It has been nearly two years since I published my thoughts about ‘building your own’ and, as the topic is still as relevant now as it was back then, I think it is time for a follow-up article to see what has changed since August 2017. What we saw a lot in the market back in 2017 is people trying to build their own ‘solution’; creating something that would satisfy a very small and particular business need but that ultimately did not allow for any of the bigger benefits of ag data to be reaped. These solutions do not allow for collaboration with anyone else nor do they allow for risks to be managed accurately or data analysis to be performed. These are bespoke solutions working in isolation of any other part of the business and so require add resources (people) to move to the next step (data entry) in order to deliver an outcome.
Creating something that is not exactly useful
So, do we still see people trying to ‘build their own’ in 2019? Yes, but in decreasing numbers for as far as I can see. This weekend I was browsing some of the weird and wonderful parts of the internet, to escape the less-than-wonder weather here in Colorado, when I stumbled upon something that really describes the current phase of Agtech well: the Japanese concept of Chindogu. Basically, Chindogu is the creation of something that is ‘Not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless. It is creating inventions that don’t quite work, but that are fun nonetheless.”
We’re talking about things like a ‘Sock closet” that allows you to hang your socks and treat them with ‘pride’ or a ‘AC-free charger’ that takes twelve batteries to charge one battery. You probably get the idea; these are things that were invented with, probably, the best of intentions in mind but ultimately, they failed to fill any particular need. What these inventors lacked was a vision on how it solved the real problem in a holistic way: They got caught up in the weeds of building and design instead of asking; is my product useful? Is it satisfying a demand? Will there be a true market for it? I couldn’t help but immediately draw many parallels to AgTech and I’m sure you can think of examples yourself as well.
A lack of vision
With AgTech as a concept being very popular all over the world at the moment, just look at the amount of glamorous conferences getting organised in many different places, investors appear to be scrambling to get in on the ground floor of the next ‘uber or google of AgTech’. More and more often however I see the founder vision lacking and it appears that many companies are just relying on a large team with a whole lot of funds and hope that this one great idea will magically materialize at some point or just simply deliver a “Bahamas moment for them” a nice exit with a stack of cash to relax and enjoy life - which is fine if that’s what you want to do.
Will either of these things happen? Maybe. But the more I speak to founders of AgTech businesses that themselves have never even been on a farm, I get the feeling that a lot of funding is getting used for purposes that are counter-productive for agriculture in general. Or, to come back to the Chindogu idea, because a vision is lacking, many products that currently get developed will soon be seen as too much trouble to use.
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So, while there may not be as many people trying to ‘build their own’ as in 2017, the heavy investment in AgTech is sparking a round of products and inventions that will never be viable because they lack a vision and connection to the farmer from day one. These failures, whilst inevitable in small numbers, will become so common that ‘tech fatigue’ will rise further, turning off some farmers from engaging in the journey of AgTech and new digital tools in general, which is detrimental to the cause we are all working towards: widespread adoption of digital technology in agriculture.
Letting common sense prevail
Is there a solution? No, other than saying that common sense usually surfaces at a faster rate as economics dictate the potential for unpleasant outcomes at personal and business level, and so things will run their course, this is sometimes how innovation works. Increasingly though, farmers are realizing that some technology is heavy on hype and in reality, impractical for agriculture at this point if at all. These farmers know that their knowledge and experience cannot simply be replaced by digital tools, let alone with the extreme increases in efficiency and profitability that are often spruced.
So, what should a farmer do? Probably just what they do best: continue to be selective with who they work with. Just like they wouldn’t use an agronomist with zero experience or an inputs provider that doesn’t know the difference between an herbicide and an insecticide, dealing with an AgTech provider that has proven experience in the delivery of relevant technology that impacts their management of their risk and reward and knows his way around the farm is key.