Dr. Renuka Karandikar is an inspirational female leader in agritech industry in India. She has excellent track of academic records with over 13 years spent in scientific research of on bioactives. She has a patent filed for large scale production of a certain class of metabolites. Today Renuka is our guest and shares her thoughts about challenges facing female founders on their way to launch a company. She speaks about agriculture technologies and impact of COVID-19 on agriculture technologies in India. Renuka sincerely shares her vision about regenerative agriculture and other trends of current and future agriculture.
M.K.: Good morning, Renuka. It’s my pleasure that today’s conversation, our first conversation at Agfluencers we have with you. Would you be so kind to tell us a little bit about yourself, about your PhD and study at the University of Pune, and about your company?
R.K.: First of all, good morning to you! And thank you so much. I consider it as a honour to be here and as your first guest. Hence, thanks a lot once again. I am very happy to meet you as well.
Very briefly about my background: I did my PhD in Plant Biotechnology in the Department of Botany at the University of Pune from India. In particular, I did work mostly on secondary metabolites plant physiology. Then I did my PhD in Plant Genetic Engineering.
After this, I wanted to do something on my own in agriculture and I was quite unsure of what.
How to easily move from biotech to agriculture?
R.K: Since we spent so much of our lives inside the lab it was a question. Hence, I was not really sure what we could do or how we could help the farmers on the ground and in the field. As a result, I spent a little bit of time working with the farmers. In particular, I worked with some of my seniors who had different companies. Thankfully, these companies work in the agriculture sector in India.
We were trying to solve their problems and identify what are the main challenges that the farmers of the industry are facing. Then while doing so I realized that there is so much of advances that have come up in biotechnology or in agriculture. But so little of it is being used on the farm today. Surprisingly, the science is so advanced but not much of it has been commercialized. Hence, I thought I can do something here. That is when we started Bio Prime. It’s been now 4 years. And it’s been an incredible journey. Indeed, it’s a very fulfilling journey. In fact, I am very happy that I decided to do something and start a company.
Agriculture Products for Farming in India
M.K.: OK, thank you for your story. So you probably have some focus in your work. Since you collaborate with farmers and what crops are you focused on?
R.K.: We don’t focus specifically on a crop. In brief, what we’re trying to do is to address the challenge of crop losses due to climate change. In India especially this challenge is indeed very severe. Because most of our farmers are small holding farmers. They do not have the means or the technology adoption level to mitigate the losses.
In India the agriculture is mainly rain fed. As a result, if there is change in weather pattern rainfall it has a really catastrophic effect. Hence, we focus primarily on helping farmers mitigate climate change impact. That’s our current focus.
From Labs to Fields in India
M.K.: Is it not crop related but mainly about how do they do farming? Are you trying just improve their way of farming?
R.K.: Yes, the way of farming is also important. We have products which are based on our technology platform which we call SnipR. The products are biologicals.
They are based on small molecules. These molecules form a pathway or they are a part of the plant signalling network. Hence, we use them to modulate different behaviours in the plant. Then the farmers can use them and mitigate climate change impact in a very rapid or a very fast manner.
In other words, what we do is: we develop products. Surely, then we also help and advise farmers on changing some practices. But that’s not our core focus. We do it because it helps farmers with input challenges. Or it may support selling their products.
Farming in India: Organic and Not Only
M.K.: Can your product be applied for organic farming? Or a farmer may have better outcome applying it only for traditionally conventional farming?
R.K.: We wanted to develop a product which could be compatible with all forms of agriculture. In brief, we see a lot of farmers in India who are now convinced that they should reduce the use of chemicals.
But they don’t know how to do this. Because if they do reduce the use of chemicals and start going towards the organic way of farming then there are yield losses. Or the harvest is not up to the mark.
We thought that we should devise something that anybody can adopt. We decided to help farmers transition from chemicals towards organic. Or at least reduce the use of chemicals. These products are compatible with all types of farming. Also, they’re compatible with current fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides.
Regenerative Agriculture as a Revolution or the Way Back?
M.K.: What is your personal opinion, as an expert in agriculture, about organic farming and regenerative agriculture? In your opinion: what is so revolutionary? And can it bring so huge results?
R.K.: Surprisingly, but organic farming has actually been in Indian agriculture. I think that’s how traditionally we’ve done farming. I think we have just lost our way in between. Surely, I think we’ll go back there pretty soon. So we’ve never been into this really industrialized kind of farming as a country.
