KisanHub and the making of India’s digital farmer

Gaurav Shah perhaps knows India’s farmers more intimately than most experts on agriculture. Not only because his job requires it. Or because he’s a farmer’s son. Or because he was a farmer himself. His abundant familiarity with growers stemmed from an accident that happened some 12 years ago. His father had been in it.

Gaurav’s family decided to return to their village from Pune city following that accident and the consequent loss to their transport business. For the teenager stepping into a crucial school year, it meant a double displacement. He had to go live with his uncle in another village some distance away so he could go to a good school. But he would go and be with his family every holiday.

Those visits were educational. Gaurav got his feet dirty as he assisted his father on their ancestral farmland where they grew sugarcane, wheat, okra and tomato. At the wholesale market, he witnessed how rates were affixed to months of hard labor. He saw how storekeepers dictated what pesticides and medicines farmers should use. He saw produce go waste from methods he wasn’t convinced about.

So while his elder brother ventured into an engineering course, Gaurav pursued a degree in agriculture, eventually joining an agritech startup called KisanHub (a hub for farmers). There, as the lead customer success manager for India, he remains responsible for onboarding and nurturing thousands of farmers associated with KisanHub’s enterprise clients.

Gaurav thrives on the challenge.

“Any business works on relationships,” he says. “I have over 1,000 farmers on my phone list now. If I was onboarding a farmer, they needed to be able to contact me. I also friended them on Facebook so I would know their birthdays. I nurtured those relationships. Eventually, they began to trust me.”

KisanHub, headquartered in Cambridge and having roots in Pune, offers cloud-based software solutions that help global food and beverage companies manage their supply chains.

That journey begins with ensuring that India’s mostly small and marginal farmers are empowered via technology to practice a mantra Gaurav invokes often: ‘precision farming’. This involves plot-specific weather forecasts, pest and disease control models, irrigation models, digitization of crop milestone data, a platform with updated best practices and market information, and a virtual hotline to agronomists for expert advice (Freshworks had a significant role in charging up this crucial feature).

As for KisanHub’s enterprise clients, they get maximum visibility into the farming process so they are assured of the quality of the produce. This minimizes the prospect for export rejects and offers companies a more predictable purchase timeline.

The next decade: digital transformation

Sachin Shende was a software engineer in Pune and had helped develop a bond trading and research analytics platform for investment firm BlackRock before he co-founded KisanHub in 2012. No surprise there, considering his graduate degree in agricultural engineering, Master’s in water resources, and a Ph.D. in computational hydraulics from Loughborough University, UK.

As KisanHub’s CEO, he’s focused on improving transparency and removing the inefficiencies in the food supply chain using cloud-based software, big data analytics, and machine learning. The company now has 14 clients globally and works with about 12,500 farmers. A majority of them are associated with Sahyadri Farms, India’s leading farmers’ producer company. It’s also the country’s largest grape exporter.

Like KisanHub, a wave of agritech companies is gradually transforming India’s farm landscape, toiling away at solving the sector’s many complex challenges.

For one, although agriculture accounts for nearly one-fifth of India’s GDP and about half of the workforce, it’s highly unorganized. Also, more than 80% of the country’s farmers are small or marginal landowners, and largely illiterate, making tech adoption daunting for them.

“Agriculture is a challenge in India,” says Shreyas Tharanath, Senior Support Manager at KisanHub India. “Because the sector is unorganized, there is no visibility around supply and demand. And that’s where you see a lot of trouble happening.”

But in pockets of India’s vast tracts, that’s changing with large enterprises entering the picture. “Till now, changes in the sector have been toward machinery. The next decade will be about digital transformation,” says Shreyas. “That’s what KisanHub is about. How we connect enterprises to farmers and help these geographically dispersed growers connect to the mainstream agriculture supply chain.”

Green shoots of modernization

At his vineyard abutting the Sahyadri Farms facility on the outskirts of Nashik, the wine capital of India, Pradip Pandharinath Kamankar loves showing off his Samsung Galaxy C9 Pro. It’s packed with nearly 70 apps. One is a popular digital payments platform, another is for booking cinema tickets, and another for travel bookings. He proudly pulls up an app from the school his eight-year-old daughter, Arya, goes to. It allows him to keep track of her attendance, achievements, grades, and schedules, be up-to-date on announcements and payments, and communicate with her teachers.

For his family’s 10-acre farm, Pradip relies on the KisanHub app. He lives in an apartment in the city some 15 kilometers away. Every day, he passes on information and advisories from the app to his mother, Vatsala Kamankar, who at 65 still manages the farmland where she began growing grapes 25 years ago.

