The overlooked ecosystem problem for technology innovation in agriculture

Agriculture is lifting off in the world of start-ups. Google’s Eric Schmidt recently announced an accelerator dedicated to backing startups in the domain. This is an encouraging development that could bring agriculture to the forefront of the digital tech ecosystem, and might even give it a top position in the field of tech innovation.

But despite the opportunity of commercial venture capital directing itself to agriculture, there is a major overlooked problem that tech development in ag faces, and that is the condition of its ecosystem around entrepreneurship and startups.

The agricultural sector suffers from a backlog in terms of informed entrepreneurship skills. Generally speaking, agricultural engineers, who either design solutions for farmers, or are farmers themselves, know very little about entrepreneurship. They build things animals and plants like, but not necessarily their human users. Agriculture knows tons about engineering, but little about the innovation that is required to successfully support new technology adoption in the farmers’ market.

Leadership is the second ecosystem problem in agriculture. In a dynamic landscape, like that of agriculture at the moment, it’s important that there are leaders out there that can define an end to which the game will likely play out. From defining such an end, you can then work backwards, and make the hard decision about what activities and initiatives you should be undertaking now, to move in a trajectory towards that end, even if this goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. (I strongly encourage you to read John Hagel’s recent two posts on the future shape of strategy)

However, many of agriculture’s leaders don’t give much for landscape thinking and futurism. They prefer to work with linear progression, departing from the handful of business models that have ruled agriculture for the past 50 years, for their predictions of the future. This is not such a fruitful perspective for a market environment in which technology tends to blur, rather than affirm classic industry boundaries.

The ecosystem challenges are not only of the broad landscape definition kind. They also lie in the specificities of tech design for farmers. Particularly the basic technology user experience for farmers has not been understood thus far. For instance, a startup called Farmobile is betting on its own hardware module to function as a data bridge between reading out data from tractor and machine sensors, and mass storage on the cloud. Farmobile explicitly states that they don’t work with mobile phones and tablets, because they break, get lost, have batteries that drain too quickly, and are cumbersome to use in pairing for farmers and their farms hands.

Convention would dictate that the mobile platform be used. Such a choice for explicit distantiation as Farmobile has taken from mobile would generally be considered as Silicon sacrilege. But I am convinced Farmobile knows their users better than convention dictates, and is making the right bet on UX. A bold decision which nobody, or no precursor could support them to make as of yet.

The bottom line is that there is no ecosystem yet of founding teams with experience and mentors and investors alike, who understand what lies ahead for agriculture and the practical challenges to overcome. That ecosystem is yet to be built. I predict, nay warn, that if “ecosystem” remains optimistically overlooked in the new investment strategies that are popping up for agriculture, that the lack of entrepreneurship, leadership, and design is going to be one of the big, hard walls that tech development in agriculture will hit.

Mosquitoes, Snakes, and Sector Specific Startup Accelerators

A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.
Albert Einstein

Last week I was fortunate to visit Leancamp (a masterful gathering of people exchanging on startup methodology and experience). I was curious to learn for myself whether there would be any advantage or added value that sector specific knowledge could have in supporting startup development. Generic accelerator programs seem to be more prevalent in the startup ecosystem, but could it just be that there is a niche for sector specific focus?

In the series of scheduled Leancamp events, I attended an excellent session by @tor on the idea generation process. Tor’s discussion was on using discovery and ideation in the startup development process. His open-ended question was whether it would be better to use many ideas to come to a notion of killer game changing ideas, or whether singular ideas would work better, focusing efforts on making one, or a few things work.

Though there was of course no real answer to this question, the session did succeed in its’ outset to prompt my thinking on sector specific acceleration. I serendipitously linked back to a story told to me by my former Zameen Organic co-founder, Gijs, in India about the problem he had with snakes. Through this link I was able to better frame the advantages, which sector specific accelerators could bring to shaping and selecting ideas for customer problem solving.

It’s a snake eat frog world out there
The story Gijs told me a few months ago was about a problem he was having with snakes entering his home in India’s rural Auroville, located near Pondicherry. The snakes we’re talking about here are not just benign pests: we’re talking about one of the most venomous creatures that crawl this earth, the common krait (click on pic below). Nothing you really need to have hanging out with your kids.

Initially Gijs believed that the snakes were looking for refuge at his home from the scorching (> 45 degrees Celsius) heat of the sun. But he soon found his hypothesis debunked when he observed that snakes, amongst which the krait, mostly entered during the evening and at night time (always check what’s under your sheets before nesting in for the night!!)

Correlated with the observation that the snakes moved in a lot at night, was another the observation that there were also frogs hopping around the house. This brought up a second hypothesis: are the snakes coming in for the frogs? Indeed they were. In fact, kraits love feeding on frogs.

The question was now: what are these frogs doing here? The answer to that had the same structure as the previous question: the frogs hopped inside to get a bite to eat. They were enjoying the mass of mosquitoes that was humming around in house, and had been bothering Gijs and the family for quite some while. So at this point Gijs had some notion of a problem hypothesis, and also a starting point where to go from to finding a solution: the mosquitoes. If you take away the reason why frogs are in the house, then you probably take away the motive for snakes to visit.

So any guesses as to what Gijs did about the source of mosquitoes? The quick fix solution would be to grab for the spray can. But Gijs being an eco-minded agronomist, and an avid systems thinker, didn’t see the appeal to this fix, nor the long-term resolve it would bring. Rather, Gijs aimed for the source. He found the source in the pond next door, which was squirming with larvae but contained no fish. So, as an experiment, Gijs set out fish in the pond, hoping they would feast on the larvae, and reduce the incidence of mosquitoes. The fish did indeed solve the mosquito problem, and the predicted chain of causality set in, drastically reducing the incidence of frogs and snakes in the house.

And the specific point being…
Last week‘s Leancamp session was excellent. I advise any aspiring and seasoned entrepreneur to attend and share knowledge at future events. I remain in amazement of the power that the methods of leanstartup and customer development bring to help markets smartly solve part of the world’s major problems. Although these tools help you to frame any real world problem and devise related solutions, they could definitely be supported with knowledge from people who know both the methodology, as well as hold experience in certain corners where the problems are occurring. In my case this would be agriculture’s corner. I would say there could be two advantages:

1) Sink your teeth in the right problem.
The first point is that understanding the part in the order of the system you work with is highly beneficial. If you don’t, you would probably have started off with developing snake traps (snakes being the most terrifying facet of the problem), and move further down that line if that didn’t work. This could probably take you to the real solution at some point, but it would have taken you much longer to get there. We all know the pressure startups need to work under to build things faster than their peers to compete. So sector specific knowledge could help you to build faster through better targeting.

2) Don’t give up too easily on your solution.
The second point is that specific knowledge could help affirm your direction in tinkering with your prototype solutions. Gijs had a great one shot hit through introducing the fish, but this could also have just as likely been a wrong hypothesis. If the fish wouldn’t have worked then, Gijs, with his background, would have started working on another solution for the mosquitoes, concluding that the fish was the wrong hypothesis, but at the right level. However, if he didn’t have the systems understanding, he could also be tempted to conclude (falsely) that the more simple solution would be to start at a different level of the problem chain; on something that ousts-the-frogs-to-oust-the-snakes. So in other words you could say that sector specific knowledge could help to improve the direction of your pivot, should you ever need to perform one.

Now these are just hypotheses, but I’ll work diligently over the coming time to validate them by helping agri-startups to focus their aim.