Agtech: Why it needs to win friends and influence farmers

 Virtual reality farm experiences were recently showcased at the CSIRO Agcatalyst event last month.

Virtual reality farm experiences were recently showcased at the CSIRO Agcatalyst event last month.

Over the last few months I’ve been to a few Agtech and agricultural industry events in Melbourne and Sydney (including Agcatalyst, complete with broccoli latte's and a virtual reality farm-experience). I’ve come across a bunch of amazing start-ups looking to revolutionise agriculture. Most of them have brilliant start-ups that, if they can execute well, will probably disrupt the industry for the better.

But the one thing that seems to come up repeatedly and I really believe will be the reason their start-up will fail or succeed, is their connection with their customers; farmers and regional agribusinesses.

It can be easy to forget that your customer’s connectivity is shithouse or that it’s more important that they fix the pump at the top of the paddock to make sure their cattle don’t die rather than use your crappy soil testing app.

As an Agtech company, your target customers are usually a 27 hour drive inland from Sydney or Melbourne or wherever most of the tech community and talent is based. It can be easy to forget that your customer’s connectivity is shithouse or that it’s more important that they fix the pump at the top of the paddock to make sure their cattle don’t die rather than use your crappy soil testing app. If we ignore this then we're going to find it really hard to scale, and even get feedback on our ideas.

Understanding farmers and regional businesses and forging great relationships is the fundamental starting point for any agile or lean start-up framework anyway. But doing it sustainably and ensuring we’ve got a long term strategy to continue engagement with our regional customers is challenging.

Fortunately we can take some lessons from those businesses that do this the best across regional setting. They are the successful agribusinesses and regional small businesses that don’t necessarily sell technology but fertiliser, farm equipment and coffee. The reason they sell these things and are so successful at it is that they understand their customer’s needs. They ‘get’ that it’s not just technology alone that improves farm productivity, it’s the farm inputs and equipment too.

The key for Agtech companies moving forward, especially ones based out of urban centres like Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne, is understanding how their customers use their software alongside other tasks. Understanding this can help start-ups better design their product and develop their technologies to ensure they complement everything else going on in their customer's life (or business).

The challenge is that to gain this understanding and keep it relevant, Agtech companies need to deal with their customers frequently and get to know them well.

The challenge is that to gain this understanding and keep it relevant, Agtech companies need to deal with their customers frequently and get to know them well. In Australia this is really challenging when your customers are a long, long, long way from most urban centres.

There are a few strategies tech companies have employed to better reach and get feedback from their customers. These include partnering with regionally based agribusinesses that have an existing relationship with their local farmers to recommend/sell their product. Partnerships between entities like SproutX and RuralCo have supported Agtech accelerator participants who may be based in large cities. Established technology companies like Trimble have partnered with agribusiness to offer their technology under the ‘Vantage’ banner. Other small Agtech companies (like us) have relocated to regional towns, with additional flow on economic benefits for the local communities they base themselves out of.

Either way, winning friends and influencing farmers needs to be a core part of any Agtech company’s long-term growth strategy. Forgetting this can mean start-up death, or even worse, wasting years and thousands of dollars on a product that never goes anywhere because it never meets their customer's needs.