Seven Meditations for Agritech Founders to review 2021 and plan for 2022
Wishing you all a happy new year! I hope you had a wonderful vacation and took enough time to pause and reflect on the year that went by.
My name is Venky. I write Agribusiness Matters every week to grapple with vexing questions of food, agribusiness, and digital transformation in an era of Climate change. Feel free to dig around the archives if you are new here.
It’s been more than a year since I started growing Agribusiness Matters like a sandalwood orchard.
During my vacation, I traveled a lot and among many other places, I spent some time with sandalwood trees (Santalum album L.) and got to learn how they grow their roots.
Here is the thing: Instead of building their own roots, they grow by thriving on others’ roots.
Sandalwood is a hemiparasite. They meet their nutrition needs from hosts, while partly meeting the nutrition needs of their hosts. In a 2017 study that was conducted in Kerala, it was found that they grow their modified roots (called haustoria) up to a distance of 3 meters.
And that includes not just plants and trees, but also, grass.
Much like sandalwood trees which develop haustorial reciprocal connections with host plants, Agribusiness Matters has been drawing its nutrition from “outlier” agritech startups, while partly taking care of the nutrition needs of a few contrarian agritech startup founders.
Here is a neat illustration from a research study mapping the haustorial nature of sandalwood in Bhutan, drawing nutrition from its favorite host species, Chromolaena odorata.
It is no easy task to discover the preferred host species which will ensure that the sandalwood orchard discovers its fullest potential in its ecological niche.
The choices are plenty, even among the few agritech startups I’ve “critically” analyzed in this newsletter. Obviously, this barely scratches the surface of agritech players who are doing interesting experiments in this space.
In this newsletter, I’ve always made sure that I choose depth over breadth. This means that those with whom I’ve built haustorial connections for Agribusiness Matters are those who are challenging the status quo with their contrarian thesis.
Earlier in the month of December, I addressed a vibrant group of enterprising farmers and agritech founders for a 120 min long masterclass that was organized by Pusa Krishi, ICAR- IARI, on a topic that I suggested based on the theme of the masterclass.
“How to Become a Great Agritech Founder in the Era of Studio Agriculture”.
Who am I to “lecture” agritech founders on becoming great foumders?
These days when people ask me what I do in agritech, I tell them that I am like a film critic in agritech and agriculture.
Much like film critics who critique films, while moonlighting as script consultants with film directors, I review agritech startups in this newsletter, while working closely with a few "outlier" founders, offering “co-founder-as-a-service”, helping them address strategy, tech, fundraising, go-to-market problems.
In the past, I have taught storytelling in colleges and film schools. For the longest period of my life, I have been a student of films and film criticism, thanks to being an active member of the blogging community of Baradwaj Rangan, India’s finest film critic. I have been lucky to have interviewed him twice on films and film criticism philosophy and "writing on music"
If you think about it, the parallels run deep.
You can love or hate a film critic for being "harsh" towards a particular movie.
I have lost a few friends in agritech ecosystem because I was “harsh” towards a few agritech startups in my newsletter.
A film critic is focused on the macro picture, the art form over a particular movie.
An agritech film critic is interested in finding out: In what way is this startup addressing/not addressing /adding intractable problems in Indian agriculture and other countries with large smallholding farmer populations?
No matter how unique a film is in the eyes of a film director, in the eyes of a critic, every film exists in a continuum.
If you are critiquing a ghost film, you have to talk about the evolution of jump "scare" shots and how each director has deployed jump scare shots effectively.
If you are critiquing "Buy Now Pay Later" models, you have to start all the way from the evolution of credit, which is evolving from direct credit towards indirect credit models.
Why do critics "critique" when they could very well "do"?
If you are a movie buff, you might have heard about the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the fifties.
Here is a quick primer. A bunch of film critics and movie lovers realize that they are hungry for better cinema after World War II. One such critic was Francois Truffaut. He trashed bad movies so bad that he was called "Gravedigger of French Cinema" Few years down the line, he decided to make movies, and boy! what fabulous movies he made!
I feel we are in the midst of the "Nouvelle Vague Movement" in the world of agritech, with the “old guard” trying darnedest to acquire new tech skills to play the new game along with new entrants, who understand technology, but trying to grope this elephant called agriculture.
In the wake of the pandemic, there have been significant changes to underlying default game rules in agribusiness.
Pandemic made digital extension services a necessity, thereby giving a small sliver of opportunity window for agritech marketplace aggregators to bridge the huge relationship chasm they had in terms of their relationship with channel and farmers.
We are right now in an era of Studio Agriculture.
Over the last two years, having closely observed a few “outlier” agritech founders in my line of work, I want to share a few meditations that could help agritech founders discover their highest potential.
Treat each of these meditations as pointers for you to do self-reflection on how you fared in 2021 and how you want to do differently in 2022.
Remember to pause between each meditation. Write your own self-reflection. You are welcome to share them with me. Or you can keep them private. Up to you.
Shall we get started?