Pradip has been associated for almost a decade with Sahyadri Farms. Modeled on cooperatives, it works with about 10,000 farmers, attempting to modernize a tradition- and intuition-led vocation. It was as part of those efforts that Sahyadri introduced its growers to KisanHub.

Pradip Kamankar believes apps like KisanHub have helped remove much of the uncertainty in agriculture. He would like his school-going children, a son and a daughter, to join him at his farm after graduating from college.

“If a disease or a pest seems to be attacking my plants, I immediately shoot a picture of the affected crop and send it to KisanHub. The agronomists with Sahyadri (who access this input via the KisanHub dashboard) assess what’s wrong and advise me on what I need to do. Helps solve our farm problems immediately,” says Pradip.

Swapnil Dattathare Athre, another grape farmer associated with Sahyadri Farms, says exports from his three-acre plot have increased from 60% of his overall produce to about 80% since he began using KisanHub about two years ago.

Inside the swanky Sahyadri office, agronomist Kalpanjay Nathe attributes such successes to the improved communications between Sahyadri’s farm experts and its growers. “Earlier, we were using WhatsApp groups, text messages or phone calls to communicate with the farmers. This became difficult as the number of farmers increased. With KisanHub, we are able to send specific information to targeted groups.”

Freshworks at the heart of KisanHub

Rewind to a few years prior.

At KisanHub’s Pune office, some 200 kilometers away from Nashik, Shreyas was becoming restless. More Sahyadri farmers were downloading the KisanHub app but barely anyone was raising queries.

“We started wondering why our customers (the farmers) were not writing to us. That’s when I came to know that Freshdesk had come up with a new WhatsApp integration facility. And almost all farmers are on WhatsApp,” says Shreyas. “That became one of my favorite Freshdesk features.”

KisanHub had been using Freshdesk, Freshworks’ flagship customer engagement product, as well as Freshsales, for about three years before this. Although the Sahyadri farmers had access to KisanHub’s support function via Freshdesk, they didn’t use it much initially until the WhatsApp integration was activated.

The change was instant and dramatic. The WhatsApp feature was rolled out on the KisanHub app via Freshdesk in under a month, resulting in a rush of queries and feedback. Communication through the app improved from 20-30% earlier to 80-90%.

For Freshworks’ customers, the WhatsApp integration feature has emerged as a powerful channel not only for customer support and engagement but also for boosting revenues. Freshworks launched the feature within its Freshchat customer messaging software in early 2019.

“We have both midmarket and small and medium business customers using the WhatsApp integration feature extensively,” says Naga Vishnu Prassad, Product Marketing Associate at Freshworks. “An insurance company in Argentina improved its customer satisfaction (CSAT) score to 5/5 after they began using WhatsApp in Freshchat. In South Africa, an e-commerce company’s revenue increased by 10x after they began using WhatsApp for sales. Their support costs dropped 60% when they switched from call-based support to chat through the WhatsApp integration feature.”

Arjun Marella, Lead-Territory Sales (Middle-East and Africa), at Freshworks, explains how the feature makes support intuitive for both customers as well as agents. “If a customer or end-user has a query or wants to place a complaint, they can send a message through a dedicated WhatsApp number. A support agent will receive that as a message on Freshchat or as a ticket in Freshdesk. The agent’s replies will reach the end-user on WhatsApp,” he says. “We have similar Freshchat widget integrations with Facebook Messenger, LINE, and other channels.”

Transforming the lives of farmers

Gaurav says it’s become easier now to convince farmers to embrace technology for more than entertainment and sending and receiving WhatsApp messages. “Apps such as Google Pay and PhonePe allow them to transfer money to relatives living far away. So they see the uses of tech for themselves,” he says.

That’s significant progress from his initial days on the job when farmers would call him to check the weather for their plot even after months of using the KisanHub app. The company spent considerable time educating the farmers. Through instructive workshops and videos that told stories of farmers benefiting from KisanHub, they drove adoption toward making the app a habit.

Now, Gaurav’s hoping to prepare the ground in India for more advanced features such as canopy check for root crops, which is available in the UK version of the KisanHub app. “These aren’t in India yet. But I feel encouraged that someday features like these will find use in India as well.”

His optimism holds hope for the entire sector. India has an estimated 150 million farmers and only a fraction are associated with companies that can guarantee them a market for their produce. KisanHub may have only scratched the surface. But it’s playing a more crucial role. Of providing data-backed evidence of what digital transformation can do to improve the lives of millions of farmers. And to modernize India’s agriculture.


Photographs and audio: Monica Jha and Sriram Vittalamurthy

Cover image: Vignesh Rajan