Southeast Asian startup 8villages, a mobile social network for smallhold farmers, started in Indonesia in January 2012 as a new way for farmers to buy and sell using a mobile device. Since then it has pivoted into an information and experience-sharing platform for these farmers. 8villages CEO Mathieu Le Bras recently told us a little about the startup’s progress, and its upcoming plans in 2013 which involve working together with telcos in Southeast Asia.
Growing up among farmers in the countryside of France, he noticed that in contrast to his own country, the agricultural sector in developing countries still doesn’t have any efficient information flow between farmers and other agriculture stakeholders. This includes things like changes in food prices, weather forecast, crop demands, and other valuable information that could help the farmers to have better decision making tools when growing their crops. The hope is that the farmers can thereby earn more money if they are armed with this kind of information.
8villages’ product comes in the form of a mobile phone subscription service called LISA (Farmers’ Information Service). By subscribing to LISA, users will be put into corresponding community groups based on their crops and location. Inside that group, users will get daily SMS tips from 8villages and trending local user-generated content. Users will also be able to ask their own questions and get them answered either by other farmers, or by agricultural experts from 8villages’ partners. This all works without the need for an internet connection.
The startup also has a partnership with Bogor’s Farming Institute (IPB), international organizations, and the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture. Basically, the three partners help provide the aforementioned experts as well as the practice of sustainable agriculture.
The team chose Indonesia for this pilot project because they saw that the country’s farming ecosystem is homogenous, meaning that the diverse regions have similar plantations of rice, fruits, and vegetables. Mathieu points out that India in the other hand, is very different. The farming ecosystems in the country’s north and south differ when it comes to the crops planted there. Furthermore Indonesians are highly social, including people outside its cities. Indonesians in the rural areas love to talk to their neighbors, discuss their crops, compare their achievements, and even brag about stuff. Those are great traits to support 8villages’ user-generated community groups.
At the moment, the startup charges a weekly fee of IDR 2,000 (21 cents) for every community group to which the user subscribes. There are around 1,000 users with 62 community group types so far. Mathieu said that they are going to change the business model into a freemium one in the near future. That will enable farmers to receive more information for free and would charge those who would want to share certain information to the community, such as commercial interests. He sees that there are around 44 million farmers in Indonesia, all of whom are potential users of LISA. The number can grow up to 80 million in the country if other family members in this sector are also counted.
A bridge to business
8villages has two models to earn revenue. The first one is from the subscription fee, while the second one involves providing services to agricultural businesses. 8villages will become a communication bridge between farmers and larger agricultural companies in the latter model. This can help businesses strengthen their brands’ image. 8villages could also sell its users’ insights to those businesses. Mathieu said that they now have one multinational agriculture company which has already signed up to 8villages’ service.
There aren’t a lot of competitors in this area, but one of the biggest might be the Nokia Life tools. This Nokia feature enables people living in emerging markets to receive a wide range of information – including information about the agriculture sector. Mathieu explained that LISA has two differences compared with Nokia Life. First, LISA is mostly user-generated, where people not only receive information, but can also ask things; while Nokia Life implements only company-generated information. Secondly, LISA’s usage isn’t restricted to a particular device. Also, while there are NGOs and public projects that run in India and Kenya, there aren’t other players yet in Indonesia.
In the year ahead
2012 was the year in which 8villages built its product and team. Mathieu noted that it was particularly challenging for him to find and gather the right people with suitable skill sets to address agricultural issues using technology. But finally he achieved just that and formed a lean nine-person team. Well-known local startup players like Sanny Gaddafi (pictured above, left), whose startups consist of several social networks like Fupei.com and SixReps.com, became the CTO; and Andy Zain (pictured above, right), the director of Jakarta Founders Institute and founder of the Mobile Monday Indonesia, became one of the advisors. We know that Andy is a big believer in feature phones in emerging markets, so it’s not a big surprise to see him involved here.
In the coming months, Mathieu plans to strike a deal with telecommunication operators in Indonesia, and he will also discuss with operators in the Philippines and Vietnam about similar possible partnerships. He’s going to start the expansion plans to the Philippines this year, while Vietnam’s expansion plans might need to wait until 2014. At the moment he has a Java-based feature phone app being developed jointly with two handset manufacturers in Indonesia.
8villages has completed its seed funding round with angel investors from the mobile technology space and agriculture in Indonesia, Singapore, and the US. The startup plans to raise a larger round in the second half of this year. The team strives to continue learning and understanding its users’ needs, which include both farmers and agricultural companies.