Why Agribusiness is Wicked

Time to rethink how we make sense of a domain like Agribusiness | Upcoming Agritech Samvaad (Dialogue) Event on Data & Privacy with Sumer (Agstack) and Mathavan (Yara)

"If you want truly to understand something, try to change it." — Kurt Lewin


A warm welcome to the new members from various parts of the world who have joined the Agribusiness Matters Community after last week’s announcement. The free edition goes out to 27064 subscribers in Substack and LinkedIn, up by 244 last week.

Orientation: My name is Venky, I write Agribusiness Matters to find a way out of the central conundrum that characterizes Agriculture today in the nick of technological transformation: Sustainable Agriculture isn’t profitable. And Profitable Agriculture isn’t sustainable. Feel free to dig around the archives, if you want to get a flavor of my previous agribusiness writings.

In this edition:

Why Agribusiness is Wicked

01/ If you have been reading this newsletter, you must know that I haven’t formally studied agriculture and agribusiness. I never went to any agricultural college. My parents aren’t farmers either.

02/ My maternal great-grandfather though was a wonderful agriculturist (in my biased view) who collaborated with G.A.Natesan to publish “Farming Guide” in his mother tongue Tamizh in the year 1908, based on his farming advice articles in the popular nationalist tamizh language newspaper “Swadesamitran” that was founded in 1882.

03/ In 2014, I could retrieve a reprographic print from the last available copy that sits currently in London Museum. My moonshot target is to become competent enough in this domain to translate my great-grandfather’s book from Tamizh to English in a 21st-century context.

04/ How do I plan to do that? Well, whatever little I have been learning about agribusiness and agriculture since 2011 has come from watching and experimenting continuously on the ground while putting together a bloggable thesis based on my observations and experiment results. In my stunted imagination, the process looks something like this.

05/ Some theses stand the test of time (We are speaking over a shorter time scale of 2-3 years). Some theses blow up over my face. When this happens, I wipe my face, figure out what I got wrong, and continue with my observations and experiments.

06/ Talking of learning agriculture, the other day I posted this on Twitter.

06/ Of these bonus courses, Complexity Theory stands out. For it helps me make sense of the wicked nature of Agriculture. If you’ve been reading my blogs, you would have heard me say this before. What do I mean by that? What makes agriculture wicked?

07/ Wicked problem is a delightful term that is often used in complex systems thinking. It points towards making sense of situations that are so complex and full of messy internal contradictions that it resists most efforts at resolution. Heck, things get so messed up that you can’t even isolate “problem” from “solution”.

08/ When design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber formally introduced the term "wicked problem" in 1973, they listed 10 important characteristics.

  • They do not have a definitive formulation.

  • They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.

  • Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.

  • There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.

  • They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”

  • There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.

  • All wicked problems are essentially unique.

  • Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.

  • The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.

  • Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

09/ If you have been a regular reader of this newsletter, you would be nodding your head vigorously by now. Under the pretext of talking about agribusiness, I have obtusely covered most of these wicked problem characteristics in various forms and shapes over the last year.

10/ Let’s briefly revisit each of these characteristics in an agricultural context.

- They do not have a definitive formulation.

11/ Is it possible to have a definitive formulation of agriculture?

Let’s take the particular case of hydroponics. Would you call it “Agriculture”? Can agriculture be remodeled as a system of synthetic and controlled dosing of nutrients while avoiding fat tail risks? Perhaps, if you are a hydroponics entrepreneur, you will defend hydroponics as a special type of agriculture that solves a particular problem for its producer and consumer. Fair enough, and I have no qualms with it.

But, if you step outside that frame, and ask from the standpoint of the Indian ground realities context, would you call it agriculture? I don’t know. The more important question here is this.

Is it possible to devise a universal set of criteria that will help anyone say, “Yes, A, B, C, criteria are fulfilled. Thus, I shall call X Agriculture.

In case you think that this is a one-off case that deserves attention only from academics obsessed with definitions, let’s come closer home to the world of business. If you are an agritech entrepreneur running an agribusiness in India, you would perhaps nod your head sidewards (as we Indians like to do) to two important questions.

  • Are you a capitalist?

  • Does your business follow free-market economics?

But think about the domain you are involved in. Agriculture. It is one of the oldest businesses out there. But, still, Does Agriculture fit the classic definition of a business to follow the rules of free-market economics?

Special thanks to Jai Kumar for invigorating conversations on this particular question. 

Let’s reverse this question. What are the ground rules for any business to follow free-market economics?

In my Economics 101 Class, I learned that for free markets to work, you need a) Private Property b) Prices as Reliable Information Systems c) Lure of Profit, and Discipline of Loss.

As I have written earlier, none of these conditions apply in the Indian context. In such a case, what business of agriculture are we really talking about?

11/ Let’s now revisit the second characteristic of a wicked problem.

- They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.

Take the game of Chess or any mathematical problem. You know the criteria that tell you when the problem is solved. What do you do when you are dealing with a wicked problem?

Allow me to come back to my pet peeve about badmouthing middlemen in Indian agriculture. Indian Agritech scene started off seriously around 2015-16 in states which had more liberal policy regime (read as less interference from middlemen).

