The world needs to double agricultural production by 2050 and small-scale farmers are a key part of achieving this target. This is the problem space that Simone Strey has been working on as the Co-Founder and CEO of Plantix, a smartphone image recognition app that allows users to scan their plants to detect diseases and suggests remedies.
Simone and her husband Rob Strey were working with farmers in the Amazons when they realized that it was difficult for farmers to access information, especially about plant diseases, even if they had access to the internet and a smartphone.
“If you type sudden death (morte subite, in Portugese) in Google you do not get results of plant diseases or how to treat them. That’s when we understood that even though the farmer speaks Portuguese and has access to the internet they can’t find anything because they don’t know the scientific name,” said Simone. With the Plantix app, farmers can click a picture of a crop with a disease, and get information instantly. In the background, the app uses image recognition to identify the crop disease and fetches relevant information.
The agritech company’s app now has over 10 million downloads and over 1 million monthly users, mostly in India, where agriculture contributes to nearly 16% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 43% of the workforce. Crop yields are much lower here. “Yields on crops such as cereals are lower in India by 50% compared to countries like US or China,” according to an August 2020 report by EY.
In India, eight out of ten farmers have small scale holdings and struggle to generate income. The market potential for agritech companies that solve for the volatility of input prices, limited access to efficient cropping technology, uneven quality, supply chain inefficiencies, and lack of access to financial solutions, is $24 billion, as per the report.
Simone spoke to us about how Plantix was born, how the app has quickly taken over India and the developing world, her learnings as an entrepreneur, how she plans to monetize the app and how she approaches investors during funding rounds.
Q. Where did the idea of Plantix come from?
A. I’ve been working with farmers for a long time since I studied Geography and Geo-Botany. The idea of Plantix was born when I was doing my PhD deep in the Amazon, in Brazil. My husband Robert (who is the Co-Founder and CTO) and I were part of a big research project and when we went into the fields of farmers they were not that interested about the research we were doing with the soil, but rather what’s going on with the plants.
Our ‘aha’ moment came when a farmer told us that a disease was spreading in his field and whether we could help him. We asked him for the name and he said ‘morte subite’ in Portuguese which means ‘sudden death.’ If you type sudden death in Google you do not get results of plant diseases or how to treat them. That’s when we understood that even though the farmer speaks Portuguese and has access to the internet they can’t find anything because they don’t know the scientific name. We asked ourselves how cool it would be if you just can take an image with your smartphone and you get an answer to your question.
Robert had worked with machine learning and we realized if we can train these plant disease patterns using algorithms we could help farmers. We went back to Germany and Plantix, an application for small-scale farmers.
Q. You’ve grown fast. You have 10 million users and a majority of them from developing countries like India. How did you break into these markets and then get a footing in them?
A. We talk about all this digitization of agriculture but small scale farmers mostly can afford only one Internet of Things (IoT) device and that’s their smartphone. We decided to put the technology on an Android app to support small scale farmers.
We decided to go to India first because of the high penetration of smartphones and internet connectivity in rural areas. We also use online marketing to target farmers in rural areas.
The beauty of digital is that you can reach so much more users. We also focus on regionalizing the app. Plantix is available in 18 languages including all the major Indian languages because it was to translate into the language that the farmer speaks.
The image recognition is trained by the users itself. It’s not top-down, created like a textbook and we work through lists of diseases, but rather we train our algorithms on images we get from our users so with every image we get, our image recognition becomes stronger.
We also reached out to local partners in India and got support from states like Telangana which helped build trust among first-time users. What also helped a lot was sharing user stories and testimonials from farmers who used Plantix.
Q. How do you retain users on your platform?
A. It’s important to understand the benefit you create for the user, you have to solve a problem. For example, farmers sending us the images, we know where they are, what kind of crop they are growing and based on our data, we can send them alerts. Disease alerts, for example. Give them a heads up of the problems other farmers within 50 kilometres are facing. Which is also a super cool engagement to bring users back into the application and the community. Farmers can also follow experts in our community and get their questions answered.
Q. What metrics do you track?
A. On a daily, weekly and monthly basis it’s the standard metrics and KPIs you look for in an application. Like Daily Active Users (DAU), Weekly Active Users (WAU), and Monthly Active Users (MAU).
We look at our users on a seasonal basis. Because of our use-case, a farmer might have problems three days in a row and they use it three times, sometimes there is no problem the entire month or the harvest is just done, and there are no plants in the field so there is no need to use the app for that use-case. If there is no problem then you cannot be a problem solver and this was difficult to find our engagement metrics at the beginning.
As a community, we have high-intensive users who are not solving their problems, but rather helping other farmers to solve the problems. They are active every day but this is not the normal use-case of Plantix.
Q. It’s unlikely for companies that are born from a research project, run by scientists to raise capital from the venture capital world. What worked for you?
