Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2022 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an online competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Since 2017, the competition has awarded $3.25 million USD to 78 start-ups from 25 countries.
We are excited for you to learn more about the 2022 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions.
In this blog we will learn about Agri To Power (A2P Energy), winner of the $100,000 USD Climate Impact and Regeneration Prize. Their solution addresses the problem of crop waste burning in India, which causes unhealthy air pollution, damaging carbon emissions, and a financial burden for already struggling farmers. A2P’s technology platform uses AI and satellite imagery to identify areas where crop waste burning is prevalent, and creates a marketplace where crop waste can be turned into clean biofuels instead.
Co-founder and CEO Sukhmeet Singh earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA before joining the Indian School of Business, where he led an entrepreneurship program and consulted with governments and industry on policy issues. In 2018 he co-founded A2P Energy along with his co-founder Dr. Robert Berry to create a market for biofuels derived from crop waste. I sat down with him to learn more about his journey and the impact A2P is making in India.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Sukhmeet: I grew up in the Chandigarh area in northern India. When I was a child, there wasn’t as much traffic and industrialization as today, so it was much cleaner. When I came back after a few years of studying and working outside my city, I had two young kids, and I saw that every winter there was a lot of smoke and air pollution. The air quality index (AQI) is usually around 50 or 60 in cleaner cities, but here in India it goes up to 400 or 500. The doctors would say not to let the kids play outside when it’s at the peak. A big reason for this is that 35 million tons of crop waste is produced every year in just two states in North India, and most of it gets burned on the field and produces black smoke. Approximately 500 million tons of crop waste is generated every year in all of India, and some reports say 30 to 40 percent gets burned. At the same time, 60 to 70 percent of the electricity generated at thermal power plants in India still comes from coal burning, and a lot of that is a low-grade coal.
I was working on a crop diversification policy project with the Government of Punjab where I interacted with farmers, and I realized that this was not a farmer-specific problem, it’s a cross-sector problem. There, I was introduced to Dr. Robert Berry, who was Dean of Engineering at Aston University (UK) and leading a European Bioenergy Research Institute project exploring the use of technologies to transform paddy straw into fuel and agricultural products. In 2018, we saw that there was a good business opportunity because on one hand, we have a lot of agricultural biomass and on the other hand we need cleaner fuels in thermal power plants. So we decided to start an organization, Agri To Power, to use crop waste for power generation.
I am particularly grateful to Aston University and the Oglesby Charitable Trust for their support of the research, feasibility establishment, and early commercialization of this work.
Can you explain how your solution works?
Sukhmeet: In terms of collecting the crop waste, we work with farmer entrepreneurs. These are generally younger folks in a village who want to do something extra apart from farming. They invest in collection machinery and conduct outreach with individual farmers to collect the waste from them. This benefits farmers because they are not spending time or money on fuel to set their crop waste on fire. Just those savings alone can increase their revenue by seven percent.
From the manufacturing side, we set up plants where we can produce biofuel, which is basically green sustainable fuel made out of stubble, which is basically the crop waste. We sell the green fuel to corporations that want to shift from using coal to biomass fuels. Technology also plays an important role. The time between harvesting one crop and sowing the next crop is approximately 30 to 40 days, and if the collection is not done within that time, the crop waste will get burned. So we had the idea to use technology for more efficient collection of crop waste. We started using satellite images of areas with a high intensity of fires, which indicates there is a large amount of crop being burned. This enabled us to focus on areas that will have the biggest supply of crop waste.
What is innovative about the way you are solving the issue? What sets your solution apart?
Sukhmeet: A key differentiation for us would be the use of technology. We can tell through satellite imagery where crop waste is getting burned and how much, so we know if it’s a good place to do an intervention. I don’t think any company is doing that.
Our technology platform has also become a marketplace for biofuels. When we were setting up manufacturing plants, we realized that we can’t meet the need across India. There is a much bigger demand for biofuels now because the India government has set carbon neutrality targets for all corporations. We were operating in [the state of] Punjab but getting many queries from corporations in other states that want to shift from coal to biomass fuels. That is when we realized our technology platform could also enable small biofuel manufacturers, small-scale farmers, and buyers to connect without our involvement.
Some bigger biofuel manufacturing plants may want to buy stubble from as much as 10,000 acres. But some families own only a small amount, maybe 6 to 7 acres. That’s where the platform comes into picture: it helps to consolidate small supplies of crop waste or biofuels into bigger quantities for buyers.
The technology platform has one other benefit: it allows corporations that are buying the biofuels to see their impact. Through the dashboard they can see how much income farmers are generating and how much carbon emissions are being avoided, and all that can flow directly into their ESG reporting.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Sukhmeet: We are in a place right now where we want to scale up from a product and technology perspective, and also from a go-to-market perspective. Without this funding, we would find it very difficult to scale. Now we can hire people who are more environmental focused, or who have a technology background and can work with corporates to ultimately help them in their journey to shift from fossil fuels to these green fuels. As I said, India has already set net zero targets, so we feel there’s a great opportunity right now for this kind of product, and this prize money will help us capture that market by scaling our whole platform.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Sukhmeet: It’s very hard when you are in a sector where you have to change habits, so recognize that it is going to be a long journey. But stick to your core, and don’t lose sight of why you started the organization. Build products, both physical products or technology, try out beta products, and try to get to market as soon as possible. Getting customer feedback is really, really critical, too. The journey of being an entrepreneur is exciting, but it’s a long journey. You just have to stick to it.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2022 winning team!