DATA-DRIVEN DIGITAL AGRICULTURE.
Dr. Venkat Maroju’s journey as an epic transformational technology leader harnessing the power of technology for revolutionizing the global agriculture value chain.
Taking on the role of CEO of SourceTrace in 2013, when the company needed a new direction, Dr. Venkat Maroju’s dream came true, as this is where his heart and passion lay. Within seven years and a fair share of ups and downs behind him, there is a sense of fulfillment today when you see the ship having caught the wind in its sail, heading in the right direction. Few people would be better placed to head a company of this profile, as Venkat is, having seen it all at close quarters. The farmer distress in Telangana, India, in the year 2000 had led him to be part of the political movement for statehood.
Here he tried to understand the source of distress in Indian farming communities, up close and personal. He also studied and observed the Mulkanoor Cooperative, in Telangana as a singular case here marginal farmers had achieved profitability and sustainability. But it would be a long time before he would be able to do anything more concrete for the agriculture sector. He is finally helping the agriculture sector worldwide integrate digital innovations. This experience put him into a constant yearning to look for and create a sustainable agriculture model- by applying the latest technological developments and make farming communities healthy and profitable.
Venkat studied in a Telugu medium school until his 12th grade and got his engineering degree from Osmania University, thereafter went to the Indian Institute of Science for his Masters, further to Old
Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia for his Ph.D., and finally to the Top Tech-School in the world – the MIT Sloan School of Management for M.B.A. It is interesting to learn that while he was serving as CIO of Bose Automotive Division, a highly celebrated position, is when he was invited by one of the investors of Source Trace, to take over as the CEO, an offer he gladly took up.
Abrupt induction in a sector that is not only huge but is also an important contributor to the GDP of India put Dr. Venkat to a humongous task. The 500 million smallholder marginal farmers, have been
in a state of the constant struggle, and that they were to sustain a population of 2 billion with their meager earnings. Climate change, an increasing global population, and shrinking arable land were complicating agriculture further and left it gasping for breath.
SourceTrace was maneuvering its digital solutions used in its earlier branchless banking engagement
to now help improve the state of agriculture, working with aggregators like farmer producer organizations, government and development agencies and agri-businesses who work with a large number of farmers. SourceTrace is a SaaS (Software as a Service) company that is planning to revolutionize the global agriculture value chains by using digital innovations that focuses on sustainable
agriculture and the empowerment of smallholder farmers. SourceTrace is helping farmers rise to the
challenge through datadriven digital innovations that improve productivity and predictability in a sustainable manner. The digital solutions improve farmers’ livelihoods by providing greater access to global markets and customers, improving productivity and minimizing risk by access to timely knowledge and information related to agriculture.
Under Dr. Venkat’s vision, SourceTrace is able to provide complete value chain visibility of the produce from farm to fork. For instance, ethical fashion brands can demonstrate the origin of organic cotton, QR-code based traceability solutions for retail chains that deal with fresh produce, and aquaculture farmers are able to demonstrate the source of the produce. These incomparable agritech tools help win the trust
and confidence of the end consumers.
Starting with 5 customers in 2013, the company now has more than 140, has impacted more than a million farmers in 28 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its solutions have been applied to more than 350 crops. Where ever the solutions have touched, it has made the agriculture value chain visible, and shifted the paradigm by bringing predictability, sustainability, equitability, profitability, and
now trending – traceability, into the value chain.
1 million + farmers livelihoods improved
28 countries covered across 3 continents: Africa, Asia, Central & South America
2.4 million acres of land managed
Dr. Venkat launched, the SourceTrace’s technology platform DATAGREEN that hosts multiple solutions ranging from farm management and farmer advisory services to traceability, certification, and financial services. This is backed by technologies like mobile application, AI/ML, remote sensing, and blockchain. These solutions help increase farm productivity by 10 to 20 percent on an average, as reported by customer analysis.
