As an entrepreneur, Rajamanohar Somasundaram confesses that he finds it difficult to separate his life or personal challenges from his professional ones. Interestingly, however, his journey into aquaculture started from a personal quest within the professional environment. He was looking for “some green passion”, “a new challenge to work with” and, he says, he was “largely inspired by the food value chain”. As chance would have it, he met a shrimp farmer on board a train in 2015. Thus, from the cross between a personal search and a chance encounter was born Aquaconnect, a full-stack technology platform devoted to aquaculture of which he is the founder and CEO.
To that search and that chance, Rajamanohar Somasundaram, Raj, added another element that for him is a philosophy: technology as an enabler. When we talk about shrimp farming, especially in Asia, we often focus on the farmers but, as Raj tells WeAreAquaculture, “if you want to improve the farmer’s life, you’ve got to work at multiple levels”. As he sees it, technology is a backbone that can be used in many sectors, including the food industry and, in this case, the shrimp industry. A cell phone in the hands of a farmer is a powerful tool, but to be useful it must first win “this constant battle between AI versus AI”, ancestral intelligence versus artificial intelligence, and Aquaconnect has done just that. As its founder tells us, its fresh, smart take on the way the collect data is what makes it different.
The discovery of shrimp farming
In the midst of the Mobile revolution, back in 2005-2006, Raj used to run mobile value-added services in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, so at one point he was offering technology solutions in about 15 different countries. As mentioned, at the same time he was “just looking for some green passion because we had reduced to a data pipe for a period of time”, and as chance would have it, on one of those train journeys he met a shrimp farmer. They chatted and “that’s when I learned more about shrimp farming from him. This gave me an idea of how the industry worked”. It was enough to ignite his curiosity and he began his own research into the industry. He had found his “green passion”.
“Till that point in time, I was just thinking that aquaculture is a kind of a cottage industry, where small-scale farmers, they would be having a small pond, and then they would be growing these aquatic animals, and they would be selling it in the local market and… But it was a revelation for me that it is a multi-billion dollar industry, even in India itself”, he says. India is one of the largest aquaculture producers and the largest exporter of frozen shrimp in the world. As he explains, the country is producing close to a million tons of shrimp, it is a $7.7 billion industry of seafood every year, and out of that $5 billion export only from farmed shrimp industry.
That discovery made him realize that technology could do a lot for the industry. “We would be able to get the right advisory to the farmers. We’d be able to get the formal financial institution to participate in the aquaculture value chain. And finally, we are also looking at how we improve the market linkage for the local producers to reach the domestic as well as international markets”, he explains. “Overall, the idea is to talk about how technology can transform and effectively bring efficiency into this whole value chain for multiple stakeholders”.
As we said at the beginning, Raj is convinced that “if you want to improve the farmer’s life, you’ve got to work at multiple levels”. In practice, this means that farmers are Aquaconnet’s beneficiaries, but they’re not direct customers to them. How do you explain that? It’s relatively simple when its founder tells us how the platform is organized.
AquaPartners, Aquaconnect’s enablers
As a farmer, he explains, first of all, you need advice on how to improve your production techniques. You also need quality farm inputs, such as feed, feed additives, sanitary products, etc. Of course, you need financing to start farming. And finally, you need to connect with the market to effectively sell your product. Aquaconnect is a platform that offers all these services to farmers through its AquaPartners. “The AquaPartners are the local-level enablers for us”, Raj explains, they help them to connect with the farmers.
And what does an AquaPartner do? “Through him, we are able to provide advisory services to the farmers. He’s also selling the farm inputs to them. He’s also helping us buy back that harvest from the farmer. So, this is how this whole value chain is built”, the founder of Aquaconnect tells us. They also offer advisory, financial, and market linkage services through him. “So, on one end, we are working with AquaPartners, on another end, we are working with our seafood buyers, whoever would like to buy the produce from the farmers, and this whole value chain is being supported by our fintech platform”.
But how do they get the information to provide that advice? This is where artificial intelligence comes in. Aquaconnect collects data through two sources. One is what Raj calls “our ground intelligence” or AquaPartners-enabled network, and the other comes from satellite remote sensing. With the combination of both information, they are able to predict for example the demand for inputs in each area, know how many farmers are actively doing farming or predict the supply for buyers. “Since we are doing real-time culture monitoring through the eyes in the skies, we are able to come up with risk mitigation for our financial institutions partners”, he claims.
