Astarta is the first agro-industrial holding in Ukraine to set up a separate company to solve its IT problems. The in-house company, established in 2017, was named AgriChain, which means “agro chain”. This describes the main goal and philosophy of the company – to develop a unified digital agribusiness management system that will not only be able to cover all requests but also become an “industry standard” in the Ukrainian market as a whole.
The company CEO Natalia Bogacheva spent her entire professional life in the agricultural sector, which helped her formulate the appropriate vision for the product concept. Today, her main task is to help businesses move away from traditional management methods and towards high-tech solutions.
In this interview, Nataliia explains why Astarta needed its own IT company, how interested the Ukrainian agricultural sector is in new management approaches, and what priorities agricultural IT has set during the war.
“A big part of our work is correctly conveying the essence of innovations to people.”
– How did this idea come about?
– Over the past ten years, we have seen how limited the market is regarding IT modules for the agricultural sector. We could buy some systems, but adapting them to our business took much work. The farm sector has many industry specifics that require unique solutions. It is especially true when specialists work remotely. People work in the field, often without access to the Internet. They need to be able to work through mobile applications, providing access to the necessary functionality offline to plan the work and schedule of crews, order inventory to the warehouse, control logistics, bring equipment to the fields, document all these processes, and manage the land bank and crop monitoring. In doing so, we need to process a considerable amount of data: in our work, we collect information from various equipment in the fields and at the production site, satellite monitoring, and even neural networks for specific tasks.
We have yet to see any Ukrainian solution that would fully meet the needs of the holding. Based on these prerequisites, we decided to develop our own universal ERP (enterprise resource planning) portal that could meet the needs of the holding and other market participants.
Having invested in developing such a solution, our company is ready to share its intellectual property with others. When we see that the business needs it, when there is a demand for our IT solutions, it motivates us.
We immediately conceived of this portal in such a way that it could become a kind of industry standard and bring the level of agricultural production management to a new level, as well as provide tools for various processes at all stages. We discuss risk management, operational decision-making, process management, and in-depth analytics.
In other words, the market had to have tools that would allow the use of new planning, control and management tools.
– So, these are the methods we have “inherited” from the Soviet past?
– Yes, because part of the assets of modern agricultural companies are former collective farms that new owners and investors bought. So we had to do something about this outdated system. And for this, it was necessary to offer new tools and various innovative solutions.
An example is crop monitoring. Throughout the season, we monitor its condition daily. For this purpose, we use many tools: satellite monitoring, which helps us determine the vegetation of plants; a collection of meteorological data using weather stations; shooting panoramas and orthophotos using drones. We also use a separate inspection system, where people come to the field and take photos of crops, record their condition, and respond to existing problems.
– So, your tools help change the stereotypical perception of agribusiness?
– Right. After all, what is agribusiness today? It is high-tech equipment, high-tech machinery, and modern software.
It also involves huge investments, a large amount of investment in assets and resources. We buy modern machinery from leading manufacturers and cooperate with key players in the technical support market (John Deere, Case, Fendt). We use sowing materials, fertilisers and plant protection products from global manufacturers (BASF, Limagrain). We have the same equipment and material support used by the world’s leading countries.
The holdings invest in training and development to ensure that staff qualifications also meet the global level. The staff is offered entirely new approaches, and employees are involved in the company’s results so that they genuinely feel like an essential part of an important mechanism.
The agricultural sector is something to love. And those who have already come here are deeply involved in this business. You see the accurate result of the work of many people! You realise that this is a production that ensures food security not only for Ukraine but also for the world. You start to feel the essence of the harvest holidays: the first sheaf holiday, the reaping and everything else. And in return, you want to give people working in the sector the best tools.
– How do people react to innovations? Especially those who have been working for a long time.
– In different ways. The average age of an agronomy service is about 42 years, which is no different from similar indicators in other countries. Whether resistance to something new or vice versa depends solely on the individual. Many examples of older staff working well with various gadgets and even suggesting what can be improved.
And part of our job is to communicate the essence of innovations to people properly. So we develop solutions and teach them how to use and implement them in production. We communicate with people in the field, collect feedback and try to take it into account. We must know what tools need to be included and what information should be available in a particular mobile application. And when people eventually see that the innovations simplify their work and optimise unnecessary bureaucratic processes, this motivates them to master such tools. After all, people can spend their freed-up time on more valuable things. I call it adequate time, which a specialist can use for a more thorough analysis, additional examinations, and more balanced decisions.
– Is it possible to reform the education system so that the training of high-quality specialists begins at the university level?
