Mr. Deepak Pareek wants to use AgTech to empower farmers and create a better future for the world

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When it comes to AgriTech people still don’t know how important it is for us and our future generations. But like everywhere else, technology can play a big role in helping farmers and also ultimately helping everyone to get nutritious and healthy food.

Mr. Deepak Pareek is an agricultural enthusiast that loves to spend his time on the farms, interacting with the farmers. He has been the founder of many AgriTech companies and is now the CEO of AgriWatch and also an investor in AgTech startups.

He was recognized as a Tech Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2018 and is still modest to not call himself an expert but a good learner. Here is an extremely interesting and insightful conversation we had with Mr. Deepak Pareek.

Team Sociobits: Could you walk through your journey from having a job to being a founder and now also an investor?

Mr. Deepak Pareek: All of us know that we need to have a job to earn our living and I started my career long back with Exim Bank and then moved on to work with a lot of corporate companies. In 2008, I shortly interacted with the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi and we worked very closely with the CMO to use social media on the concept of CM to CM (Common Man to the Chief Minister). This galvanized my thought process that a lot can be achieved through the power of data and social media when your key focus is to reach out to people. That’s when, in 2011, I took a plunge as an entrepreneur and created my first company called HnyB which was a social media data platform, which I eventually exited in 2015.

“In 2008, I shortly interacted with the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi and we worked very closely with the CMO to use social media on the concept of CM to CM (Common Man to the Chief Minister)”

Then agriculture got into my heart; I used to read in the newspaper that farmers are killing themselves whether they are in Jakarta or India and I realized that the problem is deeply rooted. I thought my understanding of data science and technology can be utilized to solve some of their challenges so I created my first AgTech venture. I moved on to create and exit many more AgTech ventures and now I am an investor.

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I invested in some AgTech companies and I am also on the Board of several Accelerators and Incubators. I also co-founded a capital company called Benzai10 and I am still focused on AgTech and FoodTech.

Team Sociobits: If you had to describe ‘Deepak Pareek’ in one line, what would that be?

Deepak Pareek: A bundle of energy who is passionate and compassionate too.

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Team Sociobits: What made you passionate about agriculture?

Deepak Pareek: In 2014, I was looking to do something in my life that could have a social impact too, and fortunately for me, I didn’t know much about agriculture except that food comes from agriculture. Which is still better than today’s generation that thinks food comes from Zomato and Swiggy. But our farmers know that we get our food from agriculture. So I started understanding the sector, traveled all the way till Ghana with the farmers, and understood their problems. And I could see the major challenge that information is extremely critical and empowering in agriculture. Unfortunately, those who need them the most; the farms, don’t have access to it.

Information is very limited in the hands of very few people and it is centralized in governments and corporates. There I could see that people like me who have the knowledge and understanding of technology can intervene and ensure that all the stakeholders in the ecosystem especially those who need them the most and are at the base of the pyramid can leverage this and ensure that their standard of living improves.

This started to motivate me because there are around ten million farmers only in South East Asia and a majority of them are below the poverty line so the impact could be huge. Another thing that motivated me is that I want to give a better world to the next generation. I have a son and I don’t want him to live in a world where water is not available, the air is polluted and the food that he eats gives him more cancer than actual nutrients. I believe it’s my due to the next generation and this is where my passion for helping the farmer get good food to people became my life mantra rather than just a business.

Watch the full conversation

Team Sociobits: Can you explain how is tech helping agriculture?

Deepak Pareek: To explain this, I’ll give you an example from my own company, AgriWatch. We always say, ‘Poor Farmer’, the reason being when he goes to sell his produce, he doesn’t know at what price can sell it because he doesn’t have access to information. So he lands up with his truck of wheat, soybean, or rice in a mandi, and then he depends on God, the government, or the trader. This is not an ideal situation because whenever you are manufacturing something as an industrialist, you know at what price you will be selling your product.

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Now, if you are able to empower the farmer with the right kind of information, even before sowing; for example, if a farmer is growing sugarcane, and we tell them what is the realization going to be then they can make a choice accordingly about what they want to grow. This ensures he gets more money in his pocket when they are selling the produce.

If you are wondering how we come up with the prices, then we do have a lot of analytics involved, it depends on historical prices, demand, supply, and yields, then we also use remote sensing to find out what is the health of the crop. Based on this we are always able to tell the farmer what the expected cost or expected market price of a specific commodity is. This helps the farmer, small traders, and everybody who is not empowered. This is where I believe that tech is playing a big role.

Apart from AgriWatch, there are many companies that use AI, Machine Learning, and IoT, which enables them to advise the farmer across the process of cultivation. Basically, information like when to grow, how to grow, and what to grow are available. These companies can also advise farmers on issues like the chances of infestation of pests and the best way to take care of this. There are many such examples that these companies are doing to help farmers across the ecosystem.

Team Sociobits: Since most farmers are from tier-two or tier-three cities, how receptive are they to adopting technology in their farming processes?

Deepak Pareek: If you go with just the data, you will find that farmers not adopting the tech based on this. So I would say that 30% of the farmers may be having some form of intervention when it comes to technology. I am talking about India, the number globally is even less. The million-dollar question is ‘Why are farmers not adopting technology?’

