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.

Why business in development projects choke on scaling

A scalable business idea has to run through and pass a continuous testing trial, before it actually becomes scalable. Once an idea gains traction in the market, there is an argument for it’s growth potential. What consequently enables ideas to scale in practice is generally finding an investor who can amplify the idea. Investors that don’t buy the traction idea of achieving scale will refuse to fund. On the other hand, those that will contribute funding are the same people which will help it scale; funders are part of the scaling solution. A very powerful business development mechanism.

Finding your (right) funder is a very complex process in business. Brendan Baker‘s ( analysis on seed funding (below), shows that finding a funder is “messy” non-lineair process involving a wide array of actors: brokers, various types of investors, and even network cataracts where a potential investor will refuse to invest, but proves to be able to provide useful referrals for further attempts. If the idea survives this trajectory and adapts if necessary, if it can convince the various investors that it is indeed a valid investment to make, then there is a good chance the idea will scale. If it doesn’t then the idea will never really see the light of day. A clear enough selection mechanism for achieving scale.

There’s a lot of talk on achieving the need for scale in business in development interventions too. The basic concept here is to support a business or preferably a market system into economic viability with public funding, and then retract at “the right moment” to let autonomous market forces take over. This concept is driven by the enticing experiment of mimicking the powerful market dynamic of scaling.

But, there is a lack of introspect into using the ways that markets achieve scale in the business in development approaches. Case in point is simply the lack of scaling results of implemented ideas. Scaling is not happening!

An important source of the problem is that the design of business in development ideas is too much under control of the development worker, or a group of development policy deciders.  Ideas are linearly defined: the donor thinks of a concept and then implements it according to those policy lines. The selection process of project ideas is completed before implementation, and the idea is instantaneously granted life based on paper. Donors’ own in-house developed policy criteria for granting funds to an idea thus count more than actual market traction for the idea. It is thus the donor that wishes to convince the grantee, rather than the grantee wishing to convince the donor.

Most business in development ideas thus don’t go through the body of constructive market critique, that commercial ideas have to undergo, as in the line-‘n-bubble figure above. The upshot is that the difference between good ideas and bad ones is only determined at the end of the project cycle (if they are subjected to a proper impact evaluation that is), when all resources have been spent. This is a very long feed back loop for selecting ideas, which takes meek ideas too far for too long, and it frustrates learning processes.

Now, in order to make more effective use of the market-based scaling mechanism, there are two general points to trial in generating scalable business in development ideas. Firstly, donors should find a way to integrate the social interaction found in allocation of commercial capital in their idea formation process to let the strongest ideas emerge (whether it’s their own, or the idea has come to them). Don’t go for the full-appropriation approach to funding ideas. Rather, refer to other members of the donor community or commercial parties to review and fund parts of the idea you are less experienced with or less focussed on. Use the community to shape the strongest ideas.

Secondly, donors need to recognize that the diversity in types of business operating in a sector matters. Steve Blank recently provided a seminal post on this. Some types of business are just not meant to scale, whilst other types are built for it. Select the ones that do!

So the points to take home are to scrutinize the ideas you fund, and understand the nature of the beast you are going to feed. That’s the only way of obtaining as much assurance as feasibly possible that utilizing capital contribution will fire the mechanisms that expand business.