Vitthal Bhosale was born in a village near by Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. His father was a farmer and till a very young age he was involved in farming along with his schooling. While most of his friends went on to study lucrative subjects to get a better job, Vitthal wanted to pursue farming so that one day he could help the farmers of this country. Being a farmer’s son, he had seen his father’s hardships and wanted to resolve them in future.
Today Vitthal has fulfilled his first half of his dream with the formation of his startup – Bhosale Labs based out in the heart of Pune. Bhosale Labs has two services – 1. FarmFlux and 2. FarmTalent. To know more about his startup and his love towards agriculture, I met the young entrepreneur for lunch at Pune’s popular joint and one of my favourite – Cafe Good Luck.
“I started my venture because I felt that a lot can be improved in farming using technology and Bhosale Labs is the result of that wish. I want to reduce the distance between the lab and farm,” he shares while sipping his cold drink.
Early days before starting FarmFlux
It was lunch time, the cafe as usual was jam packed. After waiting quite a bit, we grabbed a place. While I ordered a quick bite, Vitthal started sharing the story of his early days. His early interest towards agriculture and farming motivated him do a BSc in the same stream. He cleared his BSc in 2006 and went on for an MSc in Horticulture from Indian Agriculture Institute in New Delhi.
This was the time when Vitthal had applied for a Junior Research Fellowship in Indian Council Of Agriculture Research. The idea was to get into the fellowship programme which could help him in his further studies. He stood fourth in India and later he also went for Senior Research Fellowship from the same institute.
However his ambition was to go further and do a PhD, become a scientist and invent some methodologies that would help farmers and make their life easy. In 2013, Vitthal completed his PhD in Floriculture and Landscaping.
But he was still not happy.
“While I was in my PhD, I realized that most of the things that are carried out in lab either don’t reach to the farmers or are not enough to solve the core problems of farmers in rural areas. So I started getting impatient and started looking for ways to bring real value by solving their age-old problems,” he recollects.
He started diverting his knowledge of agriculture towards blogging. He started talking about the common problems of farming and how it could be solved. While doing this he thought – why not build a platform that could bring farmers and experts from farming on a common ground? A platform where farmers could get their problems solved with free guidance from experts.
Vitthal created a small prototype with the help of a developer and showed it to his faculty members. The idea was liked by his faculty members.
During the last year of his PhD, he applied for incubation in his institute which had facility for startups in agriculture business. Thus the network between farmers and farming experts – FarmFlux was born.
FarmFlux – platform for farmers and experts
Sharing details about FarmFlux, Vitthal informed that it is a web and mobile platform where farmers are provided personal farm advisory on their handsets. “A registered user can ask questions, give answers to questions, etc. Users can also subscribe farm advisory stories on the basis of topics of interests, geo-location and crops he is growing or interested in. We are providing information based on what crop he is growing, preferred language and his location,” he adds.
With FarmFlux in place, the next big hurdle for Vitthal was reaching out to farmers. “Reaching farmers individually was a costly idea and not feasible too. So I targeted the farmer centric institutes the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) where farmers reach out for all their problems,” he informs.
With 700 plus KVKs in India, he and his friend Kiran Gonte, who is an MBA in marketing started approaching nearby KVKs in the northern part of India. Kiran happens to be his college roommate and a great support morally as well as financially.
Vitthal started providing one day training programs in the KVKs to experts and farmers. “We were giving training on how to use FarmFlux, how it can help farmers and how experts should send messages to farmers,” he says while pointing out that this was the time when they would register farmers into FarmFlux. Experts got registered via web and farmers who were technically challenged were registered by the KVKs and the information got delivered to their handset on the set preferences.
The information that farmers get on their mobiles are related to market, weather, good agriculture practices, among other things. The information comes from 100 plus experts to the farmers, informs Vitthal. In a short span Vitthal along with his friend connected 40 plus KVKs from four states in northern India.