– From what I see, I hope there is already a positive trend, but the gap between science and real business is still significant. To solve this problem, universities have started communicating more actively with large holdings.
Universities are trying to use the bases of holdings and companies for internships. Students get the opportunity to see how things work.
Still, we need to start with school, so our company cooperates with higher education institutions and vocational and secondary education. We have several educational projects. “My Future in Agriculture” to change the stereotypical perception of young people about the modern agricultural sector. “Dual Education”, together with the EBRD, EY and Kharkiv National Agrarian University, named after V. V. Dokuchaev, to help young professionals get a high-quality higher education with a solid practical base.
Kropyvnytskyi Technical University is preparing a new course called Innovations in Agriculture. They want to prepare this course with our help and conduct practical classes using our systems and at our enterprises. We were happy to support this case and involve our partners in it. If the experience is positive, we will continue doing this work.
Promoting the agricultural sector in Ukraine is a critical mission. Few people understand what this sector is, what the potential is, and how much investment is required. It is a risky and, at the same time, “noble” production.
“We offer our clients a new approach to doing business first, and then our software solutions.”
– For whom does Astarta offer the IT solutions suitable? Is it exclusively large businesses or smaller companies?
– Our portal is a “family of solutions”. We are talking about separate functional modules united by a single entry point. The user enters a space where they can use a particular product depending on their needs. We offer a set of mobile and web applications that cover various processes for large, medium and small companies.
So, what do we have?
AgriChain Land is an IT land bank management system implemented as a web and mobile application. The specificity of agribusiness is managing land, which is simultaneously an asset, a means and a subject of labour. And we have 220 thousand hectares!
All processes and specifics of land bank management in Ukraine are considered here: contractual relations with landlords, related payments, tools for land surveyors to measure fields and create geometry, tools for task management and report preparation. A separate aspect of process management is the recently opened land market. In other words, we have a big portal just for the land.
By the way, this module came in handy after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, when access to the cadastral map of Ukraine was closed at the state level. In AgriChain Land, we had a copy of the cadastral map in the territories where we were present. So we did not experience any restrictions here.
The second flagship solution is AgriChain Farm, a substantial web-based seasonal planning and production programme management application. We work within a season or the so-called “harvest year”. And for this period, we need to plan everything: the inventory we buy, the crop rotations we plan, the technological maps, and the logistics of products. In implementing the production programme, we plan daily technological operations. All this must work like clockwork and be completed within a certain timeframe.
It took us a long time to come to this decision. Each company has the tools to plan processes for a particular time. However, global annual planning with in-depth analytics is our unique development, which we will launch on the market for the first time this year. We are currently implementing this solution at Astarta, and it will be available on the market by the end of the first quarter of 2023. We have already signed agreements with two large holdings that want to implement this toolkit.
– You have already mentioned crop monitoring. Is this a separate module?
– This is a separate flagship solution – the AgriChain Scout web application and mobile app that collects various information in terms of crop monitoring. It contains satellite indices, satellite images, relief maps, meteorological data, information on soil moisture, images and videos from drones, field photos, and laboratory analyses. All of this can be analysed – there are many models available to users.
The AgriChain Logistics application covers operational field logistics. We have to load the machines in the field, draw up the necessary documents – and sometimes this has to be done without the internet – and control the track’s route so that it does not stop anywhere. Why are the last two points important? Previously, we needed to understand the weight of the cargo from the field, and we only found out about it at the unloading point. And to avoid any “losses”, we must strictly control all this.
It is a rather complicated module because it uses complex mathematical models. For example, when we develop a product placement plan, we need to store products in the best possible location relative to ports. In addition, we accept third-party customers who keep their products with us and conduct trading activities. So we have a large integrated model that solves the transport problem. We developed this module last year.
– Material support for the production process, control and conservation of resources. Do you have a solution for this area?
– The IT system for managing warehouse processes and logistics is also a separate module, AgriChain Barn. By the way, we implemented the AgriChain Barn modules in March-April 2022, the most active phase of the hostilities. And the people involved in this, despite the intense stress, pulled off such a complex implementation!
We’re talking about managing remote warehouses, which sometimes have internet access. We needed to allow them to work offline through a mobile application. We also needed to optimise the labelling of each canister and sowing unit. It is also an industry specificity. Each team receives a unique identifier, which we track along the entire route. And then, the containers in which the chemicals were transported are returned for recycling. According to the rules, there is an element of control and the right approach to work when disposal takes place.
We also offer a business process designer, the AgriChain Kit module. It was essential to provide holdings with a tool that would allow them to configure any business processes at the level of business analysts and transform them into task managers to manage their phased implementation.
