The New Agribusiness Matters

Leveling up to a subscription newsletter

Today, I’m turning on paid subscriptions for this newsletter and gearing up Agribusiness Matters for the infinite game. For tackling ambitious questions that require significant time, energy and research to produce. For tackling thorny questions for which there are no easy answers other than to simply test the hypothesis in real life. Subscriptions will be priced at ₹ 399 INR/month (~5 USD) or ₹ 3999 INR/year (~54 USD). You can subscribe via the link at the bottom of this email.

Going forward, the newsletter will feature a mix of free and paid content. It will continue to feature my analysis of agtech startups across the globe which are aspiring to change the rules of the game in digital agriculture. I plan to put together a two-minute executive summary version of my analysis for those outside the paywall.

Annual subscribers would get exclusive invites to join me in my monthly virtual hangouts with some of the fascinating people I meet at work, doing interesting work far away from spotlight. Since I tend to create visual concepts to explain knotty issues that cut across Strategy, Technology and Economics in agriculture, I am also putting together an online visual repository of concepts used in this newsletter with free-to-use-and-modify access for annual subscribers.

If you are an agtech founder, or if you work on thorny policy issues related to agriculture, or if you are a VC in the domain of agritech, or if you simply want to explain a tricky issue to those techies who are naive enough to think that agriculture is an optimization problem, feel free to use those visual concepts to tell your powerful stories on agribusiness matters.

Before I venture to tell the rest of the story behind this decision, details on what to expect, and to subscribe, if you choose to, allow me to grieve the death of my favourite philosopher James Carse.

(James Carse. image credit: Simon and Schuster)

The philosopher and theologian James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Gamessadly passed away on September 29. 

For gig workers like me who stand above the API, James Carse’s work is some kind of spiritual source code that I often pick up whenever I want to meditate on the games that I play at work and the metagames that I play in my life through such games.

You see, in the game of life, there are at least two kinds of games.

There is Finite Game. Finite Games are defined by known players, fixed rules and the objective of the game is already agreed upon: You play the game to win.

And then there is Infinite Game. Infinite game is defined by known and unknown players; Rules are changeable, and the objective is to keep the game in play. To perpetuate the game.

Let me give you a simple example to understand the difference between these two kinds of games.

Going to the gym is a classic case of a finite game. Your goals determine your behaviours. Doing Yoga, when done right as defined in its source code of Patanjali Yogasutras, on the other hand, is a classic case of an infinite game. Your behaviours determine your goals.

Of course, finite/infinite aspect has more to do with the attitude of the player than the structure of the game. In principle, you can approach a gym with an infinite mindset and you can approach yoga with a finite exercise mindset. It’s just harder.

Agriculture, by its very nature, is an infinite game. Perhaps that’s why it is the toughest nut to crack, the last brave domain that has so far withstood the onslaught of digitalization sweeping across the globe.

If there is one big lesson I've learned and earned from working in agriculture, it has to be this: Humility about the role of technology is a wonderful thermostatic trait to possess, especially when you are living in an age of exponential technologies.

Agriculture teaches you to be humble about the role of technology, not just because it's the toughest nut out there to crack. It teaches you to be humble because, if you are willing, it opens up glimmering awareness about deeper, subtler, illegible planes of technologies of which your current set of atoms and bits have no freakin clue about.

Let’s get this straight. Agriculture is infinite enough to hold both finite and infinite game.

You could play the game at various levels, depending on your definition of agriculture, and it would still work, as per the game play constraints you have imposed.

If you desertify the topsoil by overloading it with fertilizers, you are still going to get a decent enough produce that could easily pass through the funnel of markets. Or if you are smart enough to realize the perils of ploughing the soil, and practice no-till agriculture, your input costs will reduce drastically and you could get, well, how do I put it, a different kind of produce.

The strangest irony that hits you like a ton of bricks, when you think along these lines, especially in an Indian context, is the fact that because it is an infinite game, agriculture is inherently profitable.

I know this must be sounding like a rude joke.

In no other business would you find inputs and capital required for your business conveniently doubling and tripling for you to grow more and unlock mechanisms of increasing returns.

I want you to pay attention to the last sentence. I said ‘grow more’, not ‘earn more’. While there have been smarter farmers who cracked the code deep enough to ensure that ‘grow more’ translates into ‘earn more’, vast majority of farmers are stuck in the dead lock of poverty because they have been conditioned to grow more at the cost of earning less.

So what is my infinite game play in agriculture? Allow me to recap the story so far.

The Story So Far

If you carefully look beyond your biases and really observe what's happening on the ground, two visions about the future of agriculture have been quietly playing out, competing with each other.

Vision #1: Small land holding farmers don't matter in the long run, as their farms will be eventually consolidated by the market economics of digital agribusiness.

