Disrupting the agricultural industry
Enter Farm-Hand: a software startup revolutionising life for farmers in India by applying Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology to irrigation hardware.
Farm-Hand is a software company that builds hardware-software solutions for the small-medium sized farming ecosystem. Abhimanyu Bhargava, the now Managing Director of Farm-Hand, first began his journey into consultancy working in a renewable energy deployment in the UK called Scene Connect.
A few years later, the company started working on a collaborative project with four other partners. Bhargava volunteered to take it forward and turn into a company. The base idea was formed by the consortium in an Innovate UK project called SCORRES.
The project won two Rushlight Awards, for Water Management and Resource Innovation, and was shortlisted for the Guardian and Times Higher Education awards for resource management and international collaboration efforts. After incorporation, Farm-Hand has won the Scottish Wildcard Edge 2018 challenge, selected for Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the Climate KIC accelerator and has won the prestigious Shell Springboard competition being deemed the most promising low carbon startup in the UK. Successfully grant funded so far, Farm-Hand is seeking equity investment and support to truly scale.
The company’s first product, Water-Hand, delivers correct volume irrigation at the right time for the farmer - this increases yields whilst reducing water, energy, fertiliser and labour. For local farming organisations, this provides unprecedented monitoring and control. The data is valuable to other stakeholders in the ecosystem as well as crop insurers or agri-financiers.
Farm-Hand has an office in Edinburgh as well as one in Tamil Nadu, India where its research farm is located. The company is setting up a 100% owned subsidiary in India and is actively developing business in the early adopter market and collaborating with key market enablers who include Farmer Aggregators, farming communities, micro-irrigation providers, solar pump manufacturers and government agencies. Farm-Hand is in its commercial trials year, building trust through pilots with key partners whilst working on product robustness and cost engineering, and will be ready for commercialisation and scale by 2021.
Bhargava explained: “We believe that Farm-hand can revolutionise farming for the small-medium sized farmer. Agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater extraction with 60% wasted due to inefficient irrigation. Inefficient irrigation suppresses crop yields, misuses increasingly scarce resources and leads to leaching of soil nutrients - all negatively harming farm productivity, farmer livelihood and the environment.
“With a low cost, robust and customisable software solution for efficient irrigation we hope that we can become the Microsoft of the irrigation hardware ecosystem. This would allow farmers to connect with their irrigation and farms to a greater extent, boosting livelihoods and reducing resource usage.”
The project was originally designed around smart demand and supply for rural energy systems in India with a small emphasis in looking at storage integration and control for solar pumps, thereby reducing reliance on irrigation only in the daylight hours (where there is high evaporation losses). However, the team quickly understood that if one was to make energy systems more efficient in rural Indian areas then one must look at the energy usage for irrigation, which is a huge percentage of the electrical load for these areas. This percentage is becoming even larger due to water scarcity and therefore deepening pump heights, thus requiring more and more energy to pump water.
Furthermore, the efficiency of irrigation in India is low because the government provides a 100% subsidy for the electricity required for pumping to the farmer. This means the farmer has no economic incentive to conserve water. Electricity supply to agricultural connections is intermittent with the utility company regularly cutting supply to assist with network management. Farmers’ uncertainty over when electricity will be available has created a ubiquitous market for automatic starters, which, when fitted to pump-sets, deliver water to the crops when power is available. This has led to a perverse situation whereby the utility company plays a key role in scheduling when and for how long crops are irrigated, leading to endemic levels of over-irrigation.
Farm-Hand’s core value proposition is through its customisation for the smallholder farmer, irrigation algorithms and big data analytics. Water-Hand has four elements:
- Localised Irrigation Schedule Platform - ‘The memory’ - smart/AI enabled cloud platform using latitude-longitude specific, weather forecasting and crop data to calculate crop specific daily irrigation schedules,
- Field Controller - ‘The Communicator’ - receives daily irrigation schedules from The Memory and actuates pumps and valves to delivering. It is a modular unit, and if more fields are required to be irrigated, then additional controllers can be added. Farms may require a single controller (monocrop) or two controllers (with multiple-crops) and IoT enabled low cost sensor connected hardware. Additional safety and performance enhancement features include flow detection to prevent pump dry run, back-up storage of irrigation schedules, UPS capability to deal with power outage and a weather station that provides input to reinforced learning algorithms housed in ‘The Memory’ to create best in market forecast accuracy.
- Farmer Mobile Interface - ‘The Commander’ - smart phone app, utilising the boom in mobile phone usage. It allows the farmer to input cropping schedules and request changes to the irrigation schedule. This feedback is used by reinforced learning algorithms in ‘The Memory’ allowing irrigation schedules to become bespoke for the farm. The app will also provide farm performance data.
- Aggregator dashboard - ‘The Analyser’ is a web interface that allows the local farming organisation to garner unprecedented data to monitor their farmers farms. Having precision irrigation control Farm-Hand can provide the aggregator; water usage data, water availability data, yield forecasts, geographical insights and other ancillary benefits such as salinity, more accurate crop insurance premiums, crop health indicators etc. The AI expertise in Farm-Hand will be leveraging big data usage.
Bhargava explained how the project started with an innovate UK project. He said: “After the project ended, I was the sole person paid by my company at the time - Scene Connect - to find funding to take the startup forward.
“We won Climate KIC, Scottish Edge Wildcard Edge funding in parallel to our partners in Heriot Watt University winning an Impact Acceleration for further product development. We also won the regional finals and then the national finals of the Shell Springboard competition for low carbon innovation. This £150k of funding has really been a springboard and allowed me to acquire talent on the team including bringing Dr Andrew Peacock, the brains behind the algorithms, for a large percentage of his time.”
Farm-Hand has faced the usual challenges of a startup such as acquiring the right team and traversing the 'valley of death' in finance. However, Bhargava told me about the ones that have affected the company proportionally more. He explained: “As the company has an Indian research farm, this has early technology validation and a team in India that could manage the farm alongside hardware development with strategy and software development happening in the UK. This vision looked good on paper, but the problem was the length in decision making in the UK being enacted in India. The company suffered from communication delays and lack of leadership in both places simultaneously.
“Farm-Hand has been blessed with significant market demand for trialling products. However, the company made the mistake in agreeing to trials in different states. This meant that the team had to make long trips for installations and, because the product was not 100% robust, it meant subsequent trips for after sales maintenance and changes. Farm-hand chooses its company trials more carefully now.”
Farm-Hand is now focusing on its commercial trials in 2020 where they will pilot the hardware/software solution with aggregators (local farming organisations) and software only solution with IoT connected pumps - ready to scale in 2021. The company has partnerships in five different countries (four different countries are for software-only trials - Uganda, Kenya, Nepal, China - which allow geographical spread).
Bhargava concluded: “In parallel, the hardware will develop to be more robust and cost engineered to our predicted cost bracket. Lastly, this year will teach us more about the decision support mechanisms we can provide the local farming organisation through an aggregator specific dashboard ‘The Analyser’ (e.g. better farm management, lowering of crop insurance premiums etc.)
“We aim to be a major global player in the agricultural value chain for the small-medium sized farmer within three years.”