The practice of agriculture in Sri Lanka is still very much done the traditional way. However, in a time where food security and sustainability is a concern, these traditional methods may not cut it, particularly because of their high resource intensity and low yield. Higher yields at a lower cost enable farmers to actually make a living, and can free them from the vicious cycle of poverty that plagues many farmers in the country today. We caught up with three budding entrepreneurs from the North who are on a mission to help farmers leverage technology to do more with less.
Tall and beaming, Miller Alexander Rajendran meets us outside the John Keells X workspace and ushers us in for a chat. Miller, a graduate of the Jaffna University, and two other friends from Jaffna, John and Jeyjenthen, who themselves graduated from the University of Moratuwa, are the brains behind the startup that is today known as SenzAgro. The company designs and manufactures sensors and related components catering to an emerging segment of agriculture known as ‘precision agriculture’. An umbrella term used to define an entirely new way of high-tech, data informed farming, precision agriculture is believed to be of utmost importance for a world that will have to feed a whopping 9 billion people by 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), this large global population is expected to increase the current demand for food by 60%. Given the sizeable challenge ahead, it is not surprising that precision agriculture is expected to become a USD 4.8 billion industry by 2020.
Miller is the Chief Executive Officer of SenzAgro, a Sri Lankan startup aiming to make it big in the precision agriculture space, and we sat down with him to talk about the startup’s journey.
Q: So, what is SenzAgro?
In short, we are a digital agriculture and irrigation automation company. Our mission is to enable farmers and commercial agriculture firms to make data-informed plantation management decisions, so that they can achieve higher yields using the right amount of resources, thus avoiding wastage.
Q: How did you guys start?
It all started while we were undergraduates. My co-founders and I come from farming families, and back then, Jaffna only used to receive electricity at night. That meant farmers had to turn on their irrigation systems at night, which involved a dangerous trek to the field in the dark. John and Jeyjenthen developed an SMS-based application to remotely switch on the irrigation systems. It was all about solving an actual problem we faced, not about getting rich quickly or something like that. We didn’t know anything back then – not even what precision agriculture was.
They took it to Yarl IT Hub and managed to secure a small investment. This was in the latter half of 2014. At the time, I had already started a company of my own, whose product was a Natural Language Processing (NLP) based content management platform. Since we knew each other, they came to me as a client to do some marketing. One thing led to another, and I ended up joining their team.
Soon after, we all came to Colombo and got into ICTA’s Spiralation programme. We gave SenzAgro a lower priority and focused on bringing to the market a cold chain monitoring solution, which turned out to be a resounding success. The revenue stream from the cold chain monitoring product helped us continue work on SenzAgro.
Q: Was there any particular incident that spurred you on to persevere with SenzAgro? After all, it’s not easy to continue working on an idea for so long (3+ years) without losing any enthusiasm.
In early 2017, we got a chance to travel to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where we were given a chance to present a concept. We decided to pitch SenzAgro, and it generated a lot of enthusiasm. Up until that point, I don’t think any of the attendees realised that a bunch of Sri Lankans were capable of harnessing technology in such a way. Quite soon, giants in the agri-tech industry started approaching us to figure out how they can integrate our technology into their platforms.
You see, there is a lot of interest in bringing precision agriculture to South Asia and Africa. As the world population grows, feeding the world is going to be a major concern, and these two regions are expected to be the food bowls of the world, particularly because of the vast tracts of land available, and perfect climatic and soil conditions.
Once giants in the field started approaching us, we knew we had a winner on our hands. We doubled down on developing our architecture and hardware. We also decided to change SenzAgro’s business model to a B2B model, instead of the B2C model which we initially had in mind. We also managed to get into the John Keells X programme, which was quite helpful.
Q: What was it like to convince farmers to try out your technology?
To be honest, it was quite hard. Largely because there is a generational factor at play. Most farmers are from a much older generation, so they are not very familiar with technology. At the same time, younger generations are leaving the profession, so there’s nobody around to raise technological awareness. Take the case of drip irrigation, for example, which has been available for nearly 60 years now. Not many Sri Lankan farmers use it. So naturally, when we tried to sell our product to them, it didn’t work. Which is why we decided to pivot to a B2B model, which is proving to be successful.
We now have two primary sales channels, agribusinesses and farmer communities. The agribusinesses we’ve partnered with bundle our sensors and sell them along with their own products. On the other hand, farmer communities help us further develop our product, since we can gather more data which can be used to make our platform smarter.
The way we see it, Sri Lanka is very much a testing ground for us. So, we want to try and fine-tune our product here as much as possible. As far as our technology is concerned, it is our software that holds more promise compared to the hardware. All the data we gather is going to help us create a much more intelligent platform that can help automate a large portion of farming, especially the nitty gritties, such a soil quality, evaporation rate, and so on.
Q: Do the farmers see results from using the system?
Of course they do. Our first test project was a UNDP-funded bell pepper farm in Mavattapuram, Jaffna. By deploying our technology and automation solutions, the farmer was able to increase his yield by 20%, and reduce the farm’s water consumption by 40%. So, it looks promising.
Today, we have signed up more test farms in Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, and Boralanda. We are hoping to increase this number in the coming year.
We are also excited about a big project spearheaded by the IRDG, which is currently in the works. We will be providing the monitoring technology.
Q: Having chosen the risky route of entrepreneurship, how did you manage to deal with the pressure that comes from family and society to pursue something ‘safe’?
This being Sri Lanka, we still have to deal with things like that. But all three of us were able to manage it through hard work. I, for instance, started working part-time as a second-year student in university. My co-founders also worked other jobs on the side to earn some extra money. One needs to understand that your parents or family urge you to do something safe because they worry about your survival, and not because they don’t like to see you achieve great things in life. So, since we were able to take care of that financial aspect, we fortunately had no issues.
But it’s definitely a new thing, not something our families are used to. Even today, my parents can’t explain what we do here at SenzAgro. But you’ve got to be okay with that.
In my opinion, being steadfast in what you want to do also helps. I’ve always had my heart set on entrepreneurship. I have never attended a single job interview in my entire life so far. It helps to have people whom you can look up to. Personally, I was inspired by Mr. Mano Sekaram, who once visited our university. Credit is also due to Mr. Sayanthan who is a director of the Yarl IT Hub, and Mr. Sarveswaran, who mentored and guided me throughout.
Back home in Jaffna, the three of us came across quite a few people – teenagers rather – who look up to us for inspiration, and that’s quite humbling. Some are venturing into entrepreneurship even before entering university, which is great.
Q: And finally, what’s the way forward for SenzAgro?
We want to try and crack South Asia. Sri Lanka is too small for this kind of business, and we understood that from day one. So, like I said earlier, Sri Lanka is our testing ground. We have initiated discussions with a few potential partners in India. Bangladesh is also another place we want to look at. Later, hopefully, we can move to Africa and perhaps even Australia. We believe that sometime around 2022 or so, Agri-tech will come into the mainstream. If all goes well, we might be able to enter the big leagues of the global agribusiness sector.