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    A failed weekend experiment that led to a startup

    A failed weekend experiment that led to a startup

    A failed weekend experiment that led to a startup
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    By N Ramakrishnan   IST (Published)


    Fasal leverages IoT and machine learning to give horticulture farmers actionable intelligence

    For Shailendra Tiwari and his friend Ananda Verma, both colleagues in a technology company in Bengaluru, it was a weekend hobby that they started on a whim. Ananda had tried growing tomatoes on the balcony of his apartment and enthused by this, both Shailendra and he decided to try their hand at growing coloured capsicum (bell peppers) on a farm on the outskirts of the city. Their idea was that they would sell the produce in Bengaluru, learn about farming and agriculture and indulge themselves in a hobby.
    Both Shailendra and Ananda are from Uttar Pradesh; Shailendra from Varanasi and Ananda from Azamgarh, and both their families had an agricultural background, according to Shailendra. They met at Coviam Technologies, where both were involved in product development.
    They hadn’t thought of doing anything in agri-tech when they decided to experiment growing capsicum. It was a string of events that led them there in 2016, says Shailendra. “We weren’t doing anything agri-tech. It was just like growing tomatoes. It was something we could do over the weekend. That was the idea,” says Shailendra, a graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Himachal Pradesh.
    In for a shock
    The weekend experiment gave them both a rude shock. They realised that just because they had product development expertise was no guarantee for success in a totally different field, even though it was only a hobby. “The truth is that we failed. It hurt our ego. We wanted to figure out how other people are doing it. I wouldn’t say it was an absolute disaster, but the outcome wasn’t what we expected,” says Shailendra, who had worked in companies such as Decathlon Sports, where he was an analyst, and Inkoniq, where he was a UX researcher, before joining Coviam, where he met and became friends with Ananda.
    Both of them were still keen to figure out why they failed, for which they talked to a number of farmers in different parts of the country. As product managers in technology companies, says Shailendra, you know everything happens for a reason. You run on a structured method. But during their talks with farmers, they realised that this was not the case. The farmers would tell them that they did specific things on the fields on specified days, but they were not able to tell them why they did so, nor were they able to tell them what the benefits of following this pattern were. That is not documented and the more you question, the more it sounded like guesswork, says Shailendra.
    Learning lessons
    Shailendra and Ananda decided to spend more time studying this problem and even looked at how other countries were doing horticulture. That is when the two decided to quit their jobs and founded Fasal, which means crop in Hindi, sometime towards the end of 2017. The aim was to use their technology and product development expertise to come up with a product that will help farmers apply technology on their fields to improve yield by eliminating guesswork.
    They decided to start with solving one problem first. “How do we ensure that the farmers are irrigating right. We said that we are going to do irrigation properly,” says Shailendra. They worked with a few farmers whom they knew well and studied the irrigation patterns for the horticulture crops they grew. “Whatever we were doing was visibly improving what the farmer was seeing on his farm. Whether it was in the amount of resources he was using, whether he was irrigating right or whether he was using more fertilisers than necessary.” Thanks to the advice from Fasal, the farmers realised that they needed to irrigate their fields only thrice when they were doing it five times earlier, and consequently they needed to use less fertilisers and chemicals.
    An IoT platform
    Fasal, says Shailendra, is “a farm level, crop specific and crop stage specific actionable, intelligence platform.” He compares it with the Google Maps, where you punch in your destination and Google Maps gives you directions on how to reach your destination in the shortest possible time and distance. Fasal was built on the same concept. Every day, says Shailendra, the crop communicates with the farmer in a language he understands, tells him precisely how much of irrigation is needed. It is an Internet of Things (IoT) SaaS product for horticulture crops, offering AI-driven advice to the farmers.
    Farm-level data collection
    Fasal collects farm-level data, analysis that data and then tells the farmer what needs to be done. Data is collected through multiple methods, including IoT devices that are deployed on the farms. These devices measure more than a dozen parameters at regular intervals. These are in four categories – below the soil parameters such as water retention; canopy level parameters, including temperature, humidity and leaf wetness; solar parameters, which include solar intensity; and, climatic parameters, such as wind speed and direction, rainfall and pressure. All of these data are captured on Fasal’s system, which are combined with other data from various other sources and satellite images. All this data passes through Fasal’s algorithms. “These algorithms are at the very heart of what Fasal does,” says Shailendra. The company has built crop models and worked with plant pathologists on diseases. Based on all this, the farmer will be able to remotely monitor his farm through the Fasal app on his mobile phone. Fasal is now available in Hindi, English, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.
    Growth plans
    According to Shailendra, they have deployed Fasal on more than 700 farms, in about 20,000 acres in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It provides these services for about 10 horticulture crops such as grapes, chillis, tomatoes and pomegranates. In the first phase of expansion, it has entered Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh and plans to add Rajasthan and Gujarat. “We now do about 10 crops. In the next 12-15 months, we will expand from 700 farmers to 6,000 farmers. The target is that in the next five years, we should build a $100 million ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue) business,” says Shailendra.
    Fasal gets its income through a subscription fee that the farmers pay. Shailendra debunks the notion that farmers will not be prepared to pay for the services like what Fasal provides. As long as they see value in a product or service, the farmers are more than willing to pay for it, he adds.
    According to him, Fasal has raised in all about $2 million in funding, including from an AI-focussed accelerator Zeroth, and investors such as Omnivore and Wavemaker Partners. It is looking to raise fresh funds to grow the business.
    Lockdown benefits
    Shailendra says that a lot more farmers are digitally active now, especially since the Covid pandemic affected normal life since March 2020. Farmers are looking for a technological solution for various aspects of their business and mobile Internet penetration has helped them in this. During the lockdown, they got feedback from farmers that they were able to monitor their farm without having to step out of their homes. They were even able to tell the workers on the farm what they needed to do on a particular day without having to set foot on the farm.
    For long, horticulture was a lottery, says Shailendra and adds that a lot more farmers are realising that this need not be the case and that they can use technology to improve their chances of success. “In early 2020, when the lockdown started, we saw 2-3 times increase in inbound lead generation,” Shailendra. There are now more enquiries than before with farmers reaching out to Fasal for its products.
    —N. Ramakrishnan is a Chennai-based freelance journalist. The views are personal.
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