A successful farm is largely dependent on a farmer’s ability to make the right decision at the right time. More than any other business, farming is hugely dependent on the timing of each process, be it sowing, planting, harvesting or weeding. Even the slightest delay can hamper farm output and result in losses. Irrespective of the type of production, farmers have been depending on their experience and learning from older farmers in their vicinity to make decisions on when to start each process, which is not always accurate and can lead to significant loss or zero profit or damage to produce.
The needs of farmers differ from produce to produce. Specifically to shrimp farming, a farmer needs to worry about optimal water quality, water management and effective disease management. Fear of disease outbreak in shrimp has been reported as one of the prime reasons for a 10%-15% drop in production in India, this year. From 2006-08, Indian shrimp farmers were estimated to have undergone a production loss of INR 1K Cr due to disease outbreak in shrimp farms.
Shrimps, also commonly known as prawns, contribute around 70% of the total seafood export from India, which is worth about INR 45K Cr. The International Market Analysis Research and Consulting (IMARC) Group has predicted that the Indian shrimp farming market would reach a volume of 1.13 Mn tonnes by 2024, undergoing a CAGR of around 9% between 2019-2024.
Even though it is a billion dollar industry, shrimp farming still lacks the technology adoption and efficiency it is expected to have with its implementation, said Rajamanohar Somasundaram, founder of Chennai-based Aquaconnect. “It is difficult for aqua farmers to monitor all parameters and make farming decisions as they completely depend on farm technicians in daily culture operations,” Rajamanohar told Inc42
This gap in shrimp farming analytics and the resultant loss is precisely what aquafarming startup Aquaconnect seeks to address. Aquaconnect’s mobile application, FarmMOJO uses big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to advise farmers on their pond operations based on constant monitoring of water quality, feed intake, disease outbreak indicators, and biomass conversion, which indicates the efficiency of farm’s feeding strategy. In addition to the inputs, the application also takes into consideration the data captured by IoT or smart farm management platforms.
FarmMOJO also helps shrimp farmers in the daily management of their culture growth, which determines the quality of the final product. This includes optimisation of feeding, disease prediction and control, and water management. For instance, it is important to ensure effective feed usage and biomass conversation in shrimp farming. So, at any point, if FarmMOJO observes poor Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR), it recommends actions and relevant products the farmer can use to normalise the pond environment.
The company claims that this AI-based approach has helped shrimp farmers improve disease prediction rates and accuracy, boost production efficiency, produce higher-quality shrimps, increase profits, and reduce dependency on external resources for daily culture operations.
Besides India, Aquaconnect is also targeting the other large shrimp production markets such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Globally, the aquaculture market was valued at $169 Bn in 2015 and is expected to grow at 5.3% CAGR to touch $242 Bn by 2022.
“Our strategy is to provide complete AI assistance to farmers throughout the culture and increase farmer’s revenue 5% in every pond,”Rajamanohar told Inc42.
In 2018, India’s Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture (CIBA), had also launched a shrimp farmers focused mobile application, Vanami Shrimpapp. The app allows farmers to access best pond management practices, carry out input and sampling calculations, predict disease outbreak, on-farm risk assessment along with accessing government guidelines and regulations.
Globally, the company competes with the likes of San Francisco-based AI company Aquabyte, Australian machine learning platform sense-t, Indonesian AI and IoT enabled company efishery, and Norwegian Seafood Innovation Cluster’s AquaCloud.
According to Rajamanohar, what differentiates Aquaconnect from its competitors is the customisation element in its platform. “Global company’s product applications may not be customised for the Indian shrimp species. Also, the pricing of their solutions is way out of the affordability range for the Indian market.”
Journey From Copassengers To Cofounders
Interestingly, Rajamanohar met cofounder Sanjai Kumar, a shrimp farmer, on a train journey. The duo broke ice discussing the challenges in the shrimp farming industry, which included high production costs and disease outbreaks. Rajamanohar followed up this conversation with secondary research and realised the huge potential for applying data analytics in shrimp farming.
Along with Shanmugha Sundara Raj, the duo founded Aquaconnect in 2017. The company had raised pre-seed funding from HATCH accelerator in 2018. According to Rajamanohar, Aquaconnect is currently in the process of raising another $2 Mn to fuel its expansion into the Southeast Asian market.
In the two years since inception, Aquaconnect claims to have brought 3K farmers on board and has generated a revenue of INR 2.4 Cr in FY18. Aquaconnect primarily depends on a subscription model for monetisation, where farmers pay to use its app every month. Farmers can subscribe to a basic plan in FarmMOJO at the INR 500 per pond they manage. The subscription plan allows farmers to record data, access FarmMOJO’s web module and connect to the marketplace.
The company has also worked out multiple secondary revenue sources such as offering data intelligence services to other stakeholders such as hatcheries, food processors, feed companies, and healthcare products producers. Further, the company also plans to offer credit and insurance products for those working in the aquaculture industry in the future.
Battling Tech And Language Barriers
For any agritech startup, the foremost challenge is overcoming the technological divide between the urban and rural India. Even though the entry of Reliance Jio has led to lower data prices and has increased smartphone adoption in India, internet use-cases are yet to go beyond WhatsApp and Facebook in rural areas.
Reiterating this challenge of tech literacy, Rajamanohar said, “Promoting technology awareness among farmers, reaching out to farmers and proposing a new technology solution was a challenge for us. Often it took us about three to four months to convince farmer groups to agree on using our pilot projects.”
Further, the company also had to battle cultural and language barriers in order to learn different shrimp farming practices across India’s vast farming network ranging from Tamil Nadu to West Bengal on the east coast, to Kerala and Gujarat on the west coast.
To facilitate the easier transition, Aquaconnect deploys field assistants or runners similar to Swiggy delivery partners, to help farmers in sample collection. The company also conducts training and workshop sessions at frequent intervals to train the new generation of farmers who could aid the technology adoption process for farmers. Rajamanohar added farmers have improved farm production by up to 5% due the app’s recommendation.
Talking about other challenges, Rajamanohar lamented the lack of support from India’s Union Ministry of Agriculture, According to him, getting the ministry to address aquaculture’s specific needs was challenging and time-consuming process.
Venturing Beyond Indian Shores
Over the next 12 months, Aquaconnect is hoping to target expansion to three Indian states including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat. Further, it aims to deploy FarmMOJO in 8K ponds and increase the company’s operational revenue by 400%.
Through FarmMOJO app, the company has also opened up a credit channel for farmers to access formal financial institutions and get financial assistance such as crop insurance. It also plans to create financial and insurance products for the aquaculture industry based on data collected by the app. Also, Acquconnect envisions the potential for processors and certifying bodies to use FarmMOJO’s data for sustainable procurement and certification.
Currently focussed on the aquaculture space, Aquaconnect also aims to diversify FarmMOJO’s scope for other fish and marine species in India and abroad. In addition to this, the company’s strategic partnership with other entities such as IDH- Farmers In Transition (FIT), Solidaridad is expected to help expand its operations. Further, the company is targeting a presence in the Indonesian market by 2020.
Partnering with stakeholders such as feed company technicians and food processors has helped Aquaconnect reach farmers faster and leverage their existing relationship in India. It’s the same strategy the company has used in overseas markets. “We started receiving the positive feedback from our network farmers since the 2018 winter culture [season] as our prediction accuracy has improved over the period of the past 12 months.”