And now we are working on a new system for us, Agrichain Machinery. It is a system for GPS monitoring, collecting, accumulating and analysing data from various equipment. It is a reasonably technologically advanced module, a highly loaded system that stores and processes terabytes of data from trackers, fuel level sensors, and flow sensors. Thus, the business will get a complete picture.
In terms of approaches and technologies, we choose the most advanced technological solutions that will be relevant 10-15 years in advance.
– Speaking of specific customers who are already using your software?
– We cooperate with 15 Ukrainian companies. Among our clients are VITAGRO Group, Agro-Oven, Letychiv Agro (MVA Group), Continental Farmers Group, Agroprodservice, Agrofusion Group and others.
But it’s not just about selling software. We offer our partners a system solution that includes an audit of relevant processes, an in-depth analysis of existing practices, options for customer-specific solutions and digitalisation of processes. Those companies that are ready to change and do this “homework” join our projects. Unfortunately, we have nothing to offer those who want a “magic button”. Our cooperation makes no sense if a company and its internal team are unwilling or ready to change from within.
– How does this format of cooperation work?
– In the first stage, we start with a request, a problem, and process analytics. We study what problems exist and what companies need. From my experience, 90% of agricultural companies have similar pain points.
Then we offer an outsider’s view of how their usual practices and approaches could be reoriented. If companies listen, they change their processes to consider the functionality we can offer them as part of integrating our software modules. We say: “It can be different. We have this tool for that.” And it works because there is a real alternative.
In addition, we advise our clients on deploying and operating technical infrastructure, hosting, and solution maintenance (DevOps methodology, development & operations). Not all companies have such specialists on staff.
“Russia has not stopped its IT attacks for more than a year. We attack back.”
– How has the work of the IT company changed during the war?
– We managed to return to pre-war mode quite quickly. It took about ten days after 24 February 2022. We were prepared for the war (we had developed a scenario and practised our actions), although we did not expect such full-scale hostilities.
Since the Covid-19 epidemic, our IT infrastructure and work have been set up for remote mode. So each of our employees can work from anywhere in the world.
The most challenging thing was to adjust people morally and psychologically. But no matter how difficult it was, we had to switch people back to work and continue doing what we did before the war. We synchronised, solved work-related and other tasks daily, and supported each other. Most of us relocated to the West of Ukraine, settled in new places, and everything worked as before.
In terms of the volume of tasks, there were no fewer of them. On the contrary, we have taken on additional ones, including those related to our humanitarian initiatives of Common Help UA.
– Logistics is one of the biggest challenges for export-oriented businesses. Have you ever had to deal with such issues?
– Yes, we have. Several challenges have emerged in logistics as it has changed radically. Chains have been reoriented, and completely new tools and approaches were needed. In just three months, we developed a mathematical model that considered various scenarios of product placement and logistics plans, different modes of transport, routes and delivery conditions.
– After the war started, many companies faced IT attacks from Russia. Did you have a similarly unpleasant experience?
– Yes, there were IT attacks. One such attack targeted our physical servers in a data centre in Europe. We managed to respond in time, almost online. But the tools that were used against us could have led to the loss of our software in half an hour without the possibility of restoring it. After that, we implemented additional security measures.
More minor cyber and phishing attacks have not stopped over the past year, and they have been going on almost continuously. Fortunately, we have good specialists who have thoroughly thought through the technical infrastructure. These measures have been effective.
But we are also attacking back, helping the cyber troops to maintain the country’s digital defence.
– Did you have any clients from Russia or Belarus? If so, what is the situation with them now?
– In 2020, Russian companies tried to enter into a dialogue (through representative offices of foreign companies) because Russia does not have an IT complex as we can offer. But at that time, we already had a clear position that we did not work with Russian companies. It has yet to be possible since 2014.
We cooperate with a former Belarusian company, the agrotechnical start-up OneSoil. They are engaged in precision farming and crop monitoring, so we did joint projects with them. After the events in Belarus in 2020, this company changed its jurisdiction and moved to Poland. Now they are a Polish company, so we maintain cooperation. But this would also have been impossible if they had supported Lukashenka’s regime and remained in Belarus. We have a principled and non-alternative position and must stick to it.
After Ukraine’s victory
– What does victory mean to you?
– Of course, it is the most prominent dream. After a year, you realise that this is the path we all need to take, live through all the trials with dignity and not give up morally and psychologically, no matter how hard it is. Victory should be not only in the war but the victory of each of us over ourselves. We must become more value-conscious, conscious, strong, loyal, and loving Ukrainians.
And, of course, we must continue to work, achieve our goals, and create a modern digital culture of Ukrainian agribusiness.