Of Southeast Asia’s 650 million residents, it is estimated that over 70 million are smallholder farmers, and many more depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Smallholders face many interconnected challenges, including lack of access to information, financial services, machines and labour, quality inputs, and markets, which prevents them from getting optimal yields from their farms that could help uplift their livelihood.
Smallholder AgriTech refers to a niche within the broader Agri-FoodTech sector that focuses on supporting smallholders. Grow Asia has developed a framework to categorise these solutions by business models, which we used in our research of the landscape.
Slide 6 of Smallholder AgriTech SEA Landscape 2020 report
Among the business models, Digital Marketplaces gained traction as a promising monetisation model. They currently dominate the sector with total funding of US$48.8 million out of US$71.4 million, with Indonesian startups leading the pack.
Other value propositions can work in synergy with Digital Marketplaces. A number of startups have launched various business units to tackle multiple problem areas e.g. TaniGroup with TaniHub for marketplace and TaniFund for P2P lending, 8villages with RegoPantes for marketplace and LISA for farmer advisory. It is likely for Digital Marketplaces to continue leading the sector in the short term while more innovative business models are being tested.
Insights from Indian AgriTech
The agriculture sector in Southeast Asia is similar to India, with small farm sizes, fragmented supply chains, and fast-growing mobile penetration. However, the ecosystem in India is roughly 3-5 years ahead of Southeast Asia, with over 500 AgriTech startups and a large number operating at scale.
According to Hemendra Mathur, Venture Partner of Bharat Innovation Fund, one key success factor is having an enabling ecosystem made up of startups, investors, corporates, government, research institutions, where each stakeholder has a clear role to play. He highlighted the need for an intermediate level of village ecosystem i.e. Farmer Producer Organisations (FPO) and Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE), in order for farmers to trust the AgriTech solutions. He also shared a few qualities of successful AgriTech startups: high degree of resilience, considers unit economics across the value chain, balances fundraising with other business development activities, is made up of a diverse team, and has a farmer-centric approach.
Invest in opportunities
In Southeast Asia, market and funding gaps present opportunities for startups and investors in this nascent sector. For startups, there are still plenty of opportunities to seize in areas such as Traceability in the Philippines, Mechanization Platforms in Vietnam, and Peer to Peer Lending in Thailand. New startups can emerge to take the first-mover advantage, which in turn presents investment opportunities.
The total funding raised by Smallholder AgriTech in Southeast Asia is at US$71.4 million, compared to India’s US$450 million over the past 5 years. As the ecosystem in Southeast Asia matures, more funding will be required to drive innovation, capture value, and impact smallholders.
Fortunately, there are early indications that investment appetite is growing. In 2019-2020, 95% of all funding was raised by three startups - TaniGroup, Chilibeli, and Kedai Sayur - accounting for US$43 million. There is also more participation of generalist venture capital funds as opposed to only AgriTech-focused funds, a similar trend in India as well as globally.
Collaboration is key
Hien Huynh, Co-founder of Talad, a mobile app in Thailand that helps farmers find and hire service providers, shared his experience in building up his company in Southeast Asia. He mentioned that early-stage startups require support from VC networks, advisory networks, government, and corporate partnerships. His emphasis on networks and partnerships brings across the need for more collaboration.
Startups with different value propositions can partner to solve farmers’ interconnected problems while reducing acquisition costs. Corporates and NGOs can also partner to engage startups, share resources, and run more pilot projects to increase the adoption of digital solutions among smallholder farmers.
Smallholder AgriTech holds a lot of potential to transform the agriculture sector, uplift rural livelihoods, and strengthen food security. As Southeast Asia seeks to accelerate its Smallholder AgriTech ecosystem, it makes sense for stakeholders to learn from India’s strong collaborative ecosystem and to work together in the digitalisation of smallholder farmers.