Bringing the latest tech to the last mile of agriculture
Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s population. Despite agriculture being one of the largest sources of livelihood in rural India, the sector is vulnerable to periodic droughts and floods, and farmers lack market access, marketing networks and information systems.
Software solutions provider SourceTrace Systems considers this an important global issue to address by bringing the latest technologies to the last mile of agriculture.
“Producing enough food for a growing population and ensuring ethical production to minimize the environmental impact and equitable treatment of farmers is one of the major challenges of our generation,” says Venkat Maroju, chief executive officer, SourceTrace Systems.
SourceTrace was nominated in the Agriculture & Environment category at the mBillionth Awards 2016 organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
“This is a great opportunity not merely for social impact but a large market opportunity for building a viable business,” says Maroju.
The Massachusetts-based company’s eServices Everywhere (ESE) platform provides solution for agriculture, aquaculture, plantation and forestry. The ESE Agri Solution tracks the flow of goods from the source to the central processing facilities even in the most remote areas. “We consider smallholders are the key for global food supply and agriculture is the major industry to ensure food safety and sustainability,” says Maroju, who has been heading the company since 2012. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, smallholders are small-scale farmers, pastoralists and forest keepers who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares.
Smallholders are characterized by family-focused motives such as favouring the stability of the farm household system, using mainly family labour for production and using part of the produce for family consumption. Data from the FAO shows that 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is managed by smallholders. While 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species, making the global food system highly vulnerable, biodiversity is key to smallholders who keep many rustic and climate-resilient varieties and breeds alive.
SourceTrace was founded in 2006 by Sandeep Chatterjee and Stephen Sellers. When the founders moved out, Maroju, an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan School of Management, took charge as the CEO in 2012. The company, which was providing remote transaction solutions for financial service, agriculture, healthcare and micro-insurance organizations, started focusing only on agriculture and its allied sectors.
In 2009, Maroju, who hails from Telangana, quit his corporate job in the US and returned to India to launch his own company called Factum Ventures for empowering smallholder farmers. Having grown up in rural Telangana, and having witnessed the distress of farmers, Maroju explored solutions for sustainable agriculture and to empower smallholders farmers through adoption of latest information and communication technology (ICT) tools.
Maroju later wound up the venture and joined SourceTrace. When Maroju took over as the CEO, SourceTrace was working on several diversified sectors. “The main task before us was to transform the organization to focus on agriculture and allied sectors which play a vital role in world economics,” says Maroju. “These sectors which employ more than 70% of smallholders need to adopt technology for sustainability and empowerment. So, our focus was to impact a large number of smallholders in agriculture, aquaculture, plantation, forestry sectors and allied sectors spread across the globe, provide mobile applications and solution to the organisation that are associated with these farmers,” he says.
The penetration of the mobile has made it more adaptable and usable widely to connect with farmers. “Our solutions can be used even in low bandwidth environments, which enables farmers to participate in global markets,” Maroju says.
SourceTrace’s product is used by small co-operatives and farmer produce companies to large agribusiness corporations and government agencies working in the sustainable development sector.
The company’s products have been deployed in 12 countries in Asia, Africa, South and Central America. It reaches more than 250,000 farmers, especially in developing economies. SourceTrace, which has more than 60 employees across the US, India, Bangladesh and Costa Rica, is currently working with an organization, Chetna Organic, in Andhra Pradesh for promoting sustainable organic cotton.
With funding support from NABARD Consultancy Services (NABCONS), a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), it is conducting a study on agricultural projects in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. SourceTrace’s application is used for procurement of vegetables from farmers and to improve farmers’ market access by Krishi Pragati Foundation in Pune. UTZ, a Netherlands-based organization, uses it for monitoring and evaluation of small holder cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast.
SourceTrace’s Android-based mobile application is mapped to individual handsets and gets automatically activated via in-built GPS on a farmer’s farm location.
“The application is connected to the web version centrally, through which information, monitoring and advisory services are generated instantaneously and millions of smallholder farmers get connected across wide geographical areas,” says Maroju, adding that the application is scalable and the technology completely developed in-house.
“We currently do not have our resources in Africa, but fortunately we have the largest farmer base in Africa. We work through number of business partners in Africa and it is working out well so far,” says Maroju.
“Getting recognition for our farmer-centric solution will help various development agencies who are working towards sustainability and empowerment using mobile technologies to achieve food security, safety and smallholders empowerment,” he says.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.