From the use of artificial intelligence, training and workshops, iPage is showing the way to merge technology and agriculture to alleviate farmers’ woes and improve the agro-industry
When the Covid-19 lockdowns came into effect last year, farmers across the country felt the brunt of it as their supply chains came to a halt.
“Everything was stuck due to the lockdown, I could not sell my mangoes. I was helpless,” remembered Masum, a fruit farmer in Tangail.
“The pandemic caused a major disruption in distribution, something we usually do not think much about. We produced but did not know how to sell, as everything was closed,” said Atikullah, a farmer from Gaibandha.
However, for several lucky farmers who were stuck in this quagmire, things took a turn for the better.
“The iPage team came to us, we got acquainted and connected them to the local farmers,” said Abdul Mannan Akand, NGO Executive Director of Gono Unnayan Sanstha, Fulchori, Gaibandha.
“They [iPage] conduct seminars, workshops, and test the soil with their machine,” he added.
NGO Gono Unnayan Sanstha works in partnership with iPage, a national startup focused on finding ways – using a technologically optimised approach – to maximise yield and overall productivity in the country’s agro-production sector.
The acronym iPAGE stands for Integrated Precision Agriculture and Engineering.
“Recently, they trained three young boys on soil testing so they can help local farmers. Farmers here are not familiar with soil testing. They do not know the importance and the way to do it. I never thought of a machine that could test soil instantly,” further added Abdul.
Mashrur H. Shurid (with a background in engineering) and Mohammad Saifullah Mithu (with a background in law) co-founded iPage in 2019.
They became enthusiastic about entrepreneurship and felt that there was a lot to do in the agricultural sector of Bangladesh.
“The farmers are very vulnerable and they are the ones who get hit first in any disaster. Those who are providing us food, do not have food for themselves. We realised the necessity to do something beneficial for them,” said Mashrur.
“We identified three core problems that leave our farmers lagging behind: a lack of speedy soil-testing infrastructure, a lack of information, and the well-known fact that farmers cannot get market value for their produce because of middlemen. A bridge needs to be built focusing on these three factors, and this understanding accelerated our startup,” said Mohammad.
Atikullah from Gaibandha appreciates the continuous support he has been receiving for the last two years. Masum said, “They came here, tested the soil and visited my orchard. They gave me valuable suggestions, made sure the mangoes reached the market and ensured that it was sold at a fair price.”
The beginning and operations
iPAGE started its journey under a B2C business model with only 10 farmers. Initially, the service was free of cost. But it was challenging. Farmers usually believe in traditional farming techniques and they were suspicious of the startup’s suggestions. Eventually, iPage had to charge a minimal service fee.
The company later changed its model to B2B and now collaborates with local NGOs following an inclusive business model. Now, more than 1,500 farmers have benefitted from their services.
“The farmers are very vulnerable and they are the ones who get hit first in any disaster. Those who are providing us food, do not have food for themselves. We realised the necessity to do something beneficial for them”
Primarily, iPAGE works through two wings called ‘Ankur’ and ‘Krishan.’ Simply put, Ankur is their production wing while Krishan is the marketing wing.
The startup went live with its prototype in October 2019, and to date produced an estimated $1.6m worth of gross merchandise Value (GMV) from its advisory and trading service.
iPAGE is currently developing an end-to-end solution that includes data-driven support in production and distribution nodes. The solution is an Artificially Intelligent Agricultural Information System.
As a part of the Ankur project, they invented an AI-based machine for instant soil testing. It takes only 30 to 40 minutes to test the soil and reveal information about its composition, pH and other characteristics.
In the production node, the AI collects real-time data on soil and surroundings using a number of electronic devices developed by iPAGE.
Then, based on local academic research, historical data and government’s standard guidelines, the AI provides a site and crop-specific agricultural prescription.
Furthermore, iPAGE provides both training to educate the farmers and plant protection services, around the season.
The soil testing, training and plant protection service fall under Ankur operations, the farm advisory service of the startup.
On the distribution node, the AI helps farmers to connect with local consumers and sell their products directly at a fair price. This trading service is known to the consumers as Krishan, the marketing wing which includes necessary information on market analysis, including product demands, consumer behaviour, etc.
iPAGE launched Krishan amid the pandemic lockdown in May of 2020. Since, the startup has managed to mobilise nearly a thousand tons of maize, onion, potatoes and dry chillies from the field to the market.
The co-founders believe that the data-driven approach will help bring balance in demand and supply in our country’s agricultural industry, while supporting the government’s vision to achieve food security and safety.
iPage aims to create equilibrium in the agricultural market of Bangladesh.
Milestones and what we think of agriculture
The startup has been recognised by the UN Food Systems Summit and collaborated with the ICT and agriculture-based ministries of the government.
It has also been recognised as one of the top 30 most inspiring startups of South Asia by the UNDP and received the infrastructure award in Food Frontiers 2021, an urban food system innovation challenge.
The co-founders strongly believe in the vitality of the agriculture sector and how it demands our attention.
“The current generation does not find the agricultural sector appealing or ‘glossy.’ This is the one reason behind their lack of interest in this field. This mentality should change,” said Mashrur.
“Though as a business, people will definitely have a profit-generating mindset, a service-oriented mindset should be present as well. Finally, we should all collaborate, co-create and cooperate. No one can change something single-handedly,” Mashrur added.