Reflections on Agritech Samvaad (Dialogue) with Mark Kahn

Plus! Details on upcoming Agritech Samvaad Event on 11th June at 8:30 PM IST(8 AM PT) with Mark Kahn and Sarah Mock.

Dear Friends,

Agritech Samvaad is an ongoing dialogue series Jagadeesh Sunkad and I are hosting in Clubhouse to bridge the yawning chasm between Indian Agriculture and Indian Agritech.

Mind you, both share different ontologies, speak two different languages. The former speaks in a native tongue, while the latter speaks in English. Beyond two different world-views, two different ontologies, is it possible to have a dialogue?

Over the past few weeks, I am seeing various people from rural households getting onto Clubhouse, and I feel these dialogues could open new possibilities. Here is the Hindi (courtesy Rahul Prakash) and Tamizh descriptor of the dialogue series as it appears currently in Clubhouse.

एग्रीटेक संवाद भारतीय एग्रीटेक और भारतीय कृषि को नई ऊर्जा के साथ जोड़ने का एक युवामंच है!

இந்திய வேளாண்மை மற்றும் இந்திய வேளாண் தொழில்நுட்பத்திற்கும் இடையே நிலவும் இடைவெளியை ஆழ்ந்து அவதானிக்கும் ஒரு உரையாடல் முயற்சி.

We had the second edition of Agritech Samvaad last Friday with a 120 min long Clubhouse dialogue with Mark Kahn, one of the earliest prime movers in this space.

The audience kept asking for more, with the energy of the dialogue not fizzling out even after 120 minutes of wide-ranging conversations ranging from the Evolution of Indian Poultry Sector to Changing and Unchanging Food Habits of Indians to Climate Change to Subsidies Syndrome to the Missing Agtech Middle that has been ignored by investors so far.

Since I received many emails from those who missed the dialogue, I want to share few glimpses from the chat.

Before I share that, I want to update you about the next Agritech Samvaad dialogue we have planned for 11th 8:30 PM IST with Sarah Mock, US Rural Journalist, and author of the fantastic book, “Farm and Other F Words: The Rise and Fall of Small Family Farm”, along with Mark Kahn, doing an encore appearance.

You can RSVP for the chat here. If you need a Clubhouse invite, feel free to ping me.

We want to talk about US Agriculture Vs Indian Agriculture. Today, a lot of dominant voices in farmer protests are centered around adopting the US model when it comes to subsidizing farmers through government support and doing direct cash transfers in lieu of price subsidies.

This discourse is happening at a time when global food prices are at an all-time high. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced that global food prices have hit their highest level in a decade, jumping 40% in May compared to the same period last year.

In Outsourcing of America’s Food, the author presents a damning indictment of the present state of the share of farmers’ wallets in food prices.

“The share of each dollar spent on food that winds up in the hands of farmers has fallen from 53 cents in 1946 to 14 cents today”

As I detailed in my Producer Support Estimate essay ($), the same is the case in the EU, where value-added for agriculture in the food chain dropped from 31% in 1995 to 21% in 2011, in favor of other food chain actors.

When food prices are rising, why do farmers continue to get a bad deal?

When I read Sarah’s latest book, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of déjà vu. It’s almost like doing a time travel of what likely futures we could be living in when Indian Agriculture goes through its unique sublinear (because India is always going to be a land of smallholders) trajectory of digitalization.

Sublinearity is an important point because, unlike the Netherlands, US, and other places with a small population of growers, in India, many economists, and policy professionals continue to think like Earl Butz, who famously coined, “Get Big or Get Out”

Her book also does something very interesting: It 'desacralizes' our collective frames and perceptions about good farms and small family farms, based on her diverse reporting from Farms across the United States.

This desacralization is important if we are to get serious about ground realities, whether it is family farms in the US or “Annadatas” as we address the Indian farmers. This desacralization has great implications in understanding the fundamental question of what is the appropriate scale of technological changes in agriculture.

What can the myth and the reality about family farms in the United States teach us about the future of Agriculture in India and Other Parts of the World?

Hoping to see some of you in the chat!

Let me now get back to my reflections and takeaways from the last week’s Agritech Samvaad with Mark Kahn.