The testimony to this has been live case studies of improved farmer incomes and standard of life, like of
palm-oil farmers in Sierra Leone earning 10 percent more for their organic produce than before, parallelly organic Fairtrade cotton farmers in India are earning Rs. 5.8 more per kilo of organic Fairtrade cotton, these make a social impact too, as it keeps families united instead of young men having to migrate in search of work. SourceTrace’s solutions have helped minimize deforestation and child labor
among cocoa growers in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Cameroon. SourceTrace’s financial solutions have
reduced the payment cycle to farmers from 6 weeks to 2 weeks. Overall, it has helped foster sustainable
farming communities where ever it touched. To expand its footprint, SourceTrace is planning to impact 10 million farmers across 50-60 countries in the next 5 years.
In an era, when consumers are becoming environmentally and ethically conscious, and demand to know where their produce comes from, traceability will be one of the key areas of focus to enable transparency
in the agriculture value chain, as they now span international borders and are subject to global regulations. Dr. Venkat quotes that the estimated growth rates of the food and ag-tech sector, where traceability has a key role. The sector is expected to grow from USD 494.9 billion (2018) to 729.5 billion USD by 2023. The other area of focus is digital finance related to farmers and agriculture. SourceTrace
aims to establish itself as the leading provider of software solutions in sustainable agriculture covering the end-to-end value chain. Supported by prominent social venture investors like Gray Ghost Ventures, Soros Economic Development Fund, Serious Change LP, Sorenson Impact Foundation, Schmidt Family Foundation and Impact Assets, SourceTrace is sure to succeed in its endeavors.
Dr. Venkat has been invited to speak at international conferences such as UN Forum for Business & Human Rights, Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA), ICT4D, TiEStartupCon, Sustainatopia, Agriculture Leadership Summit, Development Dialogue and also at universities such as MIT, Harvard, Old Dominion University, Brandeis and Osmania University.
Here are a few excerpts from an interview with Venkat:
PV: What has been your greatest failure? And what did you learn from it?
Venkat: My greatest failure has been my attempt to move back to India in 2009. It was poorly planned, so I miserably failed and had to move back to the USA. Sure, does teach me a lesson, is that you can be
passionate about something, but you need to be practical in pursuing your passion. Passion alone will not carry you forward to achieve your goals. Sometimes one’s passion can overtake everything else and you lose the context you are in and practicality of pursuing your passion while being successful at it.
PV: God – What role does God play in your life & leadership?
Venkat: I am an atheist. I grew up in an artisan family and my mother was a learned and traditional
Hindu lady, so I had a good exposure to religion. While working for the Telangana movement in my early 30s, I discovered how caste played an evil yet important role in Indian society. Due to my sensitivity towards casteism, I discovered Buddha, Phule and Ambedkar philosophies. So I can say that both my personal and professional life are guided by human values – I care and respect human beings, animals, and nature. My leadership is driven by thinking about the human side of every aspect in my business; customers, investors, employees, partners, society and, environment at large.
PV: What do you do to keep your family Priority #1? With the busy schedule, you keep.
Venkat: Despite a demanding work life peppered with continenthopping, I am very fortunate to have a partner who understands and supports me. She is the Director of Regulatory Affairs at Global Pharmaceutical leader, Pfizer, having a demanding job for herself, she takes a larger share in looking after our children and household.
In order to make up my time away from home, I try to work from home whenever possible. We also plan a couple of vacations every year as a family. I also love to cook, so whenever I am home I try to help in cooking traditional recipes and works wonders as a stress reliever too. All in our family are animal lovers and we have many pets – a dog, two cats, one bunny and 5 chickens, these beautiful animals are the common thread that ties all of us together in our family.
PV: What are the keys to developing the next generation of leaders in your world?
Venkat: In my view, the most important traits I look for in a leader are being open-minded, self-otivated, takes risk and thinks big. It is easy to mould these employees into next-generation leaders. We at SourceTrace hire some bright fresh kids right out of the colleges and identify those who have these traits and groom them to be future leaders. I am very happy to report that some of the high performers in our company are those who started their careers in our company right out of college.
Having traveled this path, Venkat is often quizzed on what success is and how to get there.
“Choose a field that you’re passionate about and give it your all. You’ll get there, eventually”, he responds.