Technology and farming seem incongruous together, as one tends to associate farming with traditional methods and practices. Chennai based startup, Aquaconnect, has broken the stereotypes surrounding farming, with the launch of FarmMOJO, an artificial intelligence (AI) driven mobile app that provides advisory solutions to farmers. The app helps to predict diseases, monitor water quality, improve productivity, and ultimately, boost farmer income.
By Potshangbam July
India has tremendous potential for aquaculture development. Globally, India ranks second in fisheries and aquaculture. Millions of rural farmers and coastal communities depend on shrimp and fish aquaculture, yet many are not able to earn enough to support themselves. The farming practices in this sector are still traditional or semi-intensive when it comes to the application of technology. The shrimp farmers in India mostly operate on a small scale and are not well equipped with technological knowhow. They are yet to realise how technology and innovation can benefit their business and environment. To address the problem, Rajamanohar Somasundaram, CEO of Aquaconnect, has come up with an app that uses AI and machine learning, and acts as an advisor to these small farmers by tracking their practices and finding flaws that need attention.
How the idea of Aquaconnect was born
When asked about how he set up the firm, Somasundaram shares, “I met Sanjai, an aqua farmer, unexpectedly on a train journey, during which I got to know about the shrimp farming industry and its main challenges —high production costs and disease outbreaks. Lack of data driven farming is one of the biggest challenges when trying to achieve sustainability. This is yet to be addressed by the industry. After this chance meeting, I realised the potential of farm data and its capability to solve the industry’s challenges.” Somasundaram became determined to fix the problems aquafarmers faced.
That is how Aquaconnect came into existence—by implementing data driven practices in the Indian shrimp farming ecosystem. The shrimp farmers face various problems, such as procuring good quality seeds, feed and healthcare inputs, as well as prompt buyers for their harvested catch. To eliminate multiple layers of distribution, the firm set up a data driven marketplace to connect shrimp farmers with upstream and downstream players in the business.
How does FarmMOJO work?
Successful aquafarming relies on optimal water quality management and effective disease management. It is difficult for rural aqua farmers to monitor all parameters and make decisions as they completely depend on farm technicians in daily culture operations. Around 2 million rural farmers in coastal communities are involved in aquaculture, where following traditional farming practices prevents them from achieving production efficiency or being able to predict/prevent the spread of diseases. Explaining how FarmMOJO works, Somasundaram says, “Our AI advisor records production data, such as water quality parameters, feed inputs, health status and biomass conversion. Collected data is analysed on a real-time basis, and advisory services are offered to farmers regarding their pond operations.”
FarmMOJO alerts the farmers about parameters that are not at optimal levels. For instance, it is important to ensure effective feed usage and biomass conversion, so if at any point FarmMOJO observes a poor feed conversion ratio (FCR), the app suggests the necessary actions to be taken and the relevant product to be used to normalise the pond environment and boost FCR. Likewise, the app helps at every stage of culture operations using artificial intelligence. FarmMOJO uses the collected data to build patterns that represent optimal operations, gets intelligence on culture practices, and keeps providing personalised suggestions and advice to farmers. The data can also be utilised for decision making in subsequent cultures.
Aquaconnect is aiming to take FarmMOJO to the next level with more advanced AI features. These include predicting disease occurrence, facilitating connectivity with real-time sensors/smart farming tools, and complete analysis of feed performance with respect to environmental factors and climatic conditions. The new features will help aquafarming operations due to their more intelligent approach.
Benefits to the farmers
The company provides its services via a low cost subscription plan for the farmers that use the app. Subscribed farmers can use the tools to record data, get access to the Web module and connect to market drivers. Depending on the technology readiness of farmers for the transition towards data driven farming, the company deploys field assistants to give adequate training to those who have subscribed to the service. To ensure farmers get the most out of the app, Somasundaram says, “Our field assistants engage with farmers on a daily basis to support them in using our application, even offering free consultancy services in culture operations. Also, subscribed farmers can procure their farm inputs such as feed, healthcare and farm equipment at discounted rates at our online store.” The company claims that 630 farmers have benefited from using FarmMOJO within a short period of time.
Aquaconnect is aiming to expand to three other states in September—Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal. The company is not confining its operations to the domestic market and is keen on entering the global market. Somasundaram says, “Yes, expansion to overseas markets like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand is on our road map. The Seafood Innovation Project by Secondmuse-Indonesia selected our team as one of the innovators in the field in 2019. This helps Aquaconnect to explore the possibilities of implementing FarmMOJO in the Indonesian aquaculture ecosystem. Expanding into the Indonesian market is our priority, and we aim to achieve that by the end of this year.”
|Rajamanohar Somasundaram is a serial technology entrepreneur, who holds a graduate degree in industrial design from IIT Kanpur, India. He co-founded Aquaconnect, one of South Asia’s largest aqua farmer networks. Somasundaram is also the innovator behind services like ‘Voice Wiki’ that helps those who’re not Internet savvy to access Wikipedia information and enjoy videos over a simple voice call. His team also invented MamboTalk, the first ever voice blogging service for rural communities in India and Africa.
His team has been named among the TR35 – TOP 20 Young Innovators in India, and he won the ‘Social Innovator of the Year 2012’ award from MIT Tech Review India for developing speech enabled mobile solutions for the Indian market. The World Economic Forum also named Somasundaram as a ‘Young Global Leader, 2012’ in recognition of his leadership and contribution in the field of mobile communication and information services. He became a ‘TED Fellow’ in 2009 for his accomplishments in ‘Mobile4Good’ initiatives in emerging markets.
Regarding the challenges, Somasundaram says, “We did on-ground research to understand the challenges in the aquafarming business. Our team found that implementing a data driven approach in culture operations would help farmers to achieve sustainability and solve various challenges in aquafarming.” However, launching a tech-based product is not as easy as it seems. There are several challenges that need to be addressed, one of the biggest being the lack of awareness about technology and data driven farming. This requires continuous workshops and awareness programmes on data driven farming. For rural aqua farmers, the learning curve is very steep when it comes to the adoption of new technology, and they require handholding for a certain period initially.
AI transforms aquaculture management
Sharing his insights on AI, Somasundaram explains, “AI unleashes the real potential of farm data and encourages farmers to practice data driven farming. Mining previous culture data gives clarity and insights to control the operational costs and increase profits. Farms equipped with advanced tools enable the real-time monitoring of the pond environment, feed conversion and animal growth, and it helps farmers to take timely action and preventive measures to improve yield. Optimising feed inputs regulates the usage of resources and supports farm sustainability. Implementing AI in aquaculture helps farmers decide on factors like optimal stocking density, right feed inputs, and inventory management, based on the previous culture data.”
The future of AI in Indian aquafarming
Every year, the aquaculture industry loses millions of dollars because of disease outbreaks that result in wastage of limited resources. According to Somasundaram, AI will result in better management practices in aquaculture operations and reduce the environmental impact of this sector. And it will play a major role in achieving sustainability in the Indian aquaculture ecosystem.