A. We started the company with seven founders and learned everything by doing. Agriculture is a sector where a lot of highlights are put by investors. It also helped we had fast-growth among users and that we created a new technology for a user group more or less untouched.
When we talk about the market over 500 million farms, and 1 billion people working in the sector. That’s quite a massive and interesting market. The challenge is not monetizing them directly but monetizing deeper down in the value chain.
Q.What was your pitch like?
Q. How are you looking to monetize the app?
A. The farmer is where we want to have the most impact but we don’t want to monetize the service directly. What the farmer gives us is data. They help us understand what happens on the ground. For example how diseases are moving across the country.
If you look at the whole value chain, the farmer is at the top of the pyramid but there’s a lot underneath and the money sits deeper down in the value chain. If we work with our vision that the farmer has a problem and we give him a remedy, the next problem for the farmer is getting the right product. A lot of farmers are purchasing the wrong products. They’d have no impact and harm the environment.
We’re looking to support them by getting them the right remedy at the local retailer and if we look deeper down the value chain the relation between the retailer, the input manufacturers and distributors, that’s where we can get our margin from. By building a strong relationship between the farmer and the retailer we can open up other services. The retailer becomes our feet on the ground and our face to the farmer. Using the farmers’ data we can also make the retailer smarter by helping the retailer purchase the right products. That’s where we’re looking to get our margin from. What we need to prove that somehow we can monetize the farmer. Not directly, but indirectly.
Q. Are you seeing any behaviour change within the farming community to adopt the app?
A. It’s coming with the change in generations. A farm usually has three generations- the son at the beginning of twenties; the father in his mid-forties; and the grandfather in his seventies.
For the son, it’s easy to navigate the smartphone and understand Plantix and what we’re doing. The father uses it more for communication, Whatsapp, Facebook, YouTube but anything further the son would help him and then the grandfather who doesn’t use the smartphone at all.
With the generation change, they are using the smartphone more as a working tool, like a little computer from which to access the world wide web.
Q. How did you go about hiring? What were some of the lessons you learned?
A. One learning is, sometimes, it is worthwhile spending a little bit more money on key positions. If you start with people you can afford since you do not have enough money, you start by taking students directly from the university. They are ambitious and engaged but there’s always this lack of experience.
An important thing is to switch between worlds at different levels so that you can deep dive into the problem and have credibility.
For example, for engineers, they need to have technical understanding and the credibility as an engineer, but they also need to be able to communicate with the management level and understand the pitch deck and the whole business story behind it. People who can switch between these levels, who are independent and drive things forward who do not see problems, but rather come with solutions. To find these people is not that easy. If you are lucky, you will find someone junior who can do this at the beginning but develops along the way. But usually, it helps to hire someone who comes with experience to help you with this.
Q. How do you keep your team motivated when you start to scale?
A. We have 50 people in Berlin and we recently acquired an Indian company so we have a little more than that in our office in India. Having a mission and being proud of the impact you can make with Plantix is a major driver that holds everyone together.
It sounds conservative but reporting, writing processes down and having a good structure of things is key. Particularly bringing ideas from your head onto paper. When you’re seven people, you can tell anyone your ideas, but this doesn’t scale.
Q. How do you prioritize your work when you hit this scale?
A. Having a North Star- your company goals clear and written down and working towards these goals.
With any new idea, we ask ourselves what impact does this have on our goals? Is it a 1%-2% improvement or does it have the potential to double user growth or retention?
That’s an important criteria for us to try to push our people. Also not to think about what we are doing or what they would like to do, but rather about what does it move forward? What does it change? And what’s the result of what you’re doing.
Q. What were some of the challenges you faced and the learnings from this scaling process?
A. What I underestimated when we started the company is how complicated communication is within the teams.
Getting everyone aligned so that everyone has the same understanding of a certain topic and to push things forward with the same understanding. It’s not that easy.
When it comes to product and moving product forward you may have a lot of great ideas but a lot of times, these great ideas are the dumbest ones. Talk to your users to understand what they want. We can create beautiful function-flows on our desk and in the conference room, but the reality might be different. For example, something beautiful from a design perspective may not work in reality. The user would like to have a button which is blinking, which doesn’t fit in the design framework but the users want to have a blinking button.
On fundraising, I would say most of the time you make your story too complex and too complicated. You have to abstract so many levels that even your grandmother can understand your storyline. A lot of times we forget that other people do not have a good understanding of a certain topic which you presented and most of the pitch decks we created were much too complicated.
Q. How do you approach preparing your pitch decks?
A. It’s a never-ending story where you never have the perfect pitch. Try to get into the shoes of the analyst or the partner at the VC. How many pitch decks do they see every day? Try to guide them through your story and make it as easy as possible for them to digest it and take it to the next team meeting and present your story in their own words.
You’re not there to present your case in front of the other partners so you have to give them something easy to present and to motivate and impress the other partners who haven’t heard your story before.
Q. How can our listeners reach out to you?
A. You can write to me on LinkedIn.