India’s largest fresh produce supply chain company, Ninjacart is solving one of the toughest problems in the world through technology. The startup based in Bengaluru, has a vision to build India’s most efficient and largest Supply Chain platform and improve the lives of producers, businesses, and consumers in a meaningful manner. Ninjacart connects producers of food directly with retailers, restaurants, and service providers using in-house applications that drive end to end operations. While talking with Nitisha from BISinfotech, Thirukumaran Nagarajan, Co-founder and CEO, Ninjacart explains the adoption of ML (Machine Learning) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) and its impact on agriculture. He says that now farmers can take decisions on which crops to produce by providing automated warnings and updates on weather conditions.
1. Kindly explain Ninjacart’s unique services and the use of AI and IoT in it?
Ninjacart is India’s largest B2B fresh produce supply chain company connecting farmers directly with retail outlets. We have reduced uncertainty related to demand and supply by creating market linkage. Every day we transport tonnes of fresh produce, from farms to businesses, in major cities across India within 12 hours. At Ninjacart, we have developed special apps for farmers, which enable them to check prices across the market. So the farmers have the freedom to settle on the marketplace for better price recovery. Retailers and small business owners associated with Ninjacart enjoy the convenience of receiving farm fresh produce at their doorsteps.
At Ninjacart, the prowess of AI algorithms has been applied in several dimensions of the supply chain including the tasks of Predictive Demand Forecasting and Planning, Logistics Route Optimization as well as making Catalogue Pricing decisions as dictated by data. Demand Forecasting & Planning begins with identifying the leading indicators of demand changes. This is followed by modeling our decisions depending on these indicators using a regression-based approach which helps us provide better value and guarantees to the farmers.
Another important application lies in the optimization of our logistics routes for maximising efficiency. For the same, we have taken a constraint-based modeling approach. Constraints are based on distance, vehicle, cost, capacity & time. Post defining these constraints, we use a metaheuristic optimization technique (Guided Local Search), to maximize our objective function and reduce our supply chain cost.
RFID Scanning: The traditional supply chain lacks transparency, which is one of the many challenges in the Agri Supply Chain. Ninjacart uses RFID chips on crates to bring transparency by tracking the movement of vegetables and fruits across the supply chain as they move through numerous processes and facilities. Transparency is key to assure the quality of produce and accountability for farmers. Ninjacart’s integrated technology helps us track the movement of thousands of tonnes of produce from farms to shelves, every day.
Vehicle Route Planning: Vehicle Route Planning is key to driving the Ninjacart Supply Chain to move tonnes of fresh produce from farms to retailers in less than 12 hours. The algorithm registers retail customer order details that were placed the previous day. It utilizes information such as customer location, tonnage, crate count, delivery time window, etc. to determine the optimal delivery route. In the same manner, the algorithm utilizes vehicle information such as vehicle type, start location, max crate capacity, max no. of points, the time window in which it’s available, and average speed of the vehicle to assign the delivery route the next day for the door to door deliveries to stores. After considering customer specifications and vehicle information, the algorithm perfectly optimizes the vehicle route towards the customer locations. The route is determined to use the vehicles more efficiently in terms of vehicle usage, occupancy, and positioning the orders to be delivered. Our algorithms automate the planning and optimization of logistics by mapping 1000+ routes for vehicles crisscrossing 15 states for delivering to customers daily across 7 cities.
Facial Recognition: Being a supply chain company, Ninjacart has a large workforce that operates on the ground level and labour is one of the biggest costs for the business. It becomes a mammoth task to keep a track of every single worker to ensure they get work done on time. Moreover, fraudulent activities are rampant on the ground, which leads to problems such as false reporting, increased dependency on the worker, issues with cash handling, incomplete work, pilferage, and less accountability. This can have a direct impact on the P&L of the company and the outcome of the supply chain.
A comprehensive solution to all of these problems that Ninjacart’s tech utilizes is Facial Recognition Software. The software swiftly captures the entire face and it is fragmented into small pieces that are converted into data streams. Each time, 90% accuracy is required to mark the attendance. This data can be further used for tracking worker productivity from start to finish and at various touchpoints in the Supply Chain and also solve many of the prevalent problems to ensure an order is delivered on time without any hiccups.
Machine learning / AI is also used in enhancing customer experience and value
- an automated, goal-seeking revenue & margin optimizing pricing system which takes care of both supply & demand side constraints.
- Customer segmentation, temporal, personalised, product frequency-based model to recommend the set of products and offers.
The prediction model analyses hundreds and thousands of market factors. For instance, we analyse past buying data of consumers and the frequency of orders to determine the kind of produce that needs to be procured. This way, we inform farmers about what is expected of them for that particular month by issuing a ‘Harvest the farm’ calendar for weather forecasting.
