Solving a big challenge for social good is a fine description for a social enterprise called Ricult. It’s operated the last two years helping thousands of small farmers in the developing country Pakistan through a mobile platform. From a digital phone, farmers can secure credit, attain seeds and fertilizers, monitor weather forecasts and connect directly with buyers to sell their crops. It also helps farmers to maximize their yields by providing personalized advice for growing crops based on soil tests.
Digital technology for small farmers is a huge Change Your Life Technology as it can eventually help more than two billion people on the planet who live on around two dollars per day. This massive number represents the number of small farmers in rural areas of developing countries.
Smallholder farmers can use Ricult’s platform through an app on a smartphone or SMS messaging on a feature phone. Or, if they don’t own a phone but have access to one, they can receive information through a voice call. To register for the service, Ricult requires users to enter their farm’s geocoordinates. The company partners with smartphone owners in local communities to help register farmers who don’t have smartphones.
“Farmers are at the bottom of the pyramid in developing countries, so if you want to drive these countries forward and reduce inequality, you have to transform the agricultural sector,” says Ricult co-founder Aukrit Unahalekhaka SM ’16. “There’s so much innovation and tech disrupting the U.S. agricultural industry, so we thought, ‘Why isn’t the same thing happening for people at the bottom of the pyramid in developing countries?’
“The agricultural value chains in developing countries are very strongly linked with each other,” Javaid explains. “You can’t just address one part of the problem and hope the rest of the problem will go away. If the farmer still has to go back to the middleman to sell his crops, the middleman won’t buy his crops if he hasn’t taken a loan from him. It’s a circle that, unless you break the whole circle, you can’t make space for yourself.”
The data that Ricult collects to help farmers are also of value to large organizations involved in the agricultural sectors where Ricult operates. In fact, most of Ricult’s partnerships are built around the company’s ability to collect data in one of the most data-deprived areas of the world’s economy.
“I think we’re solving a huge pain point in the agricultural sector, not just for the farmers, but for different stakeholders as well,” Unahalekhaka says. “They’ve always been looking for a solution like this to ease their efficiencies, so when we went to the banks and buyers, they got it right away. We provide a clear value proposition.”
The founding team began testing features with a growing number of smallholder farmers in rural areas of Pakistan and Thailand. Today, Ricult is working with almost 10,000 farmers. The number of users nearly doubled in November, 2018 when Ricult concluded a pilot trial and made the platform available across Thailand, and the founders aim to have more than 100,000 people using the solution by the end of 2019.
The founders want to build a sustainable business as they continue to pursue a partnership model the company describes as “a hand-up rather than a hand-out approach” to helping farmers. So far, that approach has worked: Unahalekhaka says Ricult’s services have boosted farmers’ crop yields by an average of 50 percent, while the farmers’ profits have risen 30 to 40 percent.
The company is planning a big marketing push soon and has gotten requests to expand to several countries across south Asia. But for right now, the Ricult team wants to make sure its platform is having the biggest possible impact in Pakistan and Thailand—countries with around 40 million farmers combined.
“A 40 percent increase in profits has a huge impact on these farmers’ lives,” Unahalekhaka says. “It means they can afford schooling and health care for their children, so we’ve started to see a ripple effect in the community. Before the farmer had to decide, ‘Should I send my kid to school or should I save that money to pay for food or health care?’ All of those things are necessary for a quality life. With more money, they don’t have to make those tough choices anymore.”