Shashi Raghunandan – Advice for Agtech Entrepreneurs 

Innovating Agriculture through Technology

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Shashi Raghunandansstands at the forefront of technological innovation in agriculture, leveraging over two decades of experience to drive transformative change. As the founder and CEO of Oaken, a pioneering B2B SaaS platform, Raghunandaniis dedicated to revolutionising farmland resource management and access. His career is marked by a passion for product innovation and addressing complex challenges through technology, having launched successful products and business lines across diverse sectors including agtech, climate, payments, banking, and identity verification.

Raghunandan’s journey to founding Oaken began in 2022 with his involvement in DIAL Ventures, a venture studio affiliated with Purdue University. Here, he identified a critical need within the agricultural supply chain: the inefficiency of managing farmland leases. With approximately 40% of U.S. farmland leased from landowners and annual lease payments reaching around $30 billion, the reliance on manual processes presented significant challenges. Oaken was conceived to address these issues, providing a digital solution that streamlines lease management, communication, and record-keeping for both farmers and landowners.

In this insightful interview, Raghunandan delves into the inspiration behind Oaken, the platform’s functionality, and its benefits for the agricultural community. He also shares exciting upcoming features, his impactful work with MIFOS on financial inclusion, and success stories from his extensive career. Furthermore, he offers valuable advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the agtech sector, emphasising the importance of market engagement and long-term business viability.

What inspired you to create Oaken, and how did you identify the need for a platform to expand farmland resources and access?

In 2022, I joined DIAL Ventures, a venture studio affiliated with Purdue University. DIAL Ventures focuses on establishing B2B software companies within the agricultural supply chain. During this experience, I engaged with senior agricultural professionals and identified a critical issue: approximately 40% of U.S. farmland is leased from landowners, yet most lease management, communication, and record-keeping occur manually. Despite annual lease payments totalling around $30 billion, farms invest significant time in tracking leases and payments. Conversations with farmland managers, banks, and insurance companies revealed that offline paper-based processes create challenges, including data disorganisation and even potential land loss. In response, I founded Oaken to address this pervasive problem across all aspects of farmland operations.

Can you explain how Oaken’s B2B SaaS platform works and how it benefits both farmers and landowners?

Imagine the multitude of landowner records, communications, contacts, payments, and leases exchanged between farms and landowners. Typically, farms manage these interactions using manual folders, spreadsheets, or even memory alone. Consider the challenges this poses in communicating key events, tracking projects, passing information to the next generation, and ensuring nothing falls through the cracks.

Now shift your perspective to the landowners—individuals collectively holding $4 trillion in farmland assets. They grapple with managing all this manually. Unlike stockholders who receive real-time updates via web interfaces, landowners lack such tools for their farmland investments.

Enter Oaken: a solution addressing challenges faced by both farmers and landowners. Oaken’s platform helps farmers organise data, track events, generate payment schedules, and manage communications. Landowners gain access to their own interface, allowing them to understand how their valuable assets are performing.

Can you share any upcoming features or developments for the Oaken platform that you are particularly excited about?

There are a lot of features that we are excited about, but the few I believe our customers are going to see real value from are the payments engine and the interface for farmland managers. 

Agricultural land leases are complex in that there are various payment structures linked to the crop output. There can be a fixed rent/ acre or there could be a fixed and a variable component depending on if the crop yield crossed a  certain threshold. These complex leasing arrangements mean that farms are spending hours keeping track of payment schedules for a landowners, including breakup of payments (in case a piece of land is held by multiple landowners) and the type of payment (check, direct account transfers etc.). Our future release will digitise his entire function for farms.

The other feature is a farmland management interface. While a lot of the leasing happens directly between the farmer and the landowner, in many cases a farmland manager is employed by the landowner to take care of the land on his/ her behalf. Helping farmland managers interact with landowners and farmers is something that we are quite excited about.

Can you discuss your involvement with MIFOS and the impact of your work on financial inclusion and payment systems?

MIFOS originated from a challenge faced by Grameen Bank: efficiently tracking loans and repayments. Initially managed in an Excel file, this took up countless hours, that inspired enterprising individuals to create an open-source project. The resulting MIFOS platform assists micro-finance institutions in managing loan and deposit accounts, saving time and ensuring regulatory compliance. Today, over 200 micro-finance institutions worldwide use the open-source version. MIFOS has expanded to include an open-source payments engine and other components for essential services like banking and government disbursements. I joined MIFOS’ board, drawn by their mission to leverage technology as a force multiplier in solving complex challenges. My background in payments and technology aligned well with their vision.

Can you share a specific success story from your time launching new products or business lines at Fortune 500 companies or startups?

There are several examples of products that I have launched. The one that I remember well is the launch of an offline way to biometrically identify an individual. Readers will be shocked to know that leakages in government disbursements (through fraud etc.) are more than 30% globally. The challenge stems in part from the inability to identify the individual who is to receive the disbursement at the point of handing them the money. Governments around the world, but particularly in the MENA region, face these challenges and the most because more developed countries have devised a form of identification (either biometric or otherwise). These identity solutions can be notoriously difficult to deploy, expensive, and time consuming requiring a set of highly skilled individuals as well which are all difficult to muster. The solution we deployed was a low cost way to biometrically identify an individual at the last mile, in poorly connected areas and make sure that the problem of leakages was reduced if not fully eliminated. This was a solution going after a real need in the marketplace.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to start their own ventures in agtech sector?

Agtech is a challenging industry for various reasons. The industry lags almost all others when it comes to digitisation. It is largely a “physical” industry in that there is a lot of movement of physical goods across vast distances and finally the margins are so thin that it is difficult to find value pools where margins can be had to support another business. That said it is also a large opportunity area, with themes around sustainability, food production and food waste to support the population and the climate. My advice to founders looking to start their own agtech company would be to engage with the market and make sure you have paying customers before you build any technology. Convince yourself of the size of the market, the margins and the long term business viability before embarking on this journey. The outcomes can be very rewarding but often times the road to get there can be hard and founders need to strap in for the long haul.