Aquaconnect leveraging new-age tech to combat challenges in aquafarming
Chennai-based Aquaconnect is a full-stack aquaculture input and outputs platform with embedded fintech, supported by a phygital distribution network. It has evolved with various stakeholders in the aquaculture value chain to drive responsible production and consumption. It aims to improve efficiency, transparency and value realisation through tech intervention.
The five-year old startup has been working with more than 60,000 fish and shrimp farmers to navigate the challenges in the aquaculture through an integrated tech-driven approach. In an exclusive interview with Bizz Buzz, Aquaconnect Founder and CEO Rajamanohar Somasundaram shares his vision to promote sustainable aquafarming in various States of India.
How has a five-year-old startup become the largest aquaculture marketplace in South Asia? Let us know about your journey.
Ideas can strike any time, mostly when they are least expected. During a train journey, I met an aqua farmer who talked about the practice of growing shrimp and fish in ponds. This led me to go back and research more on the subject only to realise that India is the largest exporter of frozen shrimp in the world and second largest aquaculture producer behind China.
Yet, the farmers lack access to knowledge on appropriate farm practices due to which productivity takes a hit. Determined to solve the challenges faced by aqua farmers, we assembled a team and launched an app in 2017 to drive aquafarm digitisation using internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).
The AI-driven farm advisory platform helps the farmers adopt sustainable practices and guide them in monitoring and tracking aquaculture operations at every stage, optimising usage of farm inputs, boosting production efficiency, and producing higher-quality shrimp, all while increasing profitability. Soon, we realised that we were only solving one part of the equation.
The farmers were still facing challenges with regards to inefficient market linkage, lack of access to quality farm inputs, formal capital, insurance and selling their produce. This further led to the launch of a technology driven full-stack aquaculture inputs and outputs platform with embedded fintech, supported by a phygital distribution network.
We now work with various stakeholders in the aquaculture value chain to drive responsible production and consumption, improve efficiency and transparency, increase value realisation, improve market linkage for the farmers and lastly, enable access to formal finance and insurance-all through intelligent tech intervention.
What are the latest technologies being used for aquafarm advisory? How is the Aquaconnect app helping aqua farmers to improve their farm productivity?
From the IoT and AI to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and remote satellite imagery, these new-age technologies are being leveraged by several emerging players to combat the existing challenges in aquafarming and enhance overall production. At Aquaconnect, we deploy a unique approach – "We've got boots on the ground and eyes in the sky."
We combine the elements of human and technology intervention to improve productivity and profitability, as well as ramp up the overall sustainability of the industry. We deploy 'boots on the ground' through our aquapartners' network to enhance our last-mile connectivity and capturing ground intelligence.
We supplement the ground data with satellite remote sensing for better validation by deriving additional metrics of ponds. Through this tech intervention, we have developed AquaCRED, a fintech platform for the financial institutions to underwrite and evaluate farmers' portfolios, validate claims and mitigate risks with better transparency.
What are the plans ahead with the recently raised funds? Are you planning to raise further funds?
We have recently raised Rs60 crore in a funding round led by venture debt firm Trifecta Capital. We will utilise the freshly raised capital to deepen our presence across India by expanding the network of aquapartners-franchise stores that enable access to quality input products to the fish and shrimp farmers.
The funds will also be used to expand the scale of operations and enhance Aquaconnect's post-harvest market linkage solutions. Improving market linkage will allow the farmers to reach out to a broader range of potential buyers, thus increasing value realisation. We are also looking at expanding our geographical footprint across India.
How big is your team? Are you going to increase the team size?
At Aquaconnect, we presently are a team of around 150 aquamen and aquawomen. We are actively recruiting for roles across teams this year.
Let us know about your aqua partners and franchise stores? Going forward, are you expanding your network?
Aqua partners are village-level entrepreneurs who own farm input retail shops. To put it simply, they are the dealers who have franchise stores with us. Aquaconnect has a network of partners who provide farm advisory, quality aquaculture inputs such as feed, healthcare products, farm equipment and access to fintech solutions.
We currently work with nearly 200 aqua-partners and aim to on-board 1,000 by the end of this year.
Where do you have a strong presence? Are you scaling up the operations in the near future? What are the focus areas?
At present, we have a strong presence in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. We are scaling up our operations in West Bengal, North and North-east India this year.
What are the challenges being faced by the aquaculture industry at present? Do you have tech-enabled solutions for the same?
Financing is one of the major challenges in the aquaculture value chain. Banks stay away from adding tremendous value to aquaculture farming because they are unable to come up with risk assessment and mitigation strategies, since everything is happening underwater. We are working towards mitigating this risk factor through tech.
Our model is addressing the issue by providing the correct insights to the financial institutions. These insights further provide underwriting capabilities for the bankers to lend credit products to the farmers. We are also partnering with some fintech startups and prominent banks to enable access to cheap capital for aquaculture farmers and stakeholders in the value chain.
What are the reasons behind the rise in fish and shrimp exports from India? Do you have plans to start operations abroad to cater to the growing demand?
The demand for blue food is on the rise globally. Our oceans are being depleted day-by-day and there isn't enough to feed our ever growing population. India being one of the largest aquaculture producers globally is playing its part by exporting to other countries to fulfill the needs of seafood lovers.
Currently, we are focussed on expanding our footprint in India, but we may soon look at exporting to international markets.
What are the awards and accolades received by Aquaconnect?
Aquaconnect has been recognised as the 'Best Agri Startup in Application of Digital Technologies Award' and the 'Most Innovative AgTech Start-up Award' by FICCI. It has also been featured on the 'Forbes Asia 100 to watch' and 'World-Changing Ideas 2020' by Fast Company.
Aquaconnect is part of the Innovator cohort at Seafood Innovation Project and Hatch Accelerator, Norwegian Seafood Innovation Cluster. It is a platinum winner of the Agriculture Insuretech award by the World Bank Group. Recently, the startup was selected for the fifth edition of Google for Startups Accelerator (GFS) India.