When inaccurate data began to eat at Omnikan’s profits—the marigold managed farming arm of Omniactive—the company turned to a mobile app and weeded out losses.
If someone told you that the fortunes of one of India’s largest nutraceutical companies rest on the tiny petals of marigold flowers, you’d probably rubbish their claim.
Not if it were true. Ask Jawed Ahmed, GM and group IT head, Omniactive Health Technologies and Kancor Ingredients. “Yes, it can make our company either a profitable or a loss-making venture,” he says.
That’s because the tiny petals of the marigold flower hold a chemical called xanthophyll—which, when converted to lutein, protects the vision of the human eye—that wields tremendous power. Power so intense that this chemical can spin the fortunes of companies that manufacture it.
That’s why, for nutraceutical companies, like Omniactive the timely availability of superior quality xanthophyll is critical. Otherwise pharma companies that use lutein would shift their loyalties to other producers, taking Omniactive’s business away.
Despite having its destiny tied to the availability of xanthophyll, the company had outsourced its production. As a result, procuring the required amount of quality xanthophyll wasn’t satisfactory. So, the company decided to take control of the process of producing lutein.
To do that, the company decided to float a new organization called Omnikan, with the objective of producing lutein through managed farming of marigold. It identified 3,000 acres of land in three towns of Karnataka: Hassan, Halebidu, and Gundlupet.
The farmers in these districts were then asked to cultivate marigolds at four-day intervals. Similarly, when the cultivation cycle was over, they had to harvest at four day intervals so that the company could control and time the produce. “The plan was to regulate the flow of supply. We wanted to keep it going at a steady rate,” says Ahmed.
As this was the first time farmers were cultivating marigolds on their farms, they lacked expertise. So, Omnikan appointed agents—and assigned farms to them—who would meet farmers, and ensure that the schedule was adhered to, and report it back to the company.
But instead of subtracting the problem, the agents only multiplied it.
Producing lutein is a tricky business. This is compounded by the fact that marigolds are sensitive and need to be handled with care.
For instance, if the flower is exposed to very cold temperatures or not watered at regular intervals, its lutein levels will fall. Also, after the flower is harvested, it has to be processed within four to five hours. Any delay would pull down the ideal yield percentage of the flower—which is between 2 to 2.5 percent—and anything below 2 percent is detrimental to the business. “This is why we have to handhold farmers and create a robust solution to track the entire lifecycle of marigolds.” This was hard because the company had a large acreage under cultivation and needed to control its supply chain.
To make matters worse, the company used ruddy Excel sheets to track the cycle of marigolds. The agents would go to the field, note down the stage that a particular farmer’s marigold was in, and the amount of time it would take for him to harvest it. The agent would then go to the office and update it on Excel sheets which would then be viewed by agricultural scientists who would provide inputs on the maturity of a farmer’s marigolds. For instance, at the end of six weeks, marigolds should have turned a certain shade of yellow. If they haven’t, scientists would input their suggestions on the Excel so that the agents can then inform farmers to take corrective action to get the cycle back on track.
Because this process wasn’t real-time, it led to erratic harvesting schedules. For example, the company would witness weeks without any produce and the very next week it would have to deal with 25-30 tonnes of marigolds. “The erratic schedules were a cause for concern. We could not possibly process the entire produce in one go and as a result, we ended up losing business,” says Ahmed.
Omnikan knew it had to make the process real-time and get rid of erratic schedules. There was only one way to do that: Set up a farm management system (FMS) on a private cloud.
Sitting on the cloud, the FMS provided agents and scientists with an interface that could be logged into from different locations in real-time. The FMS was a one-stop shop for agents, scientists, and accounting teams as it covered the entire cycle from registering a farmer to paying the farmer for the produce.
Agents had to update the data weekly for scientists to provide their inputs. Missing the weekly deadline would trigger a reminder SMS that would be sent to agents’ phones.
But the agents sprung a surprise on Ahmed. It was imperative for agents to physically go to the field to check the development of marigolds but they were sitting at home and updating the FMS from their smartphones. “We didn’t realize that the Web-based solution would work on phones and expected agents to enter the data from our office. We got thinking and realized that even though implementing a solution on the smartphone could be a security risk, it would work if we put in some checks and balances and use it to our advantage,” he says.
