Corteva's Digital Ag Gameplay, Agtech 1.0 as Vapourware, Capital Raising 'Scalers' of Agritech
How Big Ag Players are scaling their Digital Ag game plays? Is Agritech 1.0 simply a 'vapourware' in its first stage of evolution? Meet Humus, Digicides: Capital raising 'scalers' of agritech
<Doom Alert to focus on what is essential>
New data from ICE-SAT2 shows Arctic Sea ice thinning much more rapidly than previously thought.
“This is really old ice we’re losing at quite a frightening rate,” - Robbie Mallet, Polar Ice Researcher.
</Doom Alert to focus on what is essential>
Hi! My name is Venky. I write Agribusiness Matters every week to help us make sense of vexing questions of food, agribusiness, and digital transformation in an era of Climate change. Feel free to dig around the archives if you are new here.
Agribusiness Matters is read by those who seek interdisciplinary perspectives on a multi-variable, multi-agent domain called Agriculture in an age of runaway Climate Change.
How Big Ag Players are scaling their Digital Ag gameplays?
01/In order to understand how Big Ag Players (I am talking of the likes of Bayer, Corteva, UPL) are scaling their digital agriculture gameplays in smallholding countries like India, Indonesia, it is important to understand a few basic concepts of scale.
02/ In my last Saturday Sprouting Reads newsletter, I casually threw around technical jargons like ‘sublinear’ and ‘superlinear’ while talking about the digitalization trajectories of India and China (more specifically, Pinduoduo) respectively.
03/ In a rare display of frustration expressed in kindness, a hesitant subscriber wrote to me the following:
04/ I love this gentleman’s honesty. I totally empathize with him. In times when attention spans are dwindling, I am aware that I do make it harder to follow what I write.
Every post of mine is a tangled spaghetti. I keep linking various newsletters from the past (so that I update my knowledge graph in public). I also throw a lot of technical jargon that are understood by a few.
Take today’s newsletter headline.
There are two jargons - 1) Scalers (I cooked up this word. Don’t know if it exists) 2) Vapourware (If you’ve worked in tech, you would know this word).
05/ At the risk of repeating myself, in all humility, I will state the obvious:
I write for myself and extension, a very small segment of readers who venture boldly into the wilderness and grope the beast called Agriculture with humbling awareness of the impossibility of the task - We are the blind men who tried to see the elephant, with each of us, in trying to cope with the mysteries of the beast, grabbing hold of some part of the elephant.
When you are trying to see Agriculture from an interdisciplinary standpoint, technical terms are inevitable. That said, I will try my best to make things simple, but not simpler.
“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience” - Einstein in a 1933 lecture
06/ What is scaling? Simply put, scaling is about how a system responds when its size changes. Now, what are the basic concepts of scaling I think everyone must understand?
07/ Let’s start with a simple question. Why is a mouse not the size of an elephant?
If you want a pure mathematical answer, read this. If you want an answer that sits at the intersection of physics and biology, read on.
08/ When an animal grows double in size, its number of cells also roughly doubles. But there is a catch. Its metabolic rate (how much energy you need per day to live) only increases by about 75%. This was discovered by a biologist named Max Kleiber in the early 1930s. This ‘non-linear’ behaviour whose slope (in a curve) is three quarters, less than one, is exactly what I mean by sublinear.
09/ Now when you contrast how bodies grow with how cities grow, you would realize that while bodies grow sublinearly, cities grow superlinearly, in terms of GDP, patents, and crime, with each scaling superlinearly with population size, with an exponent of around 1.15, the power-law slope being greater than 1.
These findings come from Geoffrey West who wrote a fascinating book I highly recommend: “Scale”,
10/ Now, why am I explaining concepts like superlinear and sublinear?
If you want to understand what it takes to digitalize agriculture on a superlinear scale, try and understand how Pinduoduo is growing.
“They look to set the industry pricing and want an established expansion mode. They are concerned with two issues: whether they can set the industry pricing if they invest 1 billion or two billion? The second is how do they expand in the future? If they acquire 1,000 mou of land, how do they expand to the next 1,500 mou of land?” - Cheng Biao in an interview
11/ Today, thanks to simple but absurd maximizer metrics like GMV, every agritech player wants to grow superlinearly like cities and investors love such players.
12/ While it is easier to digitalize agriculture on a superlinear scale in China, it gets slightly more complex to digitalize agriculture on a sublinear scale in a country of smallholders.
You could argue with me with data that the agricultural middle class is growing in superlinear terms.
13/ How do you digitalize agriculture on a sublinear scale in a country of smallholders?
Alongside agritech startups with big ambitions, a good playbook is quietly being written by Big Ag players who are competing on the same turf with agritech startups with bigger ambitions.
14/ Many moons ago, when I wrote, “Big Ag Vs Small Ag: Who Wins?”, I wrote,
“It's tempting to think of David and Goliath, when you start looking at the bigger picture. Perhaps, nimble Goliaths of small Ag may not have the distribution muscles of the Davids of Big Ag world. But, that isn't a disadvantage, if you know how to play against your opponents.”
15/ Over the previous editions of Agribusiness Matters, I have explained how Bayer, UPL are going ahead with their digital agriculture gameplays. Today, I want to consolidate the bigger picture with Corteva Agriscience, a “pure ag” player, in Shane’s words.