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Turning technology into a tool for regenerative agroecology

Usha Devi Venkatachalam


Conventional digital market platforms are extractive in nature.Krishi Janani’s marketplace platform in Tamil Nadu is building an alternative model that emphasizes decentralization and regeneration. Janani Grow mobile app assists small farmers in converting to regenerative practices and finding high-value organic markets for their produce.


Krishi Janani is a five-year-old for-profit agri tech social enterprise based in Karaipalayam village in Tiruppur district in Tamil Nadu. Our mission is to create a regenerative ecosystem that nourishes farmers, consumers, companies, and the planet.

In the initial years, we were in pilot or prototyping mode. Our goal was to learn as much as we can from the field, build trust within farming communities, and fine-tune the value that technology can offer to farmers. During prototyping phase, we focused on connecting with farmers in two districts, learning about their farming practices, and aggregating them into buying groups according to their needs. Based on our findings, Krishi Janani would buy inputs in bulk and share the resulting savings with farmers in our network. The experiments were a mix of many failures, some successes, and lots of learning. During this time, we were also prototyping a technology framework that facilitates regenerative agroecology to solve agrarian crisis.

The learning during these years helped us identify the approach for the next stage of our journey – a tech-enabled growth across the entire state of Tamil Nadu. The star of this phase is Janani, a marketplace for profitable and regenerative agroecology. It is a technology platform that enables small farmers in Tamil Nadu practice transformative agriculture while also helping manufacturers find curated organic crops and products. On one side, Janani Grow mobile app assists small farmers in converting to regenerative practices and finding high-value organic markets for their produce. On the other side, Janani Market portal facilitates retailers, specialty manufacturers, and startups find traceable, certified, and verified organic produce sourced from hundreds of small growers through Janani Market portal.

Screen shot of the App

As any startup, we are slowly building a cutting-edge technology stack to serve farmers and fulfill our goals, one software component at a time. There are multiple databases in the back-end that contains information aboutthe many stakeholders in the food value chain – farmers, organic retailers, companies, FPOs, etc. The next is the communication layer. External services that provide bulk or transactional text messaging as well as push messaging services for mobile apps are part of that stack. In the front-end are a Tamil language mobile app for farmers (currently a minimum viable product has been released on Android & iOS) and an English web portal for manufacturers and retailers (currently work in progress).

With all of the above, the most important lesson that we have learnt is this–building a technology platform is the easy part. Technology is just an all-purpose tool and enabler. It can serve an aspirational social good or exacerbate existing social ills, and do both equally well.What is hard is being thoughtful of the social, cultural, and economic tensions that turn technology into a tool of service or a weapon of destruction. I am sharing some of our thinking as we waded through various approaches before settling on a plan. It may be of use to others who are exploring similar paths or planning launch a tech-based social enterprise.

Technology PLUS everything else

A prerequisite for thoughtful design of a technology platform is the consideration of everything else around technology. In our case, we designed a few foundational questions to consider the many non-technical factors. This exercise is especially critical in agriculture where millions of farm households will bear the brunt of wrong choices or misaligned incentive structures. These questions:

  • Ownership and Structure: Who owns the technology and all its artefacts, especially the data and relationships? What social structure is the technology building up or reinforcing? Does the community have any say in ownership or structure?
  • Risk and Reward: Who bears platform risks? Who gets the reward? Are risks and rewards judiciously spread out and shared?
  • Financial and Value flow: Which direction is financial and value flow heading toward? Is it building strength and visibility of everyone in the value chain?
  • Unintended consequences and learning loops: Creators have an intended impact in mind when they build a tech platform. In the rush to meet the intended impact, what are the other unintended consequences that we may be missing? How can we course correct and make changes based on feedback and learning? What structure do we place now to make learning loops a constant part of future plans and actions?

Exploring these questions showed us two different paths that we can potentially take. Technology as an enabler of extractive business models. Or, technology as a tool for regenerative agroecology.

Technology as an enabler of extraction

Janani is a marketplace whose success will rely on building network effects by benefiting all participants. There are many “successful” marketplace models, where success is defined in economic terms – growth, profits, company valuation. Amazon, Facebook, and Uber provide a few shining examples that shed a bright light on that path.

Extraction is the most appropriate term for this business model. The technology stack has been built, tweaked, rebuilt, and re-tweaked over many years. Components of the tech stack have even been released as open source software for others to use. React Native, the hybrid framework that we used to build the early version of Janani mobile app, is an open source application released and supported by Facebook. However, when we look at the “PLUS everything else,” it is not a model that we want to emulate.