And one powerful tool that helped the Agritech scene move forward in India (and perhaps even across other “developing” countries in South East Asia and Latin America with a large population of smallholder farmers) is their fervent narrative of evangelism: Farmers have been exploited by Middlemen for ages. Trust Agritech to transform the lives of farmers.

Perhaps, this unfair characterization is fair, considering the fact that the history of business is littered with stories of new entrants disparaging and downplaying the contributions of older incumbents.

I mean, we still think that those who designed the Taxi Medallion model were a bunch of idiots until Uber came along and invented the future right?  

But, there is a problem here. If the agritech ecosystem wants us to see middlemen as evil, the least they can do is not behave like middlemen, right?

Let’s take an awkward question that often puts agtech entrepreneurs in a spot. What difference is there really between a middleman and an agritech marketplace?

When I wrote, Will The Real Agritech Startup Please Stand Up, bemoaning a lack of clarity of a clear definition of what agritech is, I wrote,

If you consider the ambition that most agritech startups have to be a new kind of technology-driven middleman between consumers and farmers, it makes sense why playbooks would drive an umbrella-term narrative, in the earnest hope that agritech startups would one day grow up to replace the multifaceted services middle-men offer currently to farmers - credit, storage, transportation, quality assessment, and counter-party risk reduction- and more importantly, own the critical principal risk involved in an occupation like farming.

Today, when I look at full-stack farming service platforms which are offering a bouquet of services, I am tempted to ask this question: Even middlemen give interlocked credit, combining credit with a whole range of services across the upstream and downstream value chain. What makes your business model different from theirs?

If agritech startups are simply replicating the business model of a middle man in a more or less formalized digital infrastructure, in what way are they “solving” this “agrarian crisis” problem?

12/ Let’s revisit the third characteristic.

- Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.

Is cold storage a good solution or a bad solution? Well, the answer depends on which crop you are talking about. Does it make sense to apply the cart of “cold storage” to the horse of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes? You could argue either for it or against it, depending on where your money and bet are placed on.

As I wrote earlier in an article for subscribers, when you are designing supply chain solutions that marry warehousing and digital platforms, you have to pay attention to the equity vs equality problem at hand.

13/ Let’s revisit the fourth and fifth characteristics.

There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.

They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”

If you’ve been following so far, this point would be obvious. Every solution we build in the market comes with its painful tradeoffs and has irreversible consequences. A vertically integrated market linkage model that is being set up by the likes of Ninjacart has irreversible consequences in changing the market dynamics and trade behaviors.

The most fascinating story that I came across which illustrates these characteristics comes from the world of ecology. It is the story of A mellifera which was introduced in India for apiculture.

As the author writes in an excellent article written way back in 1998, “Introduction is Forever” (Pay attention to the title).

The implications of these findings for India are obvious. Let us be aware that introduction of A mellifera in India for apiculture is very likely to cause irreversible establishment of permanent wild populations of European bees, with unpredictable consequences for our native honey bee fauna.

14/ We are running short of time and patience. Let me revisit the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth characteristics together, for they are related.

-There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.

-All wicked problems are essentially unique.

-Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.

-The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.

If you’ve been reading my newsletter, you would realize that one fundamental reason why I approach agriculture from first principles and primitives is that in a domain like agriculture, when you start focusing on the basics, you would realize that there are innumerable ways to solve a particular problem, and how you define the problem defines your trajectory of solution.

And these problems are often times, symptoms of other problems outside the domain of agriculture.

Why do we see Indian Agritech unable to achieve its full potential due to poor infrastructure amidst fantastic technological progress? As this excellent research report attests, the answer goes back to the resource crunch that Indian states are grappling with, unable to spend enough on agriculture and irrigation, a low priority in states’ expenditure policy.

Now, why are Indian states facing a resource crunch? Almost every state in India is confronted with a fiscal crisis. Why are we facing a fiscal crisis? There is a fundamental asymmetry in the fiscal relations between the Center and the state.

15/ The previous point is essential to grapple with a peculiar phenomenon that is hard to swallow by most technologists who are working in agritech. I tweeted this the other day.

16/ Let’s now get to the last characteristic that defines a wicked problem

- Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

This point is extremely critical because every problem we define and every solution we bring to the agritech table for farmers has life-changing (good or bad) repercussions for farmers.

This is a matter of great responsibility, something which doesn’t become apparent, especially if you are spending more time coding rather than spending time with farmers.

My ongoing exploration of agriculture from a complexity lens will continue. This is important, because if we are to deal with Climate Change, yet another wicked problem, along with agriculture, we have no choice but to embark on an uncomfortable journey.

As I explained in my earlier newsletter announcement, I am setting my sails for this journey, howsoever it may turn out to be. I hope some of you join in this collective sensemaking journey.

We need to talk about open source, privacy, open data, and ontology in agriculture. Technical they may seem, these are important problems that affect the future of how farmer gets to share his or her data and what are the underlying infrastructure that can orchestrate this.

To discuss these problems, we have two experts in the panel.

Mathavan Arugalaimuthu, who heads Open Data Exchange at Yara International

Sumer S. Johal who is the Executive Director at Agstack, a project of The Linux Foundation aimed at creating a FREE, shared, community-created/maintained, trusted, and open digital infrastructure for food and agriculture stakeholders globally.

To RSVP for this chat, click here. I hope to see some of you there!

That’s all for today,

Cheers

Venky