After graduating from IIT-Madras, the first thing that Vivek Rajkumar did was to buy four acres near Thiruvananthapuram and start farming. He was trying to cultivate paddy and grow banana. His neighbours were small farmers and all of them consulted a self-styled local expert on all matters agriculture. That expert, says Vivek, had no clue of what he was talking about. Yields were bad and profitability was poor; it didn’t make any sense at all, he adds.
“I successfully became a failed farmer in 2011,” Vivek says. It was the changes that the internet was bringing about that made him pursue a venture in farming and figure out how the fundamental economics of farming can be different. His farming venture having failed, the next best thing for Vivek to do was to start a venture that would provide real-time precision agriculture services to farmers, using the latest technology.
Journey of Aibono
He had built a drone that could take multi-spectral images of crops. He named the venture Airwood Aerostructure, which was later renamed Aibono with the Ai standing for Artificial Intelligence and bono, meaning for the public good. “The initial premise of the platform when we started Aibono in 2014 was to provide real-time precision agriculture as a service to farmers,” says Vivek. Irrespective of the season, the farmer will follow the same routine, treating the farm as a static entity, whereas a farm is a dynamic entity. In such a dynamic environment, the farmer, to be successful and productive, needs to change the inputs in tune with the changes that the farm undergoes. That whole space is called precision agriculture, Vivek elaborates.
In India, where a majority of the farms are small holdings, of 1.5-2 acres, farmers are not in a position to either use technology or bring in experts to help them. This is where the internet, broadband connectivity and smartphones have allowed technology to be deployed on the field. Internet as an ecosystem provides for shared efficiency. Aibono’s tech support people use sensors that collect soil data, leaf colouration or take other images and upload it on the platform, which churns this data to recommend to the farmer what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis. One tech support person covers 40 farmers now, according to Vivek.
They started off in the Nilgiris, focussing on fruits and vegetables farmers. For the farmers, says Vivek, it is more of show and tell. You can’t walk into a farm and expect a farmer to accept what you tell him. So, Aibono bought some land in Nilgiris and set up a model farm. The company invited farmers to come and see the kind of precision agriculture being practised and how that had helped improve yields. Once word spread, it was easy to bring more farmers on to the platform, says Vivek. Aibono is with the farmer right from the stage of providing the seeds or saplings.
Over time, says Vivek, Aibono as a platform has evolved. It realised that the main pain-point for a farmer is lack of information on what to apply on a day-to-day basis because the farm is a complex ecosystem. “We capture more than 150 farm variables live. That is too complex for a farmer to comprehend,” says Vivek. For instance, Aibono has more than 25 parameters on soil tests alone. It has information on leaf colouration, pest threshold levels, imaging data and weather data. It also provides the most important element for a farmer – demand for the crop.
Vivek expects that as the next generation enters the farming business, Aibono, instead of having to appoint more technology people to capture real-time data, will be able to use the next generation to operate the sensors and upload the data on the platform.
Aibono has more than 400 farmers on its platform, of which about 200 are active. The company earns its revenue from the farmers for the technology support it provides and for the inputs like seeds that it supplies. It is testing out the supply-demand feature on the platform and will be able to link the farmers directly with the retail trade bypassing intermediaries. Once that feature becomes available, Vivek expects it to be the largest revenue earner for the company.
He says the farmers operating on Aibono’s platform have seen their yields go up 1.8-2 times. The company has about 60 employees and will be 100-strong by 2018 end. It raised an undisclosed amount in a pre-Series A round from a set of investors and is looking to shortly raise a Series A round. “Our expertise lies in high altitude vegetables. So, we are going deeper and deeper into that market,” says Vivek. The fresh funds will be used to roll out the supply-demand sync part of the business and expand that offering.