, the startup is using the funding to build AI capabilities for each horticulture value chain it is focussing on. Other investors participating in the round included Mount Parker Ventures and Animoca from Hong Kong and Mistletoe from Japan, via its Gastrotope accelerator.
"Agriculturalists have the willingness and ability to invest in precision agriculture, and we believe Fasal's predictive IoT-SaaS is the optimal solution at an affordable price," Kahn added.
The Bengaluru-based startup currently focuses on creating value at a very specific part of this chain. It targets high-value horticulture crops for cutting costs and increasing profitability by delivering farm-specific, crop-specific and crop-stage-specific precise actionable intelligence. "Agriculture is a large value chain starting from seed to plate and has space for numerous interventions," Fasal cofounder Shailendra Tiwari told Inc42 .
The Harvest Of The Startup
Founded in 2018 by Ananda Prakash Verma and Tiwari, the startup came out of a desire to operate a farm as a weekend getaway from city life where the duo planned to grow capsicum (bell peppers). "Over a period we realised that even though we did come from farming families with hands-on exposure to farming, it wasn't easy to do. There was a lack of expertise among ourselves to decide on irrigation pattern, crop care practices, day-to-day operations, etc," Tiwari recalled.
Verma and Tiwari were surprised to see other farmers who have been farming for decades suffering from the same issues. Most of the decisions were made on guesswork without any accurate data to rely on. For many months before starting the company, the founders interacted with horticulture farmers validating the problem they had come across to see if they weren't just operating on confirmation bias.
The idea was to build something that can be used by farmers to monitor farming. When the founders, alumni of IIT Bombay, were sure about the product, they quit there careers in IT to start up Fasal, with initial funding from by friends and family.
Making Farming Smarter With IoT
The USP of Fasal lies in its field sensor array that can be installed by farmers in less than 15 minutes and measures multiple dynamic variables, including micro-climate, soil, and crop conditions. Fasal leverages machine learning to transform this field sensor data into farm-level predictions, anticipating various risks while helping horticulture farmers to reduce input costs by optimising crop protection, irrigation, and crop nutrition.
The platform captures real-time data on growing conditions from on-farm sensors and delivers actionable advisories based on the farm and crop to farmers on mobile in various languages, including regional Indian languages.
"We are on a mission to help horticulture farmers make data-driven, logical decisions and shift farming to autopilot mode. Our aim is to become a full-stack platform for horticulture farmers," Verma told us.
The pace of technology adoption in agriculture is witnessing a significant jump in the segment that Fasal operates in, which is horticulture. "Even if you look at the investment trend, there is a 3X increase vis-a-vis last year on account of increased farmer interest in technology," he added. The horticulture landscape is quickly transforming, powered by the digital and mobile boom.
From Farmers To Farmers
Hailing from farming families, Fasal founders understood the price-sensitive Indian agriculture market and its impact very early in their journey. Thus they focussed on meaningful frugality at the very heart of the solutions that they built and the solutions that would scale up.
"Fasal has been focussing on price-sensitivity for the last 1.5 years. That is why our startup is a mix of farm IoT and SaaS and our IoT devices are three times lower than the cost of a drip irrigation system for a hectare of farmland."
The startup claims that its software subscription is cheaper than the cost of one preventive spray on a hectare of a grape farm. "We are selling value, not product per se," Tiwari added.
The business model for institutional farmers follows a simple process. Farmers pay some upfront cost for the hardware and then a pay-as-you-go subscription fee for the tailored intelligence that Fasal provides.
The founders claim Fasal typically saves about 20-25% in irrigation/fertigation costs for farms. It saves about 8-20% in disease/pest management costs and through its use, farms have seen a yield increase of 5-10% along with noticeable improvement in yield quality.
In the case of grapes, farms using Fasal have observed that the product pays for itself within the first 4-5 months of the crop cycle itself, whereas it continues to work for the next 3-5 years.
Interestingly, the startup also takes into account the water crisis that has decimated farms in some parts of the country. For instance, in a dry zone in Maharashtra, the startup saves about 4 Lakh litres of water vis-a-vis the previous season for a grape farmer who used to irrigate his farmlands using IoT to prepare ahead of the season.
The Road Ahead For Fasal
The agritech startup currently has 10 employees and intends to expand pan-India for the crops that they are focussing on. The startup also plans to expand to Southeast Asia as farmer profiles and climatic zones are similar.
The startup is also working on a plug-and-play fasal IoT device that will bring down the deployment time on farms from under 15 minutes currently to under five minutes, without any assistance from the Fasal team. "This will enable our farmers to deploy the Fasal IoT device by themselves, thereby rendering any deployment manpower requirement to null," said Tiwari.
In the near short term, Fasal wants to focus on the B2B2F model while continuing to create more value for allied sectors of the agriculture industry apart from farmers. The startup also intends to add other crops to its suite and build end-to-end intelligence for farmers. Fasal also plans to deepen its presence and diversify its operations in the geographies it is already active in.
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