01/ The low-hanging fruits of Indian Agritech have already been taken. Marketplace Models have penetrated onto states which have liberalized agricultural trade to a certain extent or remained indifferent to the diverse agricultural transactions that are happening in farm gates and other trade sites. While the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat fit the former category, the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, in my opinion, fit the latter category.

02/ Of course, in a country with 100-150 million farmers, where “50-75 million farmers are the rural middle class”, fully dependent on agriculture as a source of income, one could confidently state that the Indian Agritech story has just begun.

03/ Climate Change is now an elephant in the room we can no longer afford to ignore. As the latest research data shows, when India runs out of groundwater in 2025, cropping intensity would reduce by 20% nationwide and by 68% in groundwater-depleted regions of Central and Northwestern India.

04/In case you didn’t notice, 2025 is just four years from now.

05/ Given all of this, when I set the context for the dialogue, I asked Mark where does he derives optimism for Indian Agritech from? Part of my question comes from a simplistic mental model of seeing venture capitalists as incorrigible optimists ever ready to present the sunny side of things.

Mark’s response surprised me. He shared that while he shared his optimism in the entrepreneurial energies of this country, he largely shares pessimism and concern about the bigger picture, especially when it comes to Climate Change.

06/ It is often jokingly said that 'anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true'. One good place to observe this peculiar phenomenon is in Indian Agriculture. We discussed this truism in context with agritech startups working in government and also the changing and unchanging food habits of Indians.

07/ While the earlier wave of agritech startups preferred to stay away from dealing with the red-tape and labyrinth of government policies, the current wave of startups are working very closely with the government, participating in tenders, and going through the tangled mess of digitizing various parts of the procurement and agri marketing value chain that were earlier under the strict control of state governments.

08/ The conversation steered towards an interesting phenomenon that is occurring due to the sheer diversity of agricultural realities in this country: Bollywood Remakes.

09/ If you are familiar with the Indian film scene, you could see how various movies from the North often get remade in the South, and vice-versa. You can see this phenomenon even in agritech startups, where a startup from southern part of the country, when put uncharitably, could be doing a “remake” of what another startup from the northern part of the country has already been doing.

10/ At one level, this is inevitable. Every state in this country has had a unique history of agricultural reforms and each of these factors, along with its distinct culture, has shaped the agricultural markets in this country.

11/ As I explored in depth in my earlier essay, my mental model in understanding agritech plays and agricultural markets is this: Think of the agricultural markets as the playground on which a variety of technological games (of the digital ag kind) could be played by trendsetting entrepreneurs.

12/ And so the bone of contention in the dialogue was this: When these marketplace models scale, can we expect to see a decline in Bollywood remakes, or are the playgrounds so different that we would end up with a long tail of various marketplaces models serving different states, as per their local contexts? My bet is in the latter, while Mark’s bet is on the former.

13/ When Jagadeesh asked Mark what lies are being told in this country about this sector, his response was prompt: There is no money to be made in this sector.

14/ When Jagadeesh ask Mark what trait he values among Indian Agritech entrepreneurs, his response was interesting: Creativity.

15/ Jagadeesh and I further discussed Agritech’s Missing Middle. If you look at Omnivore’s portfolio and other investments in this space, one observes the predominance of marketplace models. You don’t see organic food supply chain plays, food processing plays. Why are these bets being ignored by the investors?

15/ Mark made an interesting point in response to our question. These sectors don’t need the jet fuel of venture capital. He further added that these sectors would eventually be digitized and brought under the fold when the existing marketplace models mature and scale.

16/ We also discussed the challenges in contract farming, limited interest from investors on FPOs, the challenges in putting together a thesis for Climate Change, and a whole range of other topics that are too difficult to compress here.

17/ The entire conversation to me was a fascinating glimpse of the wild elephantine beast called Indian Agriculture that is now being slowly taught to dance with the times by the agritech mahouts.

18/ My eyes are glued on the elephant, trying to watch this pachyderm move along with the times. I don’t know if the ride will be pleasant or unpleasant for farmers, at the end of the day. The jury is not out yet. I am watching.