Emerging Entrepreneurs

Looking at food and agriculture through an entrepreneurial lens

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on July 06, 2020

Ram Kaundinya, Co-founder, ThinkAg

ThinkAg brings together various players in the food, agri value chain to improve productivity

For Ram Kaundinya, with more than three decades of experience in the agri-inputs industry, it was a natural progression that he should discuss the need for a platform that will foster innovation and increased use of technology in the agriculture value chain. He discussed the idea with other like-minded people and four of them teamed up to form ThinkAg, an agritech platform that aims to bring together innovators, corporates and investors to improve outcomes in food and agriculture.

The IT or health sector, says Ram, has good incubators, innovators and funding systems available. Investors have had good exits, which has brought in excitement to the ecosystem. “In agriculture,” he adds, “we felt there was no organisation which was bringing all stakeholders together.”

There are the FPOs on one side and there are companies looking to source agriculture produce, but there are not too many incubators mainly due to lack of awareness. Though there are start-ups in the agri and food sectors, there are not too many investors because they did not understand the agriculture sector well. Investors shied away from the sector also because there was a lot of government intervention and due to external factors such as vagaries of the weather that added to the uncertainty, while prices for a lot of farm produce was fixed by the government.

One of the reasons for more innovation, higher number of start-ups and more funding in other sectors is because the ecosystem is better developed – there is greater corporate involvement, there are a large number of incubators and accelerators and there are investors at various stages of a start-up’s journey. “Against this background, we thought why not we start a first-of-its-kind organisation which will bring all stakeholders together and create engagement opportunities for people to know each other, for people to understand what is happening in the sector and for people to get help from corporates and funds,” says Ram, 64, an agricultural science graduate from Andhra Pradesh University and an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad with specialisation in agriculture.

Apart from Ram, who is Co-founder, ThinkAg, the other founding members are Raman Ahuja, who has nearly three decades experience in the agri-business value chain; Hemendra Mathur, Venture Partner with Bharat Innovation Fund; and, Ankur Capital, an early-stage venture capital fund that invests in sectors including agri-tech. ThinkAg has partnerships with a number of companies in the agri-business sector and global linkages too.

Three types of events

ThinkAg has been structured in such a way that it caters to the entire value chain. AgLab will partner with domestic and international incubators to groom start-ups, provide mentorship and assist them to reach investment level in three-five years. AgPartner will offer curated partnerships to promote deeper engagement with investors. AgClinic will offer three types of curated events – practitioner-based knowledge sharing that is open to all those interested in the sector, CEO roundtables and member-only roundtables. Finally, there is AgConnect that will disseminate knowledge on the sector and provide thought leadership.

According to Ram, ThinkAg outlined at the beginning how it would measure success after, say, five years. One was how many start-ups had got linkages and engagements with corporates, the second was how many ventures had got funding, either from investors or from companies, and how many investors had managed to get exits.

The last and, probably most important, measure was has the quality of innovation improved. While measuring quality of innovation may be difficult, Ram says ThinkAg was clear that innovation should be science based and not just business model innovations.

Focus areas

The platform identified five areas of focus – supply chain, drudgery of the farmer in the field, risk mitigation, nutrition and food waste reduction. Agricultural supply chains are highly inefficient because of which more than a third of produce is lost. On drudgery, ThinkAg will look at how it can bring innovations to reduce drudgery and make it interesting for the younger generation to get into farming. Risk mitigation involves financial services, banking, insurance and information. As far as nutrition is concerned, ThinkAg’s focus is particularly on next-gen nutrition, on how to enhance the nutrition levels in the food that is being consumed.

“We have about 15 corporate partners now. The corporate interest is picking up,” says Ram. He believes that ThinkAg has been able to create some kind of a momentum in the sector since its founding in September 2018. There have been significant changes in the agriculture sector in the last few years, especially with a number of start-ups offering technology solutions. The ecosystem is coming up and ThinkAg’s aim is to speed up the growth and make it more broad-based.

According to Ram, the recent changes made by the Centre should make the agriculture sector more attractive for the private sector, especially on the digital outputs market side.

“Digital output markets will have not only platforms for e-commerce, you also need quality assessment tools on the same platform because standardisation of quality across the country has not happened for agricultural produce. You need image-based processing tools that will assess the quality, which will help in improving the price,” says Ram. Payments systems too have to get on to the platform. He is confident that fintech and agtech will combine well on the platform. “We are hoping all these will lead to a transformational change in the system.

The real challenge

As to the challenges, Ram says on the inputs side, the private sector has always had a role to play, be it in supplying seeds or fertilisers. The real challenge is on the outputs side, where so far the government has the dominant role, including in fixing the price and in procurement. But with the opening up of the markets, the private sector will have a growing role to play.

When people argue that farmers trust the government more, it is just that farmers are more dependent on the government for procuring their produce.

As long as procurement of major foodgrains and cotton is with the government, that dependence on the government will continue to be high. The private sector has so far had only a marginal role to play. Whereas as far as vegetables and fruits are concerned, the government does not do too much of vegetable marketing and the private sector has brought in a lot of innovation in this space in the last two-three years. “Farmers’ acceptance and trust will develop only over a period of time as more and more young farmers come into the picture. If they find it exciting, trust will grow,” adds Ram.

Published on July 06, 2020

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