Building the First Digital Farming Community for Farmers in Thailand
The intrapreneurial journey in building a new business through innovation
Being born in Bangladesh in the ’80s, I saw a different narrative of the country growing up as a child than the most new-generation urban kids born later in the ’90s. Most of the year, I was living in the lush green military bases with almost untamed natural habitats surrounding them, and our annual long holidays were spent at my maternal grandparent’s countryside home at the heart of a beautiful northern village called Rampura. One thing remained very common between both places. I would look out of my windows and see farmers cultivating their lands around the year, and would see the whole crop cycle unfolding before my eyes. When we would visit our grandparents’ place for the holidays, my days and weeks were spent with the farmers and their families in the neighborhood. I would join their harvesting festivals, their daily conversations over several cups of tea along with bhapa pitha, a local steamed rice cake made with solid chunks of molasses. I would hear the stories of great harvest and witness first hand their tears of loss from their past farming seasons. During those weeks spent over cold winter, I would join with their families for a hearty meal sitting around a clay stove that would keep us all warm as we would chatter about their hopes and dreams for a better life. This was part of almost every year of my childhood for 14–15 years.
Why I moved to dtac and took on the job to head innovation
17 years later, as I was done delivering on the promise of digitizing the largest telco in Bangladesh (Grameenphone) — building the digital channels and distribution while setting up an amazing team that would carry on my legacy — I was ready to move out of my comfort zone and explore opportunities beyond Bangladesh. The opportunity to work for dtac showed up, but there was no clear direction as to what my focus to drive as the Innovation Head would be. The task was rather to get on board and tell the management where should dtac invest next to find new business opportunities beyond the traditional telco.
Driving innovation and new businesses from a corporate (the journey of being an intrapreneur)
When I joined dtac in March 2019, I took a look around the company to see if there was anything from the existing business that I could pivot into a new business, and luckily, I found one — CSR project called ‘Smart Agri’ that dtac was already dedicating for over a decade in Thailand. The solution was simple agriculture-related information sharing with the farmers, first starting out as SMSs and later moving into a static mobile app in partnership with RBK Foundation. While the impact was still limited due to the CSR nature and focused only on dtac users at that time, the narrative to help the Thai agriculture industry at large instantly struck a chord from my childhood. All the memories from my childhood years with and around farmers started pouring in, and I knew I was clear in my vision of what we needed to do next. I showed the then management my vision to transform the Thai farmers with a digital platform that will move away from the existing CSR initiatives into a sustainable commercial model that’s most needed. We also proposed to do it in partnership with another big global corporate with no prior relationship with dtac/Telenor. It took us almost 6 months to convince everyone, and I put my own career on the line to take a bet on digital farming as a new innovation business opportunity for dtac that’s worth exploring. I was given a 6 months window to prove a POC and get a go-ahead to actually turning it into a commercial project in dtac. The clock was ticking and it was time to walk the talk!
The journey of Kaset GO
Driving innovation and building a new business in a corporate is always one of the toughest things to do. Most people within telcos often don’t come from non-telco backgrounds, and even if they do, it’s really difficult to make sense of businesses that don’t exist. However, I was really lucky to have the dtac management team to sponsor this ambition and empower me, K. Praphan, and my dtac team (including the amazing Yara team led by Andy Leong, my co-founder in this project along with Karen Chua in establishing the strategic partnership, and the rest of the talented team members from Yara) to build this dream. Not to mention the equal endorsement and strategic guidance from the Yara management. Without their sponsorship and support, this collaboration wouldn’t have come this far.
Kaset GO, the first digital farming community platform in Thailand, and most likely in the SEA, is the result of a unique partnership between dtac and Yara. For the first time in history, these two companies joined hands to bring their unique capabilities in delivering something novel for the market.
The journey of the Kaset GO digital platform partnership formally started back in June 2019. At that time, we didn’t even have a name, just two self-organizing teams from two different companies trying to make sense of the different cultures and ways of work while researching the farmers across Thailand for a potential solution.
Given our agile team structure from the start, we were able to move fast and set up a functional cadence for the teams to execute our first prototype. The team followed various design thinking principles to take in as many inputs as possible while we were in the field listening to the farmers, developing our HMW (How Might We) questions, drawing up countless sketches, making a paper-prototype to run very early-stage user testing, and then coming back to the drawing board to repeat the same process again. After several rounds of customer immersion, validation, and internal war-room debates, we finally agreed to test our hypothesis of building a farmer-driven community that would be the most ideal platform approach based on the inputs received directly from the farmers. With USD 100K as seed money jointly put in by dtac and Yara to build the prototype, we went back to the field and hired a 3rd party agency to run neutral research on the acceptance and validation for this digital farming platform. We only had 10 weeks to deliver a working solution and roll out our POC (Proof of Concept) alpha version of the web-app.
In November 2019, we launched our POC app called ‘Kaset Tong Roo’ among a controlled group of 149 farmers from Rayong and Chanthaburi (two provinces in Thailand). With a physical event organized to introduce the app (without branding it or revealing the brands behind it to stay unbiased), we were sitting behind the dashboard of Google Analytics, waiting eagerly to see what happens next. The result? In less than 2 months’ time, 149 farmers shared and endorsed the app within their circles reaching more than 6,000+ farmers (40x growth) organically. From only two pilot provinces, our app was being used in more than 17 provinces all over Thailand. Farmers validated the community approach and loved the expert 1 to 1 chat feature for more personal deep dive on a particular query.
