Agritech Funding: Agritech startups trim teams, rework business models in funding winter

Agri-tech startups have joined the growing list of companies which are downsizing their teams amid business model challenges and an overall squeeze in financing for privately held technology companies, industry executives and investors told ET.

While Temasek-backed agriculture marketplace DeHaat fired about 5% of its employees last year, other venture capital-backed firms like Bijak, Captain Fresh, BharatAgri and Gramophone too have recently undertaken layoffs, sources told ET.

Indore-based Gramophone let go of around 75 employees across November and December last year to focus on achieving profitability over the next few financial quarters, cofounder and chief executive Tauseef Khan told ET.

The company was earlier in an expansion mode after having raised $10 million in October 2021 from investors like Z3Partners and Info Edge. It currently has around 450 employees.

Captain Fresh, the Tiger Global-backed farm-to-retail platform for meat, has been trying to move its business from domestic to international markets since April last year.

This exercise has led to 120 staffers losing their jobs, founder and CEO Utham Gowda told ET. The company’s valuation more than doubled to $500 million in March 2022, after having raised $50 million.

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BharatAgri, which offers farmers AI-based services on a paid subscription basis, sacked 40 employees in August. The Bengaluru-based company, which now has 52 staffers, attributed the layoffs to a change in the way it sells products and services.Also read: ETtech Morning Dispatch layoffs spread to Dunzo, ShareChat, Rebel Foods, and agritech firms

While DeHaat said the number of staffers let go of last year was less than a hundred and that all the layoffs were based on performance and cultural fitment, Bijak that too has cut jobs did not respond to ET’s request for comment.

Agritech startups that have cut jobsETtech

The previously unreported layoffs have come after a period of two years of robust funding activity. About 63% of the total venture capital invested in agritech in India so far had been deployed in the last two years, as per a report from investment banking firm Avendus Capital in December.

While 2021 saw $1.22 billion being invested in 45 agritech startups, about $796 million came into 30 agritech startups in 2022.

Why these layoffs?

After having snagged investor capital, agri-tech startups heightened hiring activity but these companies are now streamlining operations.

At BharatAgri, for instance, the company had a model where there was a sales team that was directly talking to users to sell subscriptions and products. “Over time, our product has evolved in such a way that users are able to purchase the services and products without a phone call,” founder and CEO Siddharth Dialani told ET, reasoning the layoffs.

The Bengaluru-based company last raised funds in September 2021 – $6.5 million in a round led by Omnivore, with participation from India Quotient and 021 Capital, both of which already held a stake.

Startup firingsETtech

“We see the current environment as a boon to the agritech sector as this will clear up a lot of clutter in the space and without massive growth pressure, a lot of companies will come out stronger with better unit economics,” Gramophone’s Khan said.

“Most of the companies have already taken the right steps over the last two quarters and we expect the results to start showing this year,” he added.

Business model challenges

“In general, we have gone back to 2019 pre-pandemic levels for seed rounds, like $2 million to $3 million rounds; there are some exceptions but few,” said Omnivore managing partner Mark Kahn, when asked about the current funding climate in the sector. For other rounds, pre-money valuations are down 33% from 2021 peaks, he added.

Startups in the space are still figuring out initial challenges of business models, with some having succumbed to an investor-led push on aggressively scaling gross merchandise value (GMV) without active focus on gross margin, as per an industry insider.

GMV is the total value of goods sold by a company, and gross margin is the amount remaining after subtracting cost of goods sold from net sales.

“In terms of business models that are working out in agri-tech, input linkages are working very well and output linkages are working well in non-perishables. In perishables and in branded fresh produce, it is working well only in exports,” said Kahn. “The whole ‘I buy vegetable from farmer and then sell it to a kirana’ business model with nothing else is dead.”

Raising capital has been tough in the past six-eight months. DeHaat’s $60 million raised in December took long to close, people in the know told ET.

“We can confirm that DeHaat’s current valuation post the Series E funding is between $700 million and $800 million, which is about 80% premium from the previous funding round that took place less than 13 months ago,” a company spokesperson told ET.

DeHaat is among the top agri-tech startups in revenue terms, alongside Waycool Foods & Products, which claimed to have recorded Rs 1,008 crore of revenue in the financial year ended March 2022 (FY22).

Also Read: 2022 Year in Review: Fund-starved startups sacked nearly 18,000 employees

Patna and Gurgaon-based DeHaat’s revenue went up 3.6 times to Rs 1,274 crore in FY22, according to the spokesperson.

“We’re on track to deliver more than 2x of this number in FY23 … we are on an exponential growth trajectory with over 2.5 million farmers and 15,000 DeHaat centers expected by FY23 end, which will be 3x growth from FY22. Being a well capitalized organization, we aim to continue this growth path in FY24 as well,” the spokesperson added.

DeHaat said he employed 2,000 people till last year.

“There was a lot of growth in recent times which is why companies went ahead and hired more people … now all of those hired will not perform at the same level, so you hire a little bit extra, just like large companies do and retain the best,” said Akanksha Malik, founder of Growth360, which helps startups hire mid-to-senior level people.

Omidyar Network India and Sequoia Surge-backed Bijak has also been tightening its purses in marketing and people costs in the recent, multiple sources told ET.

Three industry insiders confirmed that Bijak laid off many employees. ET could not ascertain the exact number of layoffs.

However, Kahn from Omnivore, an investor in Bijak, denied these claims and told ET that Bijak has years of funding runway left and has no reason to cut its workforce.

The company operates a B2B agricultural commodities trading marketplace for agriculture suppliers and buyers, a slightly more crowded market within agritech, competing with the likes of Lightrock India-backed WayCool Foods and Products, Quona Capital backed Arya, Prosus backed Vegrow and Walmart backed Ninjacart.

“There is no dearth of capital to be invested in the sector … but the question is what price do the investors want to pay. That is where a lot of deals are getting stuck,” Hemendra Mathur, venture partner at Bharat Innovation Fund and a cofounder of ThinkAg, told ET.

(Graphics and illustrations by Rahul Awasthi)

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