In the 1960s, we told farmers that if they use fertilizers, they will become rich. In the 70s-80s, we told him to use pesticides to become rich. In the 90s we asked him to use mechanization to become rich, we also told him to use GMO seeds or products to become rich. But he has never become rich!

In the 1960s, we told farmers that if they use fertilizers, they will become rich. In the 70s-80s, we told him to use pesticides to become rich. In the 90s we asked him to use mechanization to become rich, we also told him to use GMO seeds or products to become rich. But he has never become rich!

So, essentially, our farmers have lost a little bit of hope which is why before adopting anything they first want to see the value. So, now that we are telling farmers to use technology, he takes it with a pinch of salt and evaluates. The technologies that can demonstrate successfully, that he is making more money makes him more comfortable. For example, During COVID-19, the total growth in the tractor industry was far more than in the automation industry.

So, if these technologies can display their value to the farmers, they definitely adopt them. But unfortunately, we live in a fool’s paradise, we talk to farmers about ‘blockchain’ and topics that he has no idea of. So, we really need to ensure that we can demonstrate the value of technology to our farmers in the right way.

Team Sociobits: Since you are also an investor in AgriTech startups, do you have any set of tips that the new investors can follow?

Deepak Pareek: Based on the current market scenario, those who are looking to invest in the AgTech domain, and don’t completely understand agriculture, then you show go to the established players who have revenue and traction. Unit Economics is the metric that you need to look at. I am a fan of this metric because going forward you need profitable companies and not just revenue-generating companies.

So, go for companies that show profitability and have profitability in the projections for the next two or three years. And people who understand agriculture, I don’t need to explain anything to them because I have also learned a lot from those people.

Those founders who are willing to interact with the farmers to understand their problems are extremely important. Another thing is that you need to be compassionate about the problem that you are solving.

Team Sociobits: As an investor, what are the qualities that you look for in a good founder?

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Deepak Pareek: I’ll restrict my answer to the AgTech and FoodTech industry because I believe that the founders in this sector need to be a little different. While there may be some converging qualities between the sectors, I believe that everybody knows about it. In AgTech, you really need to be passionate about agriculture. I also love those founders who roll up their sleeves and get into the farms. You won’t get the right solution without being on the field and talking to the farmers. Those founders who are willing to interact with the farmers to understand their problems are extremely important. Another thing is that you need to be compassionate about the problem that you are solving. Agriculture has a lot of challenges, you cannot think of a so-called holistic solution for everything. So, choose your battle rightly and make sure you are the best in tackling these challenges.

Summing it up in three tips: Focus, be with the farms, and ensure that you are compassionate about the field.

Team Sociobits: What are some of the challenges that anyone in the AgTech industry can face?

Deepak Pareek: Unfortunately, our ultimate end user, the farmer is already at the base of the pyramid. If you are standing in front of 100 people, he’ll be the 99th or 100th person when it comes to economic capability. So you need to devise a model where technology creates sufficient value for the farmer to pay back what he has invested or create an ecosystem with corporates or governments who pay for the farmer is adopting. So this is one of the biggest challenges, who pays for the adoption of technology?

The second challenge is that food is a social, political, and economical question. So the government will always intervene. This can sometimes overwhelm the founder where he starts thinking I am doing something of social impact and starts to lose the vision and forgets that he is also an entrepreneur and he has to pay to run his company. So, founders start to become socialists while trying to solve the problem. I also believe that some of the problems in agriculture can only be solved by having the right capital in place.

The third challenge is that everyone believes they know everything about agriculture and it’s an easy subject. Since we eat food every day, people start to believe that they know a lot. A lot of people need to understand what they don’t know. This is where modern technology and digitization are helping by removing assumptions from the decision-making process.

Governments, corporates, farmers, and founders need to shift from assumption-based decision-making to fact-based decision-making.

Team Sociobits: Where do you see the AgTech industry five years down the line?

Deepak Pareek: I will bifurcate this question into a global context and an Indian context.

Speaking of India, we are talking about roughly around 80 million to 230 million farmers. India is the country with the maximum number of farmers. The sector is huge with around $410 billion worth of agriculture GDP. This is a humongous and also highly inefficient market with minimum digitization. So, this creates a huge opportunity. The tech sector will be able to draw huge value from agriculture.

From the global perspective, the global market is roughly around $13.8 billion growing around 60-70%, which is also a huge opportunity. Predominantly, the technology development or implementation is happening in Europe or the U.S. but their challenges and problems are different.

Going forward I believe that Southeast Asia will be the biggest market, followed by Africa, and this is where you will find a lot of traction, and a lot of startups will be coming in. I have no doubt that this market is going to be $30-40 billion over the next four or five years.

Team Sociobits: Since you have experienced so many things in life, is there any message that you would like to give young entrepreneurs?

Deepak Pareek: I would like to say that don’t be an entrepreneur because of the glamour. Just because you come across someone wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I only date founders,’ don’t get influenced by that glamour. You should really need to focus on whether you really want to solve that problem. And if you want to solve that problem, do you think there exists a need for that solution? Because sometimes we try to solve the wrong problem and eventually get burned out. Lastly, you need to have patience and you need to have compassion too. AgTech is a sector that creates a social impact but you really need to have patience. It doesn’t work with the 3-6-9 cycle.

Mr.Pareek is rightfully encouraging AgTech startups and the use of technology in the agricultural industry because of the value it holds, not just today but also in the future. We can say that technology can literally help every industry.

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