FarmFlux and challenges
The growth for a bootstrapped startup was worth a pat on the entrepreneur’s back but I had my obvious questions too.
One of my primary question was – Is the platform providing a two-way communication process?
Vitthal informed that right now the model is one way and experts send information based on three criteria mentioned earlier and the system diverts them to the farmers who would benefit from it.
“Most of the farmers have CDMA phones so two-way communication is a problem but we are working on a technology that would make communication two-way irrespective of the device being used. The technology should be live in the next 4-6 months,” adds Vitthal.
While discussing other challenges, Vitthal shares that language has been a tough problem to be cracked. “Information is provided based on language and location. We have built the system in such a way that whenever somebody types in regional language it detects and tags it with relevant language. Besides when we register farmers for the first time we take a note of their language and location. At our end we match the criteria and send the information,” he adds.
However Vitthal candidly adds that there is a lot of work to be done in sending messages to feature phones in different languages. There are times when the message fails to deliver since a particular language is not supported by the farmer’s handset. To minimize these hurdles Vitthal is also looking for partnering with service providers in the country.
Despite all these hurdles, today FarmFlux has connected 35,000 plus farmers, 100 plus experts and more than 45 KVKs are working with the startup.
Vitthal has moved from Delhi where his incubation was and is now settled in Pune. He is running his startup from the city since 2014. He feels that FarmFlux has a great future in Maharashtra as he has got a good response here; the number of KVK’s are more and hiring talent is easy too.
The startup has hired two developers and another 8 field people who work in close connection with KVKs and farmers.
Right now the startup is focusing on two major issues – one is making the platform a two-way communication and secondly registering more and more farmers on FarmFlux. This also means that the startup is not focusing much on FarmTalent which was built to provide job opportunities related to agriculture.
Road ahead – Big Data and working closely with farmers
Going further Vitthal wants to use Big Data to empower his platform FarmFlux so that it turns into a good and intelligent platform. “I want to gather good information, filter it using expert knowledge and that refined knowledge I want to share with farmers and other farming professionals.”
Along with Big Data, Vitthal considers mobile to play a big role; companies like Nokia and TCS are already leading the revolution in the country. “There are a few products like Nokia Live Tools, mKrishi from TCS, etc. which are doing good work. But I want to use the expertise knowledge powered via web for FarmFlux,” he adds. He believes the free of cost service is getting a good response from experts and farmers too.
He finds trends are changing and farmers are interested in understanding technology that could benefit their farming. With smartphones getting cheaper in the market, it is good news for FarmFlux and in the coming years, Vitthal hopes that a sizable population of farmers will have Android based smartphones. “I see a future where farmers can take images of their crops, citing their problems and experts can give live feedback using FarmFlux platform,” he adds.
The journey hasn’t been easy for the young man as the agriculture system in the country hasn’t been that helpful. Understanding this very well, he wants to interact with farmers directly in the future removing the KVKs. “Gaining farmers trust is very important and challenging too since there have been companies who have used the farmers for their benefits. Since we are not selling any product instead we are showing interest to help them, the trust is gradually building,” shares Vitthal.
Citing a recent example of the hail storm that happened in Maharashtra, Vitthal informed me that the farmers are not aware of the crop insurance. “People have kept the farmers in the dark for their gains, we are trying to answer their age old problems by giving them information which they have every right on. We are preparing farmers early enough before calamities hit them,” he adds.
Before winding up our conversation, Vitthal shared that his office being at the center of Pune, helps farmers from nearby villages to visit him with their other set of problems related to crop, soil, water, etc. This has motivated Vitthal to start thinking about providing services like soil and water testing to farmers at affordable prices. “While FarmFlux will remain free, these other services will make money for the startup to survive since the VC community in India is not interested in backing knowledge based platforms,” shares Vitthal.
With the first half of a farmer’s dream being achieved of bringing the lab closer to the farmers, the goal now is to take it to different states. There isn’t much of a doubt that Vitthal won’t, especially when he is well aware of his limitations and is ready to play with them.