Vision #2: Small land holding farmers matter in the long run,as their sovereignty to pursue their economic well being and adapt with the changing times as they see fit is non-negotiable.

I say quietly because this has been more implicit than explicit. Although, there have been few instances when this has been made explicit by economists and agritech professionals.

Vast majority of agritech professionals are able to relate more with Vision #1 than Vision#2 because it neatly fits the current mould, the current techno-economic paradigm that is rapidly screwing up the biosystem that we are a part of. Vision #1 also conveniently ties in with the Arthur Lewis development economics school of thought which relegates farming as a residue sector that is yet to catch up with the plank of development.

Why bother grappling with Vision#2 and its complex challenge to make digital agriculture sustainable and viable for small landholding farmers when vision #1 makes intuitive sense for the agritechnologist who is happy building scale-driven exponential technologies?

Btw, I want to be very clear about the word sovereignty that I am using in Vision #2. The word carries a lot of unnecessary political baggage. One of my favourite writers, Jordan Greenhall reclaimed the word in a beautiful essay sometime back, and I think it neatly captures how I see it.

In Greenhall’s words,

Sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.

Today, vast majority of small landholding farmers have no inkling of sovereignty as they have resigned themselves to play the finite game of agriculture. They have signed up for such a bad deal that they feel good even when they are simply surviving. They have surrendered their agency.

Although many agritech professionals I know have invested in Vision#1 and have been more or less vocal about picking their sides, being an independent agritech consultant, I have the freedom to work towards both vision #1 and vision #2.

My infinite gameplay in agriculture is to work on both vision #1 and vision #2. And that’s not a contradiction, if you learn to see the infinite game of agriculture.

If you think deeper about these two visions, you would realize that while vision #1 respects scaling laws, Vision #2 is scale-invariant. What this implies in plain simple English is that while it is important to work on Vision #2 for the betterment of smallholder farmers, it is equally important to work on Vision #1, if you care about transforming the underlying socio-technological infrastructure underpinning the digital transformation of agriculture.

In other words, Vision #1 and Vision #2 share a yin-yang relationship. You need to work on the former, if you care about the structure of transformation. You need to work on the latter, if you care about the process of transformation.

What to Expect

I discovered my writing niche in agritech when I realized those who understand technology don’t seem to understand agriculture deeply, and those who understand agriculture don’t seem to understand technology deeply.

In a domain in which almost every other player, big or small, feels compelled to invoke purpose-driven narrative of 1) How we need to feed the world that will exceed ~10 billion by 2050... 2) How we need to save the lives of poor farmers, it can be disorienting to distinguish signal from the noise, and understand the real underlying historical, economic and competitive forces that are shaping the digitisation of agriculture.

Given that I work as an independent agritech consultant, I have the rare luxury of being honest with my opinion and call a spade when I see it. Although I currently work with few startups and agri-input firms both in India and outside, I have taken great pains to build a strong firewall that can never be breached inside my sacred blog space. In a world of infinite distraction, I consider your attention a privilege and I will ensure that I work harder to earn it.

I will be maintaining a tempo of one issue a week. Depending on how much subscription income is coming in, I might increase the tempo to 2/week to feature ongoing commentary on new agritech startups coming to fore. The more subscription revenue I make from this list, the more time I’ll be able to take off from consulting work to focus on writing. I do intend to continue with consulting though, since a lot of the source material for my thinking and writing comes from that work.

If I end up with surplus, I might be able to afford a research assistant to do some data-crunching for few data-stories that I plan to include in my content mix.

Why Now

Agriculture is in the nick of transformation. In the wake of the pandemic, there have been significant changes to underlying default game rules in agribusiness. And in this rapidly evolving game, you can’t be at the top of your game unless you are simultaneously playing the game and observing the changes happening in the landscape.

Being a commentator on agriculture and a consultant to agritech startups gives me that rare privilege. It reminds me of those early days of Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) french art film movement in the 1950s, when critics who trashed mainstream french cinema for their unimaginative work of art began to make fascinating movies simply to prove their skin in the game.

When I quit my earlier consulting life by the end of 2017, trading my deck in a desk consulting life to embrace dust and dirt of agritech life, I had no choice but to get my hands dirty, literally and metaphorically, to test my skin in the game.

In 2019, when I decided to quit my full-time job as a product manager in an agritech startup and become a free agent, I figured that if I was serious about the work that needs to be done in agriculture, I had to go beyond the comfort of dreaming that technology can solve fundamental problems in agriculture.

Today, I am ready to embark on the next step in making sense of agriculture in the nick of transformation in a permaweird world that is rapidly changing before our eyes.

If you’d like to join me on this sense-making journey, consider switching your subscription to paid using the link below. If you’re interested in group or corporate subscription rates, get in touch and we’ll work something out.