South Asia, home to over 1 billion people, is at the frontlines of food insecurity and climate change. In 2022, a prolonged heatwave in Pakistan sparked food and energy shortages, and was followed by a deadly flood that decimated the agricultural sector. What if we could equip smallholder farmers with right-sized tech to make them more productive and resilient to such climate impacts?

Meet Radical Growth Solutions, our 2022 TFF Finalist from Pakistan. This team provides climate-affected farmers with a simple and affordable smart farming system that improves water and fertilizer use efficiency, as well as livelihoods.

The problem

It may seem absurd to think about water scarcity in Pakistan amid the recent floods, but the reality is that the country is facing an acute water crisis.

Despite being the fifth richest country in water resources , a recent report shows alarming facts: Pakistan is ranked 14th among 17 countries with the most extreme water risks; more than 80% of the total population faces severe water shortages for at least one month a year; and if this situation remains, the country could run out of water by 2025.

Water mismanagement in the agricultural sector is the leading culprit. Agriculture represents the largest economic sector in the country, but contributes only 5% to GDP while using 90% of available water resources – mainly for the production of rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton. The country’s archaic irrigation systems have an efficiency rate of less than 39% – one of the lowest in the world. On top of this, the current methods used by farmers to irrigate crops, such as furrow or sprinkler irrigation, are outdated and wasteful. Most of the time, farmers make decisions on when and how to water their crops based on mere speculation.

All of this threatens the country’s overall food security. Already, Pakistan’s agricultural productivity pales in comparison to other countries like India, the USA or China. In 2021, Radical Growth Solutions served as advisors for a comprehensive study about “Agricultural Innovation in Pakistan” by the National Incubation Center. The study outlined the top seven challenges facing the sector – and water security and lack of proper technology for crop health were named as the two biggest threats. Pakistan is estimated to have a food shortage of around 70 million tons by 2025.

No water, no food = a humanitarian crisis in the making.

Image source: www.adb.org/news

The Solution

The team at Radical Growth Solutions is developing a simple, accessible smart farming solution that uses soil sensors and micro weather stations to collect real-time data from fields to determine precise water requirements for crops according to soil moisture, humidity and temperature. The technology can also measure NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) levels in order to provide additional fertilizer recommendations. This enables farmers to make data-driven decisions to improve their productivity, profitability and sustainability. 

They deploy an affordable agri-kit of small sensors that are placed in the soil based on swarm technology. MF3K kits work in a local network formation controlled by a gateway for connectivity and data management. Their kit consists of 15 nodes that collect data at a higher frequency and provide 15x more accuracy than other solutions in the market, which typically rely on a single data point.

The team layers the data gathered from the sensors in the field with information they collect manually from farmers, as well as with remote sensing information from the ESA Sentinel 2 satellite that is provided by a partner company. All of this provides a 360-degree view of a farmer’s field, which Radical Growth Solutions converts into real-time insights and tangible recommendations of actions for growers – such as how much water and fertilizer to use and when to use it – thereby improving overall yield performance while reducing inputs.

To date, Radical Growth Solutions’ agri-kit has been tested on 8 farms representing 1500 acres, which are growing a variety of crops under various agronomic conditions across Pakistan and the Middle East. The results are compelling! By using Radical Growth’s smart farming system, growers have experienced water savings of 80%, have reduced input resource use by 70%, and increased their yields by 15%.

The business

Pakistan has a rural population of 120 million people, out of which 60% are smallholder farmers. Smallholders are the target customers for Radical Growth Solutions – which is the reason why they have adopted a farmer-friendly strategy in all that they do. As Radical Growth’s Co-Founder and COO Nabeel states, “all tech in the world is useless until unit economics favor farmers, and not just VCs.” 🎯

Recognizing that farmers don’t want yet-another app to download, Radical Growth Solutions provides their insights and actions via WhatsApp and SMS. They also understand that the main barrier to implementation of any type of ag technology is the price. Even though their solution is cheaper than competitors, smallholder farmers don’t always have cash flow available, or they are inexperienced and unwilling to take risks without understanding the costs and benefits of a new solution. That’s why Radical Growth partners with local banks to offer their agri-kits as part of a subsidized micro-loan. Farmers then can have the kits at a discount and pay the cost of them in installments.

Radical Growth Solutions is continuing to build out their hardware and software system, crop models, and business model by undertaking pilots where they can glean more learnings directly from farmers and partners. To date, they have carried out pilots in Pakistan, Bahrain, and Jordan. Their solution is suitable for both indoor and outdoor farming, so in addition to continuing their focus on smallholders in Pakistan and across the South Asia and MENA regions, they are exploring possible use cases for greenhouses and vertical farms.

Backstory

Radical Growth Solutions’ team history with agriculture began 8 years ago when the newlywed couple Nabeel and Priya decided to start growing their own vegetables and chickens on a small plot of land that they owned. In the beginning, they noticed this was something that came naturally to them. They were even turning a profit, so they leased a bigger plot. Suddenly, and without knowing any better, they became farmers. That’s when the challenges started.

Each day, they were faced with the question: “When do we water?” and “When do we fertilize?” Having no real experience, they reached out to people who were supposed to be experts, but found out they were still using traditional and old practices such as “stick your finger in the ground” to find out when to water the plants. There had to be a better way!

As they kept going and shared their experiences with farming communities, they realized that many other people were having the same problems. That’s when they embraced their next-gen change-maker spirit, and decided they should take action and do something about it.

As they both had experience with design thinking methodology, they started a trip around the country for some “human-centered design” sessions. They visited and interviewed farmers to understand their pain points and find out how they were watering and fertilizing their plants. The results were surprising – they noticed that many farmers were not even watering at all!

Nabeel and Priya have varied experiences and come from different backgrounds, but it was clear that their future together would be about bringing digital technology and smart-farming systems into agriculture. Just like the quintessential “garage tinkerer” startup story, they built and tested their first prototypes on their own farms. They were then able to carry out product development and growth thanks to acceleration support and investment from Brinc.

What’s next

The team is now focused on developing and refining crop models for 15 different crops as well as building out more accurate climate-adaptation models. They are actively raising funds that they will use to invest in building their inventory of sensor kits and to further develop their software.

In addition, they are focused on securing more pilots and corporate partnerships that can help them continue to test and verify their product. They recently closed a deal with a new customer in the south of Jordan, where they will install 150 agro-kits covering 900 acres and provide a complete consultancy for 3 years.

Radical Growth are now taking part in the TFF Academy, our personalized start-up acceleration program, where they are developing their business model, their go-to-market and fundraising strategies, and of course their storytelling. We are also introducing them to relevant industry contacts and helping them build the product roadmap for the next few years.

They are also currently participating in the Pakistan Agripreneurship Challenge, the biggest startup competition in the country – and they will be showcased at TFF’s 2022 Challenge Finale and Demo Day on December 8th.

If you want to find out more about Radical Growth Solutions, partner with them, or meet the team, please reach out to Luisa at luisa@thoughtforfood.org.