By Asina Pornwasin
Thai start-up Ricult, founded by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumnus is now perhaps the most interesting start-up in the “social enterprise” category – not only in Thailand but also on the global stage. Ricult has received kudos in many social enterprise competitions around the world. And it is the first Thai start-up to receive a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ricult was also bestowed the “Innovative Ideas and Technology on Agribusiness” award from the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
Ricult came to Thailand in mid-2017, just months after it had first launched its service in Pakistan. It was co-founded by Aukrit Unahalekhaka, CEO of Ricult Thailand, and his classmate at MIT, a Pakistani. The inventors shared a passion to empower agriculturists with technology and innovation.
“Ricult comes from the middle syllables of the word ‘agriculture’. We desire to utilise technology and innovation to change the country to empower the agriculture industry, which is the backbone of Thailand,” said Aukrit.
He said that 40 per cent of the world’s population are agriculturists or around 1.3 billion people, of which around 700 million people work in developing countries where they have largely not been empowered by technology and innovation. Ricult’s solution and service is to feed satellite imagery and weather information through machine learning to provide predictive information that could help agriculturists increase efficiency while reducing cost – and eventually help them increase their profit margin.
“We invite agriculturists to use our services,” said Aukrit. “First, they need to put their farms and what crops they plant as well as the location of their farm into our system. Then, we will monitor agriculturists’ farms with a satellite to capture an image. We use the satellite image, along with weather information, as well as information from the agriculturist to do big-data analysis. Then, each agriculturist can access our analysis of their data and transform it into a conversational database. The data stored on the ‘Cloud’ via their convenient channels included mobile applications, web-based applications, LINE, and short message services (SMS).”
“And it’s without cost,” said Aukrit.
He said satellite images and precise weather information empowered by the company’s big-data analytical software can help agriculturists to improve their yields. The precisely analysed data, built specifically for their individual farms, can help agriculturalists more easily achieve precision farming.
In Thailand, corn yields are around 700 kilograms per rai (0.16 hectare), but maximum yeields of up to 2,000 kilograms per rai are being achieved in “developed” countries. With satellite image and weather information, he said, Ricult aims to double the corn yield in Thailand, reaching 1,400 kilograms per rai.
But that is not the end of it. Once the company has an expanded database, funding, and additional staffing, it believes it could help the nation achieve maximum corn yields of 2,000 kilograms per rai.
Under the plan, the company will start with big-data analysis for cash crops, started with corn in 2017, cassava in 2018 and rice, palm, and sugar cane in 2019.
Agriculturists in developed countries have been using technologies, specially big data and drones to manage their farms and that has helped bring yields of up to 2 to 3 times higher than in “developing” countries. Aukrit wants to bridge this gap with technology at an affordable price point, since most Thai agriculturists have small or medium sized operations and have a limited amount of money to invest.
“Our service is free for agriculturists. Revenue comes from other parties in the agriculture supply chain. Most are large corporates that we offer access to the analysed data,” said Aukrit. “In 2017, we got sponsorship from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) and the Betagro Group. We helped 200 agriculturists monitor their crops over a total of 3,000 rai. We helped them improve productivity 30 per cent, reduce cost 20 per cent and increase their profit margin 50 per cent.”
His company aims to double its profit margin in 2019, while for 2018 it hopes to help 1,000 agriculturists with 10,000 rai of corn and cassava farms. And it also will do a base-line survey to enable future impact studies of Rivulet’s service to agriculturists and society.
“The big data for the agricultural sector is good for not only agriculturists themselves, but also good for many stakeholders in the supply chain, including banks who offer loans to agriculturists, fertiliser companies to know their customers, and feed factories to do traceability efficiently,” said Aukrit.
Ricult received a round of seed funding from DTAC and subsequent competition-related grants from around the world – together around US$250,000 (Bt7.83 million). It aims to raise a pre-series A round of funding worth $1 million in February.
“We want to be the social enterprise start-up with the capacity to raise funds and make a profit,” said Aukrit. “We will have a double bottom-line, making profit for shareholders and an impact on society.”
And he’s already working on the next related breakthrough: bringing the Internet of Things and drones to help improve the agriculture sector as well.
“There are so many technologies that can help the agricultural industry,” he said. “Innovation is in the company’s DNA.”