2. What will be your next project and how will it be impactful for the farm industry?
Our vision is ‘Safe Food a Billion People’, to make safe food affordable and accessible for millions of people of this country. We have made significant advancements towards this, early last year we had launched ‘Foodprint’ initiative. Foodprint is a foundational information highway that allows us to know everything about the food we eat. Starting from, who is the farmer, when was it harvested, the truck that carried the produce, the warehouse that processed it, the helper who handled the product at the warehouse, a retailer who brought the product and how it was delivered to your doorstep. The 100% traceability helps us control the quality in each and every step and monitor how your product is handled in the entire supply chain with a robust and instant feedback loop.
Our recent association with Kilofarms brings us closer to our vision to adapt residue-free farming methods. Residue-free vegetables are grown with optimal farm inputs to meet the expected global food safety standards. There are inefficiencies in the traditional farming practice and with our association with Kilofarms, we are moving towards creating a community of farmers who are well informed about advanced technologies in agriculture. After achieving success in producing the first batch of residue-free tomatoes, we intend to add 18 more crops by mid of this year.
With residue-free methods, we can increase farm productivity and consistency, empowering farmers with emerging technology concepts like moisture sensors, data analytics, software, and many other tools. For example, moisture sensors give a predictive estimate of the water content of the soil influencing the yield of the crop. Further, it helps reduce the amount of water used in the field by telling the farmers which part of the field has less water, thereby bringing more efficiency to the entire process with minimal wastage. This entire system is controlled through an app wherein farmers can take care of 30 to 40 acres of land during a single day, without having to spend the whole day in the field.
We will continue to introduce various innovations that will bring us closer towards our vision and therefore enable us to bring in about a change and create a powerful impact towards the industry.
We are also investing in Machine Learning (ML) to improve forecasting, price engine, crop monitoring recommendations based on our 5 years of data and research. Leveraging strengths and resources to ensure quality and efficiency remains our main focus as an Agritech platform.
3. How the business was during lockdown and what will be your future plans for such kinds of issues?
When the nationwide lockdown was announced there was no clarity on which part of the supply chain would be operative. Due to irregularities in the supply chain, we were unable to reach the end consumers. Retail outlets were closed, and we were allowed to operate a few hours a day, so we started working with government bodies to figure out how to ease the process. At the outset, we started engaging with farmers to understand the market value as they were struggling to find buyers and sought our help in selling the produce. After analyzing the situation and mutually agreeing on a price point we started delivering fresh produce to consumers, residents, supplying to orphanages, and multiple initiatives to drive the supply chain.
During the nationwide lockdown, operations at Ninjacart were temporarily shifted from B2B to B2C to assist the farmers with the harvested produce.
- At the initial phase of the lockdown, essentials like fruits and vegetables went out of stock, and if it was available it cost double the market price. As a result, Ninjacart launched the initiative- Reaching the underprivileged and began supplying fresh produce in bulk to old age homes, orphanages, community kitchens, and slums at subsidised rates. Additionally, to fill the gap between demand and supply, we started delivering fresh produce societies, colonies, and apartments across cities
- Later, owing to the lockdown millions of farmers across the country were left in the lurch. That is when Ninjacart deployed the ‘Harvest The Farm’ initiative, and established a direct connection between the farmer and the end consumer through Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzo. All this was managed by leveraging our existing supply chain while working overtime to help farmers and end consumers in an on-going lockdown situation
- Due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak, customers become more cautious about what they are consuming. We saw this as an opportunity and started working towards our vision ‘Safe Food for Billion People’ and launched ‘FoodPrint’ initiative. Developed a traceability system that not only guarantees 100% traceability but also serves the purpose of safe food till last-mile delivery
The pandemic has changed the way we source, manage and deliver fresh produce. The plan is to make the supply chain transparent, resilient, and smarter with recovery operational capabilities after a disruption. We see this as an opportunity to re-design the supply chain with technology and long-term initiatives on this front.
4. How do you define Ninjacart different from the other agritech companies?
The supply chain infrastructure of fruits and vegetables is extremely fragmented with several uncertainties. Wastage is involved at every stage- assembling, transporting, storing, grading/sorting, processing, packaging and distributing. Given the complicated nature of the supply chain, the presence of too many middlemen resulted in exploitation of farmers pushing them to sell produce at cheaper rates. We have eliminated the intermediaries by taking control of the supply chain by using technology and analytics. Ninjacart is equipped to move tonnes of perishables from farms to stores every day, in less than 12 hrs.
Price and demand confirmation to farmers before harvesting is initiated by setting both purchasing and selling prices using an average of national prices to avoid price risk, which is never heard of before. Farmers have to complete Ninjacart’s quality control test and visit their nearby collection centre (CC) to sell their produce. Then, the merchandise is shipped to the fulfilment centre (FC) where it undergoes a second check and is dispatched to the distribution centre (DC). Finally, the produce is packed as per retailer’s orders and delivered via planned routes at the scheduled time.
Vehicle Route Planning is key to driving the Ninjacart Supply Chain to move tonnes of fresh produce from farms to retailers. The algorithm generated by Ninjacart registers retail details like location, crate count, delivery time window, among others to determine the optimal delivery route. In the same order algorithm utilises vehicle information like start location, max crate capacity, the time window in which it is available, etc. After considering both the factors the algorithm perfectly optimizes the vehicle route towards the customer locations.