In addition to this, there is another possibility, a service increasingly demanded by consumers: traceability. “Since we are deeply integrated with the production value chain as well as have deep technology intervention, we are able to get that traceability data”, says the CEO. “Aquaconnect is working with more than 90,000 farmers, and has seen 500% growth in the last 12 months. And as we speak, we are working with about 500 plus AquaPartners in major shrimp production states in India. And we have got an expansion in about six major states in India, and we have got close to 50 plus industry partners”. This is what they have built so far, he says.
Boots on the ground, eyes in the sky
Those are the – we have to say – impressive business numbers, but at WeAreAquaculture we love to talk about people, the human perspective behind the companies and the professionals. And, although Rajamanohar Somasundaram clarifies several times during the interview that Aquaconnect does not work directly with farmers, the platform certainly manages to improve their lives. How do they achieve this? By using non-intrusive technology, but above all, by winning “this constant battle between AI versus AI”.
“AI versus AI, the first one stands for ancestral intelligence and the other one stands for artificial intelligence”, Raj explains. When you walk into these farms and when you’re talking to some older aquaculture farmers, they say “my experience is your age”, he tells us. In view of this response, it is difficult to make them understand that technology can improve their lives or farming practices, or that it can get them better finances or better market access.
So at Aquaconnect, they have learned to understand the farmers’ inherent needs and then position their services around that. It’s not about inventing something totally new and alien and then wanting to implement it into their lives, he says, it has to be a harmonious blend of artificial intelligence and ancestral intelligence. “When I say artificial intelligence, it is about the right technology. And when I say ancestral intelligence is about the right user needs and aspirations”, he concludes.
Needs and aspirations, something very human. As much as the reality of these farmers. “In the Western World, there is a default understanding that everybody has got a network, and everybody is having money to implement technology. But in the East, we do not have such privileges”. That means the best way to approach these farmers is that they don’t even know you’re there. Non-intrusive technology and your local shopkeepers, “boots on the ground intelligence and the intelligence from eyes in the sky”. A very deep tech intervention but done from a distance. “We are collecting information in a much smarter way than any other competitors who are in this value chain”, Raj says, and that’s what makes Aquaconnect a different platform, what gives it its edge.
Exciting journey ahead
Finally, we asked the founder and CEO of Aquaconnect about the future of both the company and himself. The goals for the platform are clearly set. “We are present in five states in India, and we are looking to focus on the Indian market for another one to two years, that is 12 to 24 months”, he claims. “And we are improving the efficiency of our solutions and looking at disrupting the whole value chain, not just farmers. So, we think India has got a huge opportunity for us, and we would like to position ourselves as the market leader in India in the first place before we look into other geographies, and the idea is to reach about half a billion dollars of revenue in the next 4-5 years”. Because of the kind of track record they have at the moment, he believes it is quite achievable.
But what about his personal goals? As the entrepreneur he is, Rajamanohar Somasundaram’s goals are those of his company. “I could never separate myself from the business, because for an entrepreneur work and life are the same”, he says. “There is no work-life balance concept here”, he jokes. When you start a business, he tells us, first you try to go from 0 to 1, then from 1 to 10, then from 10 to 100, and each phase is very different.
“I’m learning to fit myself into these phases”, he tells us. “If you are talking as an entrepreneur, the challenge is like 0 to 1, and 1 to 10, I was managing it effortlessly. But when it comes to now 10 to 100, it’s kind of all set of new challenges that I need to be facing probably that is something unknown to me yet”, he explains.
Named among ‘Young Global Leaders 2012’ by World Economic Forum in 2012, and winner of MIT Tech Review’s ‘Social Innovator of the year 2012’ award the same year, ‘TED Fellow’ since 2016… Raj’s career is widely recognized, but he keeps that entrepreneurial spirit intact and his journey, like Aquaconnect’s, continues. “Being an entrepreneur, you are always walking the uncharted territory. So, I think it’s going to be an exciting journey from here”, he ends.
Aquaconnect is a full-stack technology platform with integrated financial technology that uses satellite remote sensing and artificial intelligence to enable aquaculture farmers, retailers, and seafood buyers to increase access to formal credit, farm inputs, and post-harvest markets. With numerous international awards and recognitions, it is also the first Indian aquaculture company to obtain ISO 27001 certification for information security management. Its high-tech solutions empower the entire aquaculture value chain and help create predictability and transparency in the value chain, thus making it more efficient. Aquaconnect is funded by Omnivore, HATCH-Norway, Flourish Ventures, AgFunder, Lok Capital, LDC. (Louis Dreyfus Company), Suneight, Rebright Partners, and 6G Capital.