Agriculture remains the most important sector in Bangladesh. The sector contributes 40% of the total employment and 14% of the GDP. But the sector faces a long list of challenges.
There are roughly about 20 million farmers. 80% of them are smallholders. The majority of farmers are unbanked. Financial institutions don’t loan to farmers. They are not considered creditworthy. The sector is considered to be unorganized. Lack of education hurts productivity. A middlemen-dominated supply chain hurts the profitability of farmers.
There are alternative narratives as well. The corporatization of agriculture is taking farming out of the hands of farmers. Farmers have less control over input, fertilizer, pesticides, and so on. Consequently, agriculture has gotten expensive for farmers. And corporations are making money off of farmers' hard work. The industrialization of agriculture has come under criticism from different quarters.
In a nutshell, farmers struggle to access finance, market, quality inputs, and information.
Several startups in Dhaka have been trying to solve some of these problems using the power of technology.
Some of these companies such as iFarmer and iPage are taking a holistic approach to solve multiple problems farmers face including productivity improvement, finance, and market access. Others such as Khamar-e are working on supply chain traceability and market access. Nagarkrishi, the urban farming startup, looks to empower urban dwellers to get a taste of farming through rooftops and other urban farming-related services.
All of these companies are in their early stage. Some of them have raised seed investment. Others have raised pre-series A rounds. And each of them offers a peek into a diverse side of Dhaka’s startup scene where ambitious founders are putting bold ideas into work.
Below we profile four startups, in no particular order, building exciting agriculture companies.
Company: iFarmer Ltd
iFarmer — a Dhaka-based agri-tech platform — connects farmers with capital, knowledge, inputs, and market. Founded in 2018, the company started by addressing the challenge of access to capital. The company claims it currently has about 36,000 farmers in its network, facilitated more than BDT 745 million funding support for farmers, and production of over BDT 1.1 billion worth of farm produce.
iFarmer collects investments from retail investors and institutional investors, who are interested in investing in agriculture farms, which it then invests in farms using a portfolio approach to ensure expected return for investors. The company does not give direct cash to the farmers. Instead, it provides vouchers and other options to farmers to buy/access inputs and other farming-related support.
The company has developed a supply-chain business where it buys/collects agriculture products directly from farmers and supplies them to businesses and customers.
While iFarmer started with finance and inputs, the company now helps farmers to sell their products directly bypassing middlemen and thus earning a maximum profit on their products. The company has also been working on advisory and precision farming products.
Read our profile of iFarmer here.
Company name: Bhalo Social Enterprise
Bhalo is an omnichannel marketplace offering small farmers access to high-quality agriculture inputs. Founded in 2019, bhalo offers curated high-quality farm inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, chemicals, etc., advisory and credit facility to farmers which increase their production and income.
The company does this by connecting smallholder farmers to high-quality farm input suppliers and financial institutions, using technology and a network of exclusive sales agents, logistics hubs and retail outlets.
Bhalo has partnerships with leading agri-input suppliers such as ACI Godrej, Renata, Auto Crop Care and financial institutions such as Brac Microfinance, Carnival Assure. The company says it has served 1,500+ farmers in Kurigram, a northern district of Bangladesh. It claims that farmers reported a 50% increase in income, and partner inputs suppliers witnessed a 5X growth in farm inputs sales to farmers where bhalo operates. The company Bhalo is one of the two winners of this year’s Sustainable Development Goals Impact Accelerator program.
Company name: Fashol.com Limited
Fashol.com is a wholesale agriculture products marketplace for retailers. The company collects agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables from different parts of the country, brings them to its distribution center, sorts them using an in-house sorting method, and then delivers them to partner retailers directly at their doorsteps. It provides free delivery and claims its prices are 5%-10% lower than the market rate. Fashol plans to supply to restaurants in the near future as well.
In a recent interview with the Daily Star, the company said it works with nearly 500 retailers and deals with some 350 different types of vegetables and fruits. The company plans to add fish, meat, eggs, etc in the future.
The agricultural supply chain draws a lot of criticism for being inefficient. The middlemen dominant supply chain increases price and eats up the profits of farmers. Several tech startups are aiming to disrupt the agriculture supply chain. Chaldal has an initiative called Chaldal Vegetable Network that buys directly from farmers and supplies to smallholder retailers. iFarmer has a supply-chain business that buys agriculture products from farmers and sells to B2B and B2C customers. Foshol takes the model a notch up.
Supply chains are messy. While blaming middlemen is easy, it is hard to imagine an effective supply chain without them. In many ways, tech startups talking about replacing middlemen are basically taking the place of middlemen. The difference is that tech startups can do it at scale and efficiently.
Company name: Khamar-e Limited
Khamar-e, a Dhaka-based agri-tech startup, claims that it is building a data-driven farming and supply chain ecosystem in Bangladesh. The company works as an aggregator and connects supply from farmers and the demand from local retailers. It currently works with dairy milk, cattle fattening, mangoes, and sea fish.
In a nutshell, it helps farmers to improve productivity — by providing them with farming advisory, sustainable farming methods, sales services, and medical services — and sell their products.
It helps customers get high-quality agricultural products. The company says it is building a network of farmers across Bangladesh and creating a digitally traceable supply chain to ensure quality. The company raised investment from SBK Tech Ventures and Robi through its r-ventures and is currently looking to raise its seed round.
Company name: Nagarkrishi
Nagarkrishi is an online marketplace offering a comprehensive range of products and services for urban farming. The company provides end-end urban farming support.
It provides products and services for rooftop farming, residential landscaping, lawn gardening, indoor potted plants, vertical gardening, industrial landscaping, green office, farm maintenance, gardener services, composts, organic foods, farming tools, vertical gardening products, indoor plants, gardener services, consultancy, etc.
Nagarkrishi has been hit particularly negatively by the coronavirus pandemic. The company had to downsize its team and operation. But it is a promising idea. Urban dwellers crave nature. Rooftop gardening and similar solutions offer these people an option to taste it. It is an interesting market and is likely to grow in the coming years as urbanization further accelerates.
iPAGE Bangladesh works at the intersection of precision agriculture — which is basically providing farmers relevant information, access to finance, and market access.
iPAGE started its journey focusing on educating farmers to cultivate efficiently. Its proprietary electronic soil testing technology and site and crop-specific advisory help farmers better understand farming. And its market demand-related information system helps farmers to understand market demand and produce accordingly.
The company helps farmers source better inputs and low-cost capital support through its non-profit impact partner Give Bangladesh. It works with registered input vendors and local NGOs.
In 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company started working on helping farmers with demand-specific production schemes. It now facilitates farmers to sell their crops directly to the local market. The company says it is now developing an artificially intelligent agrarian information system.
Update 01: Bhalo Social Enterprise has been added to the list.