Omnikan decided to take the plunge and build an app in-house based on the Android platform for the agents and farmers. For starters, the company decided to provide agents and farmers—who had more than 5 acres of land to their name—with Huawei smartphones. Providing phones to the farmers simplified the overall process as now they could update the FMS themselves.
For smaller farmers, agents would continue visiting fields and sending updates about the development of marigolds. However, the agents were only allowed to perform data entry on the application for security reasons. Initially, agents used to enter data onto the app, which was then stored in a repository. This data would then be uploaded by officials at Omnikan onto the FMS, from where the scientists can view it.
To enable real time reporting of data, Ahmed—who had outsourced the development of this to third-party developers—had all the functionalities of the FMS built into the mobile app as well.
Today, every stage of the harvest cycle is monitored through the smartphone app and Omnikan can now accurately predict when to expect the final produce. “Accordingly, we schedule our factory operations. When the final produce leaves the farm for our factory, agents weigh the flowers and enter the data into the smartphone. For payments to the farmer, this data is integrated with our ERP,” says Ahmed.
Omnikan didn’t stop at that.
We saved upto three percent of the total input costs because we figured that 90 acres of the 3,000 acres of land didn’t belong to farmers, thanks to geo-tagging.
To take the implementation a notch or two higher, Ahmed insisted on agents sending photos of the farms to the scientists.
At the end of every two weeks, agents need to click a photograph of their assigned farms from their smartphones and upload it to the FMS. The scientists working at the agricultural center of excellence can use the photographs to analyze rainfall patterns, temperature patterns, and based on that correlate the growth of marigolds. So if something is amiss, corrective steps can be taken immediately. “Thanks to this, the gap between the experts and the ground level farmers has come down,” says Jawed.
The company got a taste of the advantages of this system when last year one of the agents uploaded a photo of a small farm in Hassan. The scientists discovered pests in the farm.
It was a continuous farm with 300 farmers and 1,000 acres under cultivation. “While we noticed the pest problem in one of the sections of the farms, we also noticed that this problem was present in three other sections as well. Immediately, we decided to get rid of the pest problem or else we would have lost almost a quarter of our produce,” adds Jawed.
While it was important for the company to keep an eye on the evolution of marigolds through photographs, it was also important to ensure that agents visited farms they have been assigned to at least once a week.
But how was Omnikan going to make sure that agents visited their assigned farms and entered the relevant data onto the FMS?
There was one way: Geo-tagging. To do that, the latitude and longitude details for each farm were added to the master data. Doing this enabled the company to restrict agents from entering data from their farms only.
Now, agents can feed data into the system from their smartphones only if they stand within a 10 meter periphery of their farms. “In case an agent enters data into the application from any location apart from the farm they are in charge of, the system would flag up the information,” says Ahmed. By doing this, Omnikan ensured transparency and made sure that agents visited the farm at least once a week.
But getting here wasn’t easy. Ahmed faced resistance from agents as their work would be now more scrutinized. However, he managed to convince them otherwise.
As the mobile app was developed and tested in English, without any Unicode characters, the farmers needed to know the language to use the app. As a workaround, the company decided to use seven big, bold icons that could be used easily to identify what the application wanted to convey.
With the system in place, it was time for Omnikan to relish the benefits.
Reaping the Rewards
The Android app rained benefits for Omnikan. Accurate farm measurement using geo-tagging saved input costs. “We saved upto three percent of the total input costs because we figured that 90 acres of the 3,000 acres of land didn’t belong to farmers.” This amounted to a savings of about Rs 44 lakh in a season. Better planning accuracy in harvest dates resulted in plant utilization of more than 95 percent during the harvest period. Also, there is an increase in transparency and a faster information flow from the farm to the center of excellence and back to the farm.
Enthused by the results of the mobile implementation, Ahmed is now planning to introduce BYOD at Omnikan.
“In the future, we are looking at a BYOD solution because the application has matured and we have more control over it. Currently, our agents and farmers cannot use the issued phones for voice and hence have to carry two phones. We would provide them with approximately Rs 200 per month for data charges and take this forward,” says Ahmed.
Ershad Kaleebullah is a correspondent for CIO India and ComputerWorld India. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ershad on Twitter at @r3dash.
Omnikan decided to take the plunge and build an app in-house based on the Android platform for the agents and farmers.