Farming for us has always been so much of a worship or a livelihood. In other words, kind of a thing more than a very commercial approach. That is why I think for us in India, as a country, it will be easier to transition back to the organic ways or the natural ways.
Thought to Remember
Farmers have naturally been taught to respect land, worship land and worship soil.Renuka Karandikar
R.K.: In a light of this, I think it’s very helpful culturally to convince the farmers that land and soil is their asset. That means not just the crop that they grow.
Owing to this I’m very excited by the mentioned trend because I think that’s what will give us sustainability. Indeed, it will be a challenge on how to adopt it. However, I think we have to go through the little rigorous process before we arrive there.
At the same time, I think it’s an effort that we should all do.
Insight about Agriculture Technologies in India
M.K.: It’s very interesting that you’ve said that you are on half of the way to the advancement in agriculture technologies in India. There are many startups in agriculture, originated from India. What is your experience of work with agriculture technologies? For example, drones, robotics, sensors. Do you use them at your own work? Or, perhaps, you’ve just heard about them but you are not applying them?
R.K.: We use a lot of agriculture technologies in India. We use drones or multispectral imagery to analyze the effect on the crops or the impact that the biologicals have on the crop.
The government and local authorities are very progressive and supportive towards drone based spraying also. Firstly, it’s because it will reduce the amount of spray that needs to be done. This means less chemicals are required as well as the amount that will leach into the soil.
Artificial Intelligence and Other Agriculture Technologies
R.K.: In terms of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a lot has being done in terms of traceability and blockchain. I think the consumer demands it and efforts being incorporated so reluctantly. But I think it’s being incorporated interestingly as well.
This lockdown has promoted so much of change and technology adoption in agriculture in India. We got a lot of agriculture technology adopted so fast! I mean a lot has been done in three months in comparison it has ever been done in the last five or six years.
Coronavirus and Agriculture Technologies in India
M.K.: Renuka, so you think that COVID-19 has already brought some positive changes in agriculture technologies in India?
R.K.: Yes, it brings some positive change here. Absolutely! Because it will help farmers make much wiser decisions. Also, it will help farmers anticipate weather related challenges. Finally, it will help them to prepare better and be smarter about the inputs.
I think from that angle it would be helpful.
Indeed, we have a long way to go in terms of adoption of agriculture technologies in India. Because before that happens we will need to have aggregation of land holding. If you know in India the main challenge is related to the size of farms. In other words, the farmlands are very segregated and there are smallholder farmers. This means before we will do all this improvements we will need to have aggregation.
Either corporate farming will come up or a collaborative farming will appear. Contract farming or something like that will come up which will aggregate the farmers. Then it will aid that option of agriculture technologies in India. Before that it just simply doesn’t make sense for the farmers, at the scale at which they are currently working.
Agriculture, Which Must Feed The Planet in 2020
M.K.: What is your opinion about the the very popular thought that agriculture must feed nine billion of people, who will live on Earth in 2050? I understand that we don’t know what will happen in the next 20 years. But still do you believe that it’s possible? Or still we need to focus not only on agriculture, but also work on a GMO and some artificial substitutions of food? In your opinion: is it relevant or not?
R.K.: I’m not really sure about the acceptability of GMOs. We do have Bt cotton here, in India. But after that not much got accepted. I know your app also has a very strict anti-GMO feeling.
Scientifically it does make a lot of sense, but in natural practice I don’t know whether it will ever see the light of the day. I think we can expect at least some kind of changes with the CRISPR technology coming in. Maybe, that would ease out the challenges that we have with GMOs indoor production.
Artificial Food Or What?
R.K.: I’m skeptical about artificial food. What will it taste?
M.K.: Yes, to eat green meat… The colour of this will be definitely not so natural. Sometimes we understand: the taste maybe will be fine, but colour may be weird. For example, purple potato or something like this.
R.K.: It’s maybe not very relevant to to eat and consume. I wonder: we are literally at a stage where agriculture is transforming. We were fortunate to live in an era where we can see like agriculture going through a massive change in the next 50 years it might become unrecognizable. Hence, I think we’re in a very fortunate time zone to witness all this. But I don’t know where it will go.
Female Founders: How to Start (Not Only in Agriculture Technologies in India!)
M.K.: Let’s switch a little bit to your experience as a female founder. You said that you had understand that you want to do something. But you were not sure what to do exactly. So what was the biggest problem for you? In terms of either legal or some kind of practical problems, which you met on your way to create a company?
