Technological innovation helping farmers thrive better

Venkat Maroju, CEO, SourceTrace Systems, says that producing food for a growing population, minimizing environmental impact and ensuring equitable treatment of farmers is a major challenge for our generation.

Sejuti Das Apr 05th 2016

Till today, approximately 60 percent of Indians work as farmers, contributing nearly a fifth of the nation’s GDP. Agriculture is undoubtedly the most important sector of Indian economy, but these men and women face significant challenges such as lack of infrastructure and information and financial barriers.

In this regard, SourceTrace addresses this challenge by bringing in the latest technology to the last mile of agriculture. From faraway fields to buying stations, following the links in an agricultural value chain can be a challenge of global proportions. The SourceTrace ESE Agri solution claims to track the flow of goods from the source to central processing facilities in the world’s most remote areas.

Dr. Venkat Maroju, CEO of SourceTrace Systems, highlights how their cloud based mobility solution ESE Agri is helping improve the agriculture value chain by primarily focusing on Indian farmers while fulfilling the larger objective of sustainable development and farmers’ empowerment.

Edited excerpts:

Kindly explain your solution, SourceTrace ESE Agri, and also tell us how it is making a change in our society.

SourceTrace has been a pioneer in developing software solutions for managing the first mile of agriculture value chain in developing economies.

The most important thing that we are currently working on is our core platform ‘eServices Everywhere (ESE) Agri.’ This is a mobile-based near-real-time transactional solution for sectors like agriculture, agribusiness companies, large MNCs, governmental agencies and allied sectors. The solution provides complete visibility of operation from field to market and tracks the value chain.

It aims to track the flow of goods from the source or the smallholder farms to the central processing facilities. The field staff and extension workers of companies use the mobile application to capture data and transactions at the touch points of smallholder farmers.

With our solution, farmers and organizations achieve global visibility of operations and supply chain, greater transparency, source traceability, real-time business intelligence, reduced operational costs, increased internal controls, and better resource management.

Presently, it has been deployed in 11 countries in three continents—Asia, Africa, Central and South America—and reaches more than 2 lakh farmers. Some of our customers include Cargill, Olam, LalTeer, Aarong, Tamil Nadu State Government, Mobipay, Basix and Palakkad Coconut Producers Company.

Smallholder farmers, although responsible for 70 percent of the world’s food production, are still poor and the majority of them are living near the margins of society.

How is technology helping the agriculture industry?

Technology is an important factor in determining the future of agriculture. Like most industries, the agricultural sector has also changed greatly from the early seventies. There are a lot of innovations in the mobile and IT space that have the potential to make a huge impact on farming.

Currently, there are 450 million smallholder farmers in the entire world, who support 2 billion people in their households. Smallholder farmers, although responsible for 70 percent of the world’s food production, are still poor and the majority of them are living near the margins of society. We at SourceTrace Systems consider them a vital part while addressing the issues of global food safety and security. 

Producing food for a growing population, minimizing environmental impact and ensuring equitable treatment of farmers is a major challenge for our generation. We address this global issue by bringing in the latest technologies to the first mile of agriculture. We not only consider this as a great opportunity for social impact but also as a large market opportunity for building a viable business.

Our solutions capture all the transactions with the farmers at the field level so that the visibility, traceability, timeliness and accuracy of transactions are improved. These solutions offer new market knowledge and also treat farmers fairly and equitably without any opportunities for leakages in the value chain. It contributes to ‘smart’ agriculture, and incentivizes farmers to embrace technology in order to increase their production.

Who are your competitors and how are you standing out in the market?

The concept we are working on is still considered to be very novel. However, there are a couple of companies in India and Africa who have similar solutions. But SourceTrace has been a pioneer in developing mobile applications, which operate in remote parts of developing countries.

We started developing transaction-capable mobile applications even before the advent of smartphones. We consider ourselves to have deep expertise and understanding in developing mobile applications and our platform ‘eServices Everywhere’ has been developed over the years with a lot of investment.

It offers us a very competitive advantage to develop applications rapidly. Secondly, we are the only company with true global presence in countries like USA, Asia, Africa and Central and South America. Thirdly, we have some of the who’s who of the social venture world as our investors—Gray Matters Capital, Soros Economic Development Fund, Serious Change, The Schmidt Family Foundation and Sorenson Impact Fund, to name a few.

What is your marketing blueprint to becoming one of the prominent players of the industry?

We consider India / South Asia, Africa, and Central and South America as the three most important regions, holding almost 80 percent of smallholder farmers in the world. Currently, we have strong presence in India and Bangladesh and some physical presence in Costa Rica. We do not have resources in Africa, though we have the largest farmer base in Africa.

Our marketing strategy is two-fold. Initially, we focused on the established network. Having good number of customers in three continents, we are now investing heavily in online marketing and social media. We are also increasing our investments in online marketing significantly in order to see some rapid results. We believe our customers could be anywhere in the world and the best way to reach them is through online media.

Our goal is to create the world's largest farmer database and we are targeting 10 million farmers in 2020.

What is your vision for the company?

SourceTrace is a 100 percent social enterprise organization with a strong social purpose. Investors and our management team are very committed to making agricultural sector more sustainable and empower the smallholder farmers.

We are set to double our growth during the next 3-4 years. We are expecting to reach 4 to 5 lakh farmers in over 20 countries, and are hoping to double our revenues. Our goal is to create the world's largest farmer database and we are targeting 10 million farmers in 2020.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start a bootstrapped business?

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. To be successful, you have to be very passionate about the problem that you are planning to solve. One has to be ready to fail before they witness success. 

Around 70-80 percent of startups fail. But I believe that, if one is passionate enough, and has perseverance and the ability to adapt to circumstances, success will ultimately reach you.