For many farmers in rural Myanmar, Facebook embodies the internet. With scarce availability of WiFi, they often reserve their mobile data usage for the social network.
That habit is difficult to break. Adrian Soe Myint, CEO of Yangon-based agritech startup Village Link, said it was challenging to convince farmers to top allot part of their mobile data for the startup’s app, Htwet Toe, which means “higher yield.”
The app’s name is exactly what Soe Myint wants for farmers in his country. Founded in 2016, the startup uses mobile technology to connect farmers and other stakeholders in Myanmar’s agriculture sector, which accounts for 38% of the country’s GDP, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
But agricultural productivity in Myanmar is extremely low; the national output falls far behind that of neighboring countries. In a blog post, the World Bank explains how the country has not been able to capitalize on its “fertile soils and abundant water source.” A rice farmer in Myanmar generates only 23 kg of paddy after one working day during monsoon season, compared to Vietnam’s output of 429 kg and Thailand’s 547 kg.
“The idea is to provide farmers with a digital tool to be connected to agricultural professionals,” said Soe Myint. “Myanmar is in a unique position where we have very high internet and mobile penetration, so we want to leverage on that technology.”
Village Link was first conceived by five prominent business figures in Myanmar in 2014. One of the founders is U Thadoe Hein, chairman of Myanma Awba Group, a leading agriculture conglomerate in the country. Myanma Awba now holds a majority stake in the startup.
Most farmers in rural Myanmar, Soe Myint said, are “in the blind” when it comes to making decisions that impact their fields. Lack of information about proper farming techniques, crop prices, and weather patterns all contribute to lower productivity. Farmers rely on dealers, retailers, and agriculture extension officers when they need help with improving their farming techniques. Oftentimes, even with the best intentions, that help is insufficient.
It took the startup about three years to launch the app, and it went online in late 2016. Using Htwet Toe, farmers can seek answers from agricultural professionals recruited by Village Link. They can upload photos of their crops, and then receive “diagnoses” and “remedies”—irrigate with less water, don’t use too much fertilizer, spray certain chemicals to remove bacterial infections, and the like.
Beyond access to distributors and buyers, Htwet Toe also offers a live chat function, real-time updates on weather changes, and market prices of crops. There’s also content about crop cultivation techniques.
To attract farmers to download Htwet Toe, Village Link runs weekly campaigns on the app where farmers who provide correct answers in a quiz can receive phone credit. The startup claims that Htwet Toe has been installed 450,000 times as of December 2019 and its experts have resolved 40,000 queries from farmers. The app has around 46,000 monthly active users.
Soe Myint said the startup’s experts can handle around 200 queries a day. To make things easy, a farmer can send in recorded voice messages and receive a response within 12 hours. Village Link is in the process of improving the tech behind Htwet Toe, and will use artificial intelligence and image recognition technologies to parse some of the cases they receive and provide answers. All consultations are free for farmers who use Htwet Toe, and Village Link has a call center to handle urgent questions.
In 2013, Village Link received a USD 3.2 million grant from the Netherlands government. Soe Myint said the startup is not looking to raise new funds soon. Instead, the plan is to generate revenues from its Village Link Satellite Service (VLSS), the company’s B2B platform, which aggregates agricultural satellite data and translates it into useful information for businesses and organizations.
Services on VLSS include localized weather monitoring, crop classification, crop performance tracking, flood monitoring, and more. These are tools that can benefit entities that are part of the agriculture value chain, from suppliers to financial service providers, according to Soe Myint. The platform’s B2B features will be available to businesses by the end of February.
“Machinery companies can use this data to plan their machines’ movements and logistics all over the country, and make sure that the right machine is at the right place at the right time. A micro-finance company can look at this data and do credit scoring, and also avoid taking risks on risky farmers,” the CEO said.
Last month, Village Link became the first winner from Myanmar in the ASEAN AgTech category at the ASEAN Rice Bowl Startup Awards in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking about the achievement, Soe Myint said that it was a sign the country is making its presence known in the region within this sector.
“This award also recognizes the hard work my team and my industry colleagues have been putting in to improve our agricultural sector. I would also like to dedicate this award to the farmers who work tirelessly, rain or shine, to produce food for the people of Myanmar,” he said.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in South and Southeast Asia.