By this time, we knew we were onto something, and we needed the management go-ahead to build the commercial MVP app with a faster time to market. In February 2020, we passed our management decision check-point and secured the budget to build the main product platform. And 2 weeks later, the world came to an absolute standstill with the lockdown from Covid-19. We were already hurting a lot for not being able to work under one roof as a team (Yara Digital is based out of Singapore, with few resources from Thailand), and with the Covid-19 in the scene, there was no certainty for the team to get together during the pivotal months of developing the MVP product. Luckily enough, we were already collaborating with the best online collaboration tools due to the nature of the partnership and it wasn’t difficult for us to adjust to the new normal.
The game was on. Running the end to end product development of any digital platform requires a lot of critical milestones to come together and sync at the right time. A hands-on involvement was critical for both the Business Owners of the project (Andy and I) to keep sanity throughout all the virtual meetings, task distribution, daily standups, and weekly retrospectives. What most people often don’t see is the level of big picture thinking, strategic planning, commercialization strategy, resource management, stakeholder management, consistent deblocking, and the protection of the working team that goes into delivering a successful project. I wouldn’t have taken on this journey to bootstrap something from scratch, that too in a complex partnership setup like ours if it wasn’t for Andy to be on the other side of the business.
The next 4 months went by in a blink of an eye. After many long hours and weekends, never-ending discussions and debates, constant change and upskilling of the team, and fine-tuning the platform we loved building, we were ready with our first Beta product to hit the market on June 30, 2020. And this time, we no longer had a working name for our solution, but a new brand identity created from the start — a name that we hope will resonate with the millions of Thai Farmers and will become part of the household names in the agriculture industry of Thailand. This was the birth of our very special digital farming community platform — Kaset GO. Just 4 months after our MVP product launch, with over 130,000 registered farmers across all 77 provinces in Thailand Kaset GO is currently the fastest growing digital agriculture app in Thailand.
Having a vision that most people don’t see
Innovation is a word often misunderstood and misused in our daily work. While most companies are always coming up with new product plans, price plans, a tactical campaign, a new offer with some reward points, or a digital activation, they are not innovations, in my opinion. They are a tiny increment of what is already there without changing anything profoundly about the product or service.
So, when it comes to Kaset GO, we wanted to make sure this is not just another incremental solution for the farmers. Yara is a fertilizer company (serves farmers) and dtac is a technology connectivity company (farmers use our SIMS too). But, when we were building the Kaset GO app, we didn’t use any of the existing products or services of the core businesses of these two giants, but rather, we built it on a new core of its own. The innovation that went into building the Kaset GO is called an Architectural Innovation, where we pick up the learning, skills, a concept from an existing industry (i.e. Facebook, Linkedin, UBER, WeChat) and use it to build a solution in a completely different industry that’s currently not being served by others (the former industry).
Agriculture in Thailand contributes to almost 10% of the GDP. Thailand is also one of the leading agricultural exporting nations in the world. There are over 13 million farmers in Thailand, which are approximately 35% of the total workforce employed by this industry. If we look at the extended size of the industry (including people who are involved in the agriculture ecosystem), it amounts to approximately 18 million people out of the 67 million population in Thailand. This number not only shows the magnitude of the positive impact we can make by developing solutions that can support the farmers but also reveals the inevitable future challenges posed by climate change, rising global population, an ever-increasing need for the adoption of digital technology among these masses.
At Kaset GO, our mission is to empower the Thai farmers and the agriculture sector with the power of digital innovation and connectivity. Our product and business are designed and developed by the farmers and with the farmers. We are building the largest trusted digital farmer community, where our role is to reduce the digital divide among the farmers while working as a bridge for the Thailand ecosystem to enable the best partners to offer farmer-centric solutions that will further improve their livelihood and socio-economic conditions.
There’s a powerful and clear strategic alignment to why dtac is pursuing to build the Kaset GO digital farming solution in Thailand. As part of our true north, we are committed to connecting the unconnected, serving the mass Thai segments who are often underserved in the market. By leveraging a digital farmer community platform like Kaset GO, dtac will be able to further amplify the ways we can drive significant value to these users, and eventually, the greater the impact on the overall economic development of Thailand.
Future of Digital Agriculture
Kaset GO as a project also has a unique social impact to its core. When fully utilized, we will be able to have our share of contribution in reducing inequalities (SDG 10), supporting local farmers to fight hunger (SDG 2), creating jobs and additional income opportunity among farmers and their families (SDG 8), and provide digital technology infrastructure (SDG 9) as a basic need of the 21st century, especially in a post-Covid world.
Humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic era, known as the New Stone Age. Despite the advancements made in all parts of the world till now, with the introduction of many new industries, around 2 billion people in the world still derive their livelihood from agriculture. As long as humans continue to depend on their production of food from nature, agriculture shall continue to prevail. What will change is how we produce and consume food in the future. What will change is the way farmers (producers) need to adopt new technological solutions to deliver food to our table. What will be challenged are the traditional ways of making decisions and entering into a world where farmers and governments will be making data-driven decisions to secure the food production of the country.
When I look at the future of agriculture, I can only envision a connected society that is enriched by the knowledge of tomorrow, empowered by the decisions made with data, and build around the principle of cross-industry partnerships for a much better synergistic ecosystem that is ready to support the growing billions of people in the world.
Kaset GO is just the tip of the iceberg. We are committed to keeping the farmers at the heart of everything that we will do in the days to come. And we hope to also inspire the rest of the industries to join hands in this great endeavor with us to innovate more ways to support the mass Thai farmers from 2021 onward. If a solution like Kaset GO is relevant to any other agriculture-based country around the world, we are ready to collaborate and roll out the same in the coming future.