Startups seek to change game in smart agritech

Deep sadness

Complaints were the beginning of one conversation amongst a group of seven female workers at the Yen Dung safe vegetable co-operative in the northern province of Bac Giang at the end of 2017. They were talking to each other while tilling the land into furrows for the planting of wax gourds, their backs hunched.

“We created about 20 furrows over the whole day, due to a lack of dedicated furrowing machines, while hundreds of furrows for planting cabbage on the opposite field were finished by furrowing machines within three days,” Pham Thi Sam complained.

These workers, aged 45-50, chose the work out of necessity. They had no choice, because some had let all their fields to the co-operative, while others were unable to find suitable jobs outside of farming, which they have a strong connection to.

They are worried about their cultivated land being left fallow, as their children are not keen on farming. “My son and daughter-in-law refuse to farm, because they think they can earn more money from working at factories,” Ngo Thi Hien sighed.

Such concerns of female workers is understandable, as Vietnam is facing a fast-moving urbanisation. Cultivated land areas have been making room for industrial parks and factories springing up like mushrooms.

Many households in rural areas are not fond of the traditional cultivation which their ancestors leaned on. Fragmented household farming remains a major part of rural life, even though a number of large-scale farms, co-operatives, and agricultural firms have been founded in recent years.

As such, fragmented and unprompted farming led to painful lessons on setting up agricultural plans and building a sustainable supply chain, causing the subsequent ‘rescues’ of the watermelon, pork, onion, ginger, and dragon fruit markets due to the excessive supplies. This issue even became a hotly-disputed topic at many National Assembly (NA) meetings.

“Which farm product will we have to rescue following the cases of pigs and watermelons? Please give notes to help farmers avoid similar cases,” deputy Tran Duong Tuan from the Ben Tre province delegation confronted Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Xuan Cuong at an NA meeting last June. Adding in the oversupplies at harvest time, price decreases caused by bumper crops have become a chronic disease of the domestic agricultural sector.

Glad tidings

The Party and state always attach importance to the development of agriculture, which has been closely associated with the country’s construction and development over the past thousands of years.

However, the agricultural sector’s contributions to national development remain modest, with a share of 16% of GDP, while labourers in the sector account for 42% of the total workforce and up to 70% of the population live in rural areas.

In a drastic move to further spur agricultural development, Vietnam has recently planned to establish 500 high-tech agricultural co-operatives and to increase the high-tech farming production value five times over by 2020.

Prior to the plan’s publication, the sector witnessed a shift in farming methods, as a slew of local youths have started smart agricultural projects to grasp opportunities emerging from the worldwide digital transformation. It is preliminarily estimated that about 10 firms are pursuing the provision of smart agricultural technology (agritech) solutions.

They left behind jobs and careers they had worked in for years, making a new start with their agritech startups. Pham Ngoc Anh Tung dropped out of his university to implement IT projects before founding agritech company Demeter in 2017. Nguyen Khac Minh Tri resigned from his position as the CEO of the Saigon Institute for Techniques and Technology to set up the agritech firm Mimosatek. Another case is Le Lan Anh, who gave up her auditing job in Singapore with a monthly income of thousands of US dollars to join Mimosatek.

They are around 30 years old, but they can make persuasive speeches and enthusiastically share their knowledge of smart agriculture.

Failing to imagine which products farmers and agricultural firms might need while sitting in an office, they rolled up their sleeves and went to the fields for two to three years to make sense of the real demand for agritech products.

Both firms have succeeded in developing Internet of Things (IoT)-based management services to check ‘health’ of farms. Sensors installed at farms are in charge of collecting and updating data related to moisture, light, temperature, fertilising, and other factors onto a cloud platform. Then, the automated system will use algorithms to analyse the data and give fertilising recommendations and technical warnings for users.

Having used the Mimosatek service for more than a year, Nong Phat High-Tech Agriculture JSC saved 10-15% in total water and fertiliser used for eight hybrid muskmelon hybrid greenhouses. The application also allows one worker to cover all the 2,100sq.m greenhouses instead of needing eight workers, as had been the case before.

The two agritech solution providers have set up a network of hundreds of customers, including both firms and farming households. Demeter is co-operating with its partners to deploy the Cau Dat farming project worth more than VND100 billion (US$4.4 million) in Ho Chi Minh City, while partnering with Intel Corporation to continue the expansion of their customer network. The Vietnamese firm plans to approach regional markets with similarities to the Vietnamese market, like Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Mimosatek prioritises opportunities in the domestic market, as 3G and 4G services are spreading quickly in Vietnam, while Google announced a plan last year on aiding 30,000 farmers across Vietnam in accessing the internet and using computers.

Focus is placed on farming households first. Up to 70% of the population live in rural areas and Mimosatek hopes to have 1 or 2% of the proportion use their service, said the firm’s chief operating officer Le Lan Anh. “It’s simple to use the Mimosatek service on computers or smartphones if users have experience with apps like Zalo or Facebook.”

As for the women of the Yen Dung safe vegetable co-operative, the 32-year-old director is sparing no efforts to mobilise capital for widening the greenhouse and outdoor cultivation area to 300 hectares, a ten-fold increase compared to the existing figure. Smart greenhouse is part of the co-operative’s projected expansion of cultivation.