R.K.: I mean are you asking generally as a founder or a female founder?
M.K.: Maybe female founder status is more relevant. Because founders males are slightly different from women. I want to hear your point of view because I am the founder, the female founder as well. So I understand that I have also some internal pressure. Hence, it’s interesting from your point of view, from your side. What have you experienced?
R.K.: Sure. I was really fortunate to have family support. Hence, I didn’t have a problem from that side. Everybody was very supportive. My friends were very helpful. In fact, they literally pushed me into this. It helps when you have a community of people rallying behind you and saying that you can do it, go ahead and be there. That definitely helped.
Female Founders in Male Dominated Agriculture Industry
R.K.: At the same time, in terms of agriculture and agritech the experience was slightly different. I mean in India agriculture is a largely male-dominated profession. In fact, you don’t see many female farmers. On the other hand, if we go into agriculture businesses like whatever inputs that go into the farm – we’ll see this. Either it’s tractors or it’s machinery; either it’s aggregate inputs like fertilizers, chemicals or seeds – all these companies don’t have female founders. In the ecosystem you have extremely small percentage of females.
Whether it’s on the consumer side or whether it’s on the company’s owner point of view. As a result, yes, it was challenging.
Because when we went to the village where we wanted to have some farmers to try our products for the very first time… And I don’t come from a very farming kind of a background. I do have a little background in agriculture but not so much. You know their perception is like when you go to the field, they see city folks coming who don’t necessarily speak their dialect. Sure, I mean it’s the same language, right? But not their dialect. I mean I’m not even saying that it’s a different language.
Females in Agriculture with Knowledge and Voice
R.K.: It’s very difficult to gain that trust from them. And I found it even more difficult because they’re not used to a female telling them something. They’re not used to this. Hence, there’s no trust in that. It was slightly difficult. Was it the same for you?
M.K.: Yes, it was. I completely understand your thoughts and your situation. Because if you are a female leader in agriculture you are not trusted. Personally, I feel that a man has the following attitude: oh, she is speaking something. Good, I can listen to her but what is she speaking about? It’s just some girl came to me and says something. I will listen to her because I am very polite. But it’s not the stage of involvement in this what we are saying. This is my feeling. And that’s why, actually, I was so happy to start some movements around this topic and founded Agfluencers. Just to inspire other female leaders in agriculture; let’s continue our talk, even we are talking not so loudly. But still we are here. And we can speak. And we know something.
The Right People To Follow
M.K.: Renuka, do you have any specific person or an institution who is very inspiring for you. Maybe, it’s in iIndia or globally. But you are just following them on some kind of social media. Or you are reading the updates and you can tell: “Yes, read them. They are very interesting. They will give you some push”. I mean that push not just from friends to go further but also from some external resource.
R.K.: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if you know: there’s one person that I could pick or follow. In terms of business and organization I absolutely love and follow Simon Sinek. Indeed, he’s been very inspiring. In a world where the noise is about you know profits and cutthroat here’s a person who talks about values and people. His key thought: start with why? It’s amazing!
M.K.: Where do you follow him? Which channels do you use?
R.K.: Absolutely everywhere. I read all of his books. And I’ve heard all of his Youtube recordings. Whatever he puts out his thoughts, I keep my eye. Also, I keep working with his advice over and over again.
Fail Fast and Do Experimenting
M.K.: do you have any personal productivity advice for other female leaders? Not in agriculture but coming from any background. Because if a lady who is doing some work in her own company, will read this conversation, maybe, she will also apply it to her personal productivity.
R.K.: I have this very simple motto “Fail Fast”. You just need to go, just do it, learn on your way, and I believe that failures are will happen. We’re going to fail hundreds of times, thousands of times, precisely. Because we’re trying to do something new, right? I mean it’s not been done before. There’s no established way. We’re going to fail. So just get at it! You can overcome and build better, and move ahead. Rather than fearing failure, rather than avoiding it I think we need to seek it. I think that comes from our background in science as well. In science we set up an experiment. If it doesn’t work we tweak it a bit set it again. We can you follow the same thing here.
M.K.: thank you, Renuka, it’s very inspiring. And thank you so much for this conversation and for your time to have this conversation today, on nice Saturday morning. Because hardworking female leaders – they work even on Saturday.
R.K.: Absolutely, yes!
M.K.: Thank you so much and I sincerely wish you good luck in your agritech business and see you somewhere on Forbes pages :).
R.K.: Thank you so much for the wishes and lovely to speak with you.