Having family who are small farmers in India, Kamal Narra, a sophomore computer science major at the University of Maryland, saw the problems his family had with debt and access to loans.
Narra said there is a “desperate” need to increase production, and where farming can be a capital intensive occupation, smallholder farmers can struggle. It is difficult for farmers to have access to loans because banks have limited information to know if the farm will be fruitful.
Thus, Narra and his friend Bobby George, a freshman computer science major, founded a data service company, Kestrel. The company makes agricultural lending easier by enabling people working with small farmers and lenders to have access to data on soil fertility, yield estimates and more.
This data can help farmers become better investing targets and better sustain modernizing agricultural practices.
“The issue is that farming is a very capital intensive activity, especially if you want to modernize your agricultural practices,” Narra said.
Kestrel utilizes freely accessible data from NASA satellites, which analyze crop health, track irrigation patterns, assess climate risk, and more across the U.S. and the world.
There are more than 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide who play a significant role in food production and genetic diversity in our food supply, according to the United States Agency for International Development. Narra said these farmers produce a significant percentage of the food supply in developing countries.
By allowing lenders to treat these farmers as small business owners and show that they can be a viable investment, Narra hopes to enable an increase in food production and change the way agriculture works in most of the world.
“We can also do things like unlock traceability for food chains and give a lot of the advantages that people in the Western world get … to people in the developing world,” Narra said.
To apply their services globally, Kestrel partnered with Cedric Nwafor, a University of Maryland alum and the founder of Roots Africa, an organization that connects farmers in Africa with experts and academic institutions in the U.S.
Nwafor grew up in Cameroon with a farm right outside of his house. He said his family worked on six very small farms every single day and some days, there was no guarantee of the next meal.
While getting his bachelor’s degree at this university, Nwafor traveled to a farm in Idaho and saw the drastic difference in agricultural efficiency compared to Cameroon.
“The amount of time it took for that tractor to till the site for five minutes was equivalent to the amount of time my whole family worked for a week,” Nwafor said.
The tractor became a “symbol” for Nwafor that if the same resources and expertise were shared with farmers in Africa, it would help families elevate out of poverty.
Nwafor founded Roots Africa as a club at this university in 2017. He found climate change had a significant impact in both countries, but the difference was that farmers in Africa didn’t receive the same support relative to U.S farmers.
“A farmer in Africa has no relocation package, has no government subsidies when there’s a natural disaster. They are hit with the full force of it without any prediction mechanisms in place to help them detect that there is a climate disaster,” Nwafor said.
Kestrel’s ability to supply an access to credit and provide an identity for the farmers is “super important,” Nwafor said.
Bryan Houlton met Narra and George at Startup Shell — a student-run startup incubator and co-working space at this university — in spring 2022 and has become a serious mentor for Kestrel this academic year.
Houlton said he was impressed with Kestrel as well as Narra and George’s “innate curiosity” and ability to develop at a high speed.
Having experience from starting his own company, Houlton was able to help Narra and George organize their ideas and make informed decisions while also relaying the difficulties of being a student founder.
“It’s two full time jobs,” Houlton said. “It’s just a choice you have to make, just think hard about it and make sure that you and your team are in the same headspace about everything before you go into it.”
With the help of this university, George said Kestrel has been able to work with 432 farms on their platform and are surveying more than 700 acres of land. Before that, he said Kestrel relied on personal connections in order to acquire data.
George said his life has “completely changed” and is thankful for this university’s support. The computer science program was the main reason George came to this university, but Kestrel has become his true passion.
Narra and George met after a birdwatching meeting and found an instant connection in a passion for technology.
“I probably would have worked with Kamal on just about any idea that he had,” George said. “Just the passion behind it, he was just all in on whatever it was, I had never met anybody like that.”
Kestrel launched its service in Uganda and Liberia and have begun compiling crucial data on farmers such as age and education level. The benefit of this data is that it can create land records and establish a proof of ownership, which makes it easier for lenders to invest. Narra said oftentimes, these developing nations don’t have formal land records, which creates a barrier for lending and regulation.
For now, Narra said the farmers aren’t directly using the application, just people working on behalf of them. He said he wants it to be “perfect” before it’s used.
“We should be in a place where a farmer can just open the app on their phone and request a loan,” Narra said. “They can do that at the press of a button instead of really complicated and inaccessible processing.”