The more they talked, the more interested Somasundaram got in the scope for mobile tech to make a dent in aquaculture. Farmers in this domain were more prosperous than the average farmer in other areas of agriculture. Shrimp farming entails an expenditure of ₹10 lakh per acre, which amounts to an investment of ₹1 crore for two half-yearly hauls from a five-acre farm. Yet, the adoption of technology was so low in India that aquaculture was far less productive than in other countries.
After that train journey, Somasundaram put together a team, with a mix of aquaculture and mobile tech expertise, to launch his new startup Aquaconnect in 2017. It began with a simple FarmMojo app to provide advisories to farmers based on inputs of farm data, but soon ran into an issue.
“The farmers know how to use mobile apps, but they’re lazy or reluctant when it comes to inputting data. We struggled in the initial months as usage was very limited even when our app was downloaded," explains Somasundaram.
Then the aqua app maker came up with a services hack.
Testing the waters
One of the pain points for a shrimp farmer is getting pond water tested periodically. Testing the water ensures healthy growth of the shrimp and preventing diseases with interventions. But it involves taking the water to a town with a lab and collecting results.
So Aquaconnect created a Swiggy-like service where a delivery person collects water samples from farms, takes them to partner labs, and enters test details in the FarmMojo app.
Here was something useful for the aqua farmers that also created a physical point of contact between them and the startup. “The farmers get the water quality results instantly and also our advisory services based on the data," says Somasundaram.
There are various advisory modules for water treatment, feeding and more, based on over 20 parameters in the water quality test. For example, if the aquafeed is settling on the pond bottom instead of being consumed, it produces an abnormal level of ammonia which can kill the shrimp.
The advisory service is in turn linked up with aquaculture input companies to create a marketplace where Aquaconnect is able to offer better prices and more choice than local distributors because of aggregation of demand.
The startup later evolved into a full stack model with both upstream and downstream market linkages, from shrimp hatcheries to exporters.
The app data can help with traceability. Shrimp farmers, who export 95% of their produce, are well aware that they should not use antibiotics to stimulate growth, but sometimes these additives get carried over from hatcheries or what’s fed to larvae.
Arul Raj, a 35-year-old farmer near Chidambaram on the Tamil Nadu coast, has been using Aquaconnect for a year. He had initially leased five acres of land to farm Indian carp species, like rohu, but switched to shrimp because it’s more profitable. But it also raised the risk of bigger losses if anything went wrong.
He used to painstakingly note everything down in a notebook, from feeding details to test results. “Now with Aquaconnect, data is fed into the app which makes it easy to track anytime. Aquaconnect staff visits the farm once a week, gets water testing done, suggests what medicines to add, and so on. Everything has become more regular," says Raj.
For Somasundaram, this is just the basic level where technology can make an impact on aquaculture in India. He was part of the Hatch aquaculture startup accelerator programme in Norway, which later joined Omnivore in providing $1.1 million seed funding to Aquaconnect.
At Hatch, Somasundaram came across multiple innovations, right from aquafeed to fish processing. Iceland processes 80% of every cod caught, he points out, as the bones and skin go into value-added products like gels and even clothing. There are 120 startups working on full utilization of the fish in the Iceland Ocean Cluster.
In contrast, after processing shrimp meat for export in India, 35-45% of the shrimp goes waste as the shells and heads are discarded. Thailand even imports raw shrimp from India for its aqua processing industry. Somasundaram hopes that India moves up the value chain for better returns to farmers instead of just treating shrimp as a commodity.
Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org