We have taken a constraint-based modeling approach. Constraints are based on distance, vehicle, cost, capacity and time. Post defining these constraints, we use a metaheuristic optimization technique (Guided Local Search), to maximize our objective function and reduce our supply cost. Furthermore, we ensure transparency in the entire food value chain through RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), it enables us to track fresh produce as it undergoes various facilities.
We follow the best practices and utilise top-of-the-line monitoring tools to check what goes into a farm to produce a particular vegetable which can be concluded as follows:
- RFID Technology: Everything is enabled through the app. Every crate has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag so that the company can know exactly which vegetables and fruits have been delivered.
- Tomorrow ready ERP: Mobile ready ERP ensures use zero paper in the supply chain
- Demand Forecasting: Leveraged deep machine learning to perfect forecasting upto 97% and reduce the overall wastage to 4% [Traditional supply chains have wastage up to 25%].
- Farmer apps: Ninjacart also have specific apps for the farmers wherein they help them not only in demand forecasting but harvest planning and determining the price indent as well
- Connected Logistics: Speed and cost can make or break any supply chain. Ninjacart’s indigenous route optimization and utilization keeps the load factor at 92% and puts fresh vegetables on the plate (they move the produce from farm to store within 12 hours) at a cost almost 1/3rd of the traditional supply chain
- Vehicle Route Planning: Key driver of the supply chain at Ninjacart
- Social security: Cashless and instant
5. Is there any expectation from the government? Explain.
Over the years, the government has provided tremendous support to farmers through policies and reforms. We can expect the government to collaborate with agritech players as they hold the potential to overcome the challenges faced by farmers in terms of pricing, technology penetration, farm tools, better market linkage, and many more. The government’s focus has been to provide technology access to farmers for better decision making while improving small and marginal farmer incomes. Post the COVID-19 outbreak, the government has announced several amendments to support farmers. However, execution remains a challenge.
6. Challenges and scope in the industry?
Indian agriculture grapples with challenges such as limited digital adoption, lack of infrastructure, uneven quality, and supply chain inefficiencies. The farmers have very limited access to technology, and the production part remains highly fragmented and unorganised. With a rise of new players and startups coming into the market, agritech has the potential to become a dominant industry in India. The scope is huge as these platforms are already leveraging technology for market linkages, controlling the end-to-end supply chain, and assisting farmers with access to data.
On the demand side, consumers demand towards consuming healthier food, urgency to reduce food waste in India, quality management and traceability are helping push the adoption of agritech in the nation. As the agritech ecosystem matures, there are likely scenarios that could play out in this sector. There is an opportunity for players to expand and to own the end-to-end relationship with the farmers. Besides, they can build up a robust digital platform and physical infrastructure to handle post-harvest supply chains. Finally, leveraging data driven precision techniques in agriculture to increase the output.
7. The role of technology for farmers and how it can improve the style of agriculture?
Farming is becoming scientific and more technical, holistically- right from seed germination to the harvesting methods and processes. Whole facets of farming such as cultivation, soil, water, crops vary within the field itself, and therefore farmers need to have information that directs them to handle these fluctuations in the field accurately. To supervise the field performance technology that is helpful is satellite imagery, GPS, Information Technology (IT), and other geospatial tools.
The farmers are slowly getting to understand how leveraging solutions that use the latest technologies can offer them greater solutions. For example, the strategic combination of ML (Machine Learning) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) influence their decisions on which crops to produce by providing automated warnings and updates on weather conditions. With precise forecasting, farmers are empowered with actual data rather than relying on intuition or observation alone.
As technology improves every day, mobile technology has also advanced. The use of IoT (Internet of Things) has altered the way of using data in a more prominent manner. It allows farmers to measure all kinds of data remotely and provides this information to the farmer in real time to save both time and money.
8. Impact of IoT and advance technologies in the agri tech biz?
Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced technologies have acted as a driving force in the supply chain, enabling agritech businesses to improve productivity, neutralize wastage, reduce cost and ensure competitiveness in the market. Advanced technologies and IoT have the potential to transform agriculture in many aspects and it has gained momentum after the nationwide lockdown. It has made it easier to function on large scale operations such as agriculture planning, connecting logistics, internal communication in ways previously impossible if it were not for advanced technologies.
At Ninjacart, with the strategic use of IoT we have developed a Facial Recognition Software for employees, which captures the entire face and it is fragmented into small pieces that are converted into data streams. In this way we track workers productivity and ensure order is delivered timely without any hiccups.
9. Trends you foresee to shape agri-tech industry?
We can expect a surge in the development of new technologies.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) facilitate distribution methods from farm to fork in the food supply chain, making it efficient at all levels.
- With startups and Agritech players, we can expect new business models that will be scalable, affordable and low cost.
- A global shift towards healthy, residue free food with fewer pesticides and fertilizers and cheaper and more scalable than organic food. With the use of technology, farmers can control inputs and target specific areas in the field.
- Farm data, along with basic digitization will help agribusinesses meet short and long-term goals.