Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. In its fourth year, this online competition awards cash prizes to early-stage startups to develop a solution that drives economic development or solves a social or environmental problem.
We are excited for you to learn more about the 2020 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions.
Today we highlight Sensegrass, who were awarded the India Impact Grand Prize of $25,000 USD. Sensegrass produces a smart farming solution for fertilizer management, a soil intelligence diagnostic system for low income small farmers to improve yields. The affordable plug-and-play device with patented NPK sensor gathers real-time micro soil data and measures 18 parameters from the soil to predict the right usage of water, fertilizers, etc. for improved crop yield. The information goes directly to the farmers’ mobile devices. Their solutions are based on cutting-edge technology, like Nano-Satellite Mapping, Rover Bots, and an AI-based application that makes farming super-efficient and easy for small and medium farmers.
Across the board, the team echoed how inspiration + passion + teamwork is the secret sauce to their success. I met with CEO Lalit Gautam, CTO Abhishek Khandal, and CPO Rahul Gundala to learn more.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Lalit: On a macro scale, it’s food security. More directly, its soil intelligence – we want to help farmers make better decisions that improve the quality of their land and yields.
To do this, we are providing smart farming solutions that enable farmers to manage soil health in real-time. We believe the future of food security is dependent on the viability of small and medium size farmers. For example, there are 570 million farms globally, with the majority small or family-run. Additionally, a significant amount of global food production comes from India, where approximately 86 percent of agricultural land holdings are small or marginal.
For small and medium sized farmers, in many cases their land is their only asset. At the moment, as climate change brings the extremes of heat, droughts and flooding, and farmers struggle with soil infertility, they must understand the health of their land and soil to effectively produce food and minimize crop waste. If they cannot, our global food supply is hugely at risk for not meeting demand.
Unfortunately, smallholder farmers don’t have the tools to monitor soil health data. Despite the number of small and medium producers, the agricultural industry has tended to provide tools that cater better to larger producers – they are expensive, outdated, complex, and timely to implement. It’s also extremely difficult for the government and other bodies to reach small and medium farmers with technology solutions and resources as there are so many.
The answer we felt was “simple” – small farmers need a fast, efficient, and easy to use way of understanding their soil health in real-time. We also recognized the opportunity to measure fertilizer – how much is needed and where – as a key parameter of soil health. Sensegrass was born.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Lalit: Growing up in India, many people have a connection to agriculture, such as myself, a third-generation farmer. We often see our families and friends struggle when their land – their primary asset – is degraded due to drought, storms, soil changes, and more. For example, every year around 3,400 farmers commit suicide in India. Our team came together through a shared passion and vision – we were determined to make an impact on society, and what better way than something so close to our roots, our country’s largest industry, and one of the world’s most important challenges?
Rahul: Soil intelligence is a very new space, and most start-ups in the agricultural space are focused on precision farming, using drones or weather sensors to work above the soil. There is a lot of opportunity for innovation around an affordable product focused on soil health that is easy to use and implement. Additionally, farmers often don’t understand that soil information and health is a problem themselves, but we had identified this has significant impact on yields – we knew the market demand would be there. Lastly, our experience (I come from the #1 agricultural capital in India) and research showed that farm health directly contributes to many social challenges such as economic stability, as well as personal health and wellness.
In short, we saw a huge opportunity on both the business and technology side, while also addressing a growing societal challenge.
We are proud to say we are making a difference. Sensegrass has impacted 8,000 farmers in India, doubled their income, improved production yield by 32 percent, and reduced chemical fertilizer use by 45 percent.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Lalit: Winning the India Impact Grand Prize comes at a great time for Sensegrass, both from a financial and awareness perspective. We are looking at larger scale deployments and beginning to build momentum for a larger global expansion. Having a resource such as Cisco to tap into is invaluable. It will help our solution more easily reach a global audience because Cisco is a name that people trust worldwide. And the prize money will directly benefit the production of our products, as well as continuing to expand the Sensegrass team.
Social enterprises are something we really need to celebrate, and we are honored to be a part of this growing group of GPS Challenge winners.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Lalit: It’s all rooted in my passions and family. In a career, it can often be challenging to justify why you choose a certain path. After graduating, I realized I needed to find a career where I connected to both my personal and business interests. Social enterprise did just this, and I didn’t need to go any further than my own roots for the problem I wanted to solve.
I come from a country that has problems that need to be solved. If I’m not solving something, I feel like there is something that is missing.
Abhishek: I believe in life-long learning. By the age of 15, I had founded a start-up because it was something I was passionate about. I then met Lalit and loved the idea of Sensegrass, because it too was something I grew up around.
There is freedom in starting your own business. Even more than this, we have the motivation and satisfaction of creating something. When you involve yourself in the world, meet different people, forge connections it just starts to roll out. I enjoy achieving, tackling challenges head on, and Sensegrass is the perfect way to do this.
Rahul: I saw the amount of impact I could make in a social enterprise, the importance of applying my business experience to a problem I had seen my friends and family struggle with my entire life. I realized this is my professional journey right now. I feel very lucky to immediately see the impacts of our work from improved farmer yields to health and well-being, and it inspires me so much.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winning team!