These are aggregation platforms and marketplaces where technology abstracts out the service providers. In the name of serving their customers, whether it is providing lower costs (Amazon) or convenience (Uber), or ease of connectivity (Facebook), these platforms separate the service providers from their users and ensures that our relationship is with the platform rather than with any individual. In this model, allrisks rest at the bottom while all rewards float to the top. Numerous service providers vie for a winner-take-all competition for lower and lower stakes. Witness the number of Uber drivers who could not make the EMI payments on their cars. Or, sellers who realize that they have been providing a stream of data to Amazon, which used that to create a competing product.Rewards, finances & value, ownership, and structure – all flow up and out of local communities, to the shareholders and ultimately the executive-owners of the platform itself.

As the pitfalls in these business models become visible, these platforms are either willfully ignoring the issues or proving to be incapable of turning the tide. Witness the case of Facebook’s struggle with fake news. The platform played a starring role in the decimation of the news industry by changing its algorithm to earn advertising dollars. One unintended consequence – the platform is now overrun with mala fide actors who are causing political and social chaos all over the world by planting motivated fake stories.After initially mopping up the advertising revenue, Facebook is now struggling to address this issue.

While this marketplace model may seem successful from a technical and financial perspective, this is not a sustainable model in the long-term. Extractive models, in any sector, are a relic of industrialization and its attendant centralization. They are causing damages that cannot be fixed by tweaking the system. For Janani’s platform, we needed to rethink the entire model, from the ground up.

Technology as a tool for regenerative agroecology

Agriculture in Tamil Nadu already has an extraction problem. We dig deeper and deeper bore wells in search of water. We try to squeeze yield out of tired soil. The ecosystem seems to be falling apart. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of weather disasters. In this situation, regenerative agroecology provides a low-cost, low-tech, long-term solution to many crises that farming communities are facing.

If regenerative agroecology is the alternate to extractive agribusiness model, what is the technology alternative? Can technology forget its extractive roots and turn into a tool for facilitating regenerative agroecology? Even better, is there a way to build a technology platform and marketplace that has regeneration in its very essence? This is the question that the Janani Marketplace is working hard at finding answers for.It is important to note that we don’t have all the answers yet.In addition, some of these answers are yet to be field tested, a process that may reveal other holes in our imagination. With all these caveats, how is the Janani Marketplace addressing the foundational questions above?

  • Ownership and Structure: Janani’s marketplace is designed to allow farmers and farmer groups to own their data and relationships. While the former (data) gets some attention lately, the latter (relationships) is the critical factor that connects the producer to the consumer. Janani’s platform is envisioned as a network of networks, where success depends on the aggregation and success of all other networks. This is a technologically challenging model to bring to life, especially since some of the basic capabilities of the platform – data & file storage, communication, payment processing, etc., – will be shared. Community ownership that is inclusive and sensitive to farm size and existing hierarchies can go a long way in expanding both owner and user base.
  • Risk and Reward: Farmers are already dealing with a volatile, high-risk situation in agriculture. They do not have the bandwidth to take on the additional risk of building a platform. One of the critical areas of work is to find value-aligned impact investors who are willing to explore various transparent models of sharing risks and rewards.
  • Financial and Value flow: Building a technology platform that actively spreads financial and value flow across the entire value chain is one of the most exciting challenges. After mapping value flows of specific processes, Janani is working on finding alternative solutions. One example is the adoption of PGS India as the preferred method of organic certification since that will ensure knowledge created and consumed locally among farmers during the peer-review process. The platform will enable farmers to enter data and knowledge resources in one place which can then be shared with the certification body, buyers, and other farmers.
  • Unintended consequences and learning loops: Janani Marketplace adopts agile methodology for technology development. It allows for short bursts of software development and release, with each future iteration learning from the previous release and improving upon it. This allows for feedback and learning loops to be part of the software development process. A similar approach is envisioned for field operations and activities. With multiple learning loops in action at any given time, the technology platform will learn from field operations and vice versa.

Our food systems are still functioning in archaic industrialization mindsets. Everything is centralized in this extraction-based business model. Food grows in one region. Travels many miles to be processed. And, then travels even more miles to be consumed. Covid-19 and the related disruptions have highlighted how fragile and breakable these systems are.

An alternative model that emphasizes decentralization and regeneration is the critical and urgent need of the current time. Janani’s marketplace platform is building one such solution. Society needs many more regenerative solutions and answers to rebuild various parts of the food system.

 

Usha Devi Venkatachalam

Founder and CEO

Krishi Janani PBC

Email: team@krishijanani.org