Have AgTech solutions been successful in addressing real-world problems?
I recently came across a post on LinkedIn that caught my attention. Sarah Nolet, founder and CEO of AgThentic, writes “…thus far, we have not developed enough practical solutions with strong value propositions for farmers. Farmers are getting frustrated, even skeptical.”
The theme of this post has frequently come up in my conversations when discussing the outcomes of past Emerging Agriculture hackathons. I’m often asked, “how applicable are the ideas that have been hacked in previous years?” Or, “how many of the hackathon ideas have transitioned into the real world?” I’m often left grasping for an answer because, unfortunately, a lot of the hackathon ideas haven’t been implemented in the agricultural industry. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to. Of the past two Emerging Agriculture hackathons that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of, I’ve been amazed at the sophistication and feasibility of designs that were brought to life in only six hours. I’m sure other attendees would agree with me when I say that these ideas have incredible potential. However, a computer science student with no background in agriculture typically has no idea of what challenges farmers are facing today, or what they will be facing in the future. In order to come up with realistic solutions, our participants need to be aware of real problems.
This brings me to address the most pressing issue we face as an organization in terms of our event and its outcomes: the ideas ‘hacked’ need to solve real-world problems. What good is a real-world solution if it doesn’t solve a real-world problem? I like Sarah’s observation: “Farmers have proven they will adopt technologies and solutions when they solve real problems… too many agtech solutions fail this simple test.” There are thousands of people around the world working on the same problems, with too few of them being novel products or services that bring value to users. A small proportion of the solutions will pass the test and be adopted by the industry.
Sarah states a few reasons why agtech solutions seem to fail when adopted into the real world:
- developing solutions in ag is challenging
- entrepreneurs lack industry networks and domain expertise
- farmers aren’t used to participating so early in the developmental process
I’d like to discuss a reason that I would add to the list, through the use of a metaphor. Sometimes, puzzle pieces don't fit where they think they will fit. Don’t force it into the gap; temporary fixes are met with disdain. Instead, ask someone else if they know where the puzzle piece goes. Maybe the piece needs to be turned, or even flipped 180º. Maybe it’s in the wrong box and is actually a piece for a different puzzle.
The industry has gaps, but either (1) solutions fail at filling the gap they intend to fill, or (2) solutions don’t address any specific gap and thus, do not have a fit. There are those who develop real-world solutions, hoping that they will solve real world problems, and those who identify real-world problems but are unsuccessful at proposing practical and valuable real-world solutions. Many people are trying to develop a piece that fits, and not all will be successful in filling the gap.
For hackathon participants/agtech innovators, I highly suggest talking to those who can advise on if, and how, proposed solutions would fit. There are many professionals in the agtech industry that have been through the innovation process and would love to support aspiring entrepreneurs. Maybe the solution is a puzzle piece for a different niche. Maybe the idea behind the resolution of the issue is accurate but the method of implementation is wrong. Successful solutions fit together to form a bigger picture, just like a puzzle.
Instead of developing real-world solutions and hoping they will address real-world problems, we need to identify the outstanding issues in the market and why they have yet to be solved. We need to study the business model of the agtech industry and propose solutions that will be supported by the value chain and by other players already established in the game. We need to implement solutions that are practical and of high value to the user.
What are your thoughts on the applicability of agtech innovations? As an industry, how successful have we been at creating feasible solutions? What steps should we be taking to ensure that, right from the start, we are taking the right steps to transform ideas into real-world solutions, of value to users and our industry? What challenges are we as an industry facing right now? in 5 years? in 20 years?
I look forward to hearing all thoughts on this topic!