Innovative Thai start-up can help farmers increase yields

American-educated tech-entrepreneurs are using big data to help small farmers in Thailand escape the chains of poverty. A Thai graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his startup partners have won a United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) innovation award, and a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for employing advanced technology to help farmers increase their yields, raise their incomes and protect the environment.

The startup is named Ricult, which comes from the word agriculture. Its mission is to “give smallholder farmers the tools they need to be better informed and empowered economic actors – to work their way out of poverty. The solution to global problems like food shortages, malnourishment, poverty, rural unemployment need to start with smallholder farmers,’’ the company says on its website.

Ricult was first launched in Pakistan in early 2017, and then expanded to Thailand a few months later. It was co-founded by Aukrit Unahalekhaka, now CEO of Ricult Thailand, and his classmate at MIT, Usman Javaid of Pakistan and currently CEO of Ricult Pakistan. At least three other MIT graduates are members of Ricult’s team

“We desire to utilize technology and innovation to change the country to empower the agriculture industry, which is the backbone of Thailand,” Aukrit said. “Innovation is in the company’s DNA.”

The startup uses various analytical tools to help farmers become more productive and avoid falling into debt. To help boost crop yields, Ricult says it uses “geospatial technologies and machine learning algorithms to map spatial variations in crop and soil conditions to accurately suggest inputs that ensure optimal crop growth.”

Although Thailand is the world’s leading rice exporter, its rice farmers are less productive than their counterparts in several competing countries.  Nonetheless, Thai rice is considered to be such high quality that it is consistently a best seller and traders and organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations use its price as a global benchmark.

If Thai farmers could increase their yields, they could earn higher returns from their land, eliminating the need to grow as many as three crops a year. That would result in maintaining soil fertility, require less chemical inputs and help protect the environment.

Farmers “need to put their farms and what crops they plant as well as the location of their farm into our system. Then, we will monitor agriculturists’ farms with a satellite to capture an image. We use the satellite image, along with weather information, as well as information from the agriculturist to do big-data analysis,’’ Aukrit said. Using that information, Ricult then advises farmers on what crops and inputs to use to achieve the highest yields possible.

And the service is free for smallholder farmers. Ricult’s revenue comes from other stakeholders in the agricultural supply chain, including corporations that receive access to the data.

“We will have a double bottom-line, making profit for shareholders and an impact on society. There are so many technologies that can help the agricultural industry,” Aukrit said. And with his MIT background and passion to innovate, there is little doubt his ideas will take root and bear fruit in Thai farm country.