Pinduoduo, China’s largest agriculture platform, sees technology and talent as the twin driving forces that can help raise productivity in farming and bring more economic benefits to the country’s rural communities.
The company recently posted its 3Q earnings, with quarterly revenue reaching 21.5 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) and research and development (R&D) spending climbing to the highest level in its history. On the earnings call, the company pledged to step up its investments in agricultural technology.
“We are placing more focus on investments in R&D, away from the previous emphasis on sales and marketing in our first five years,” said Chen Lei, Pinduoduo Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “We want to leverage our strength in technology to deepen our digital inclusion efforts in agriculture.
Founded in 2015, Pinduoduo is unique among China’s biggest consumer internet companies in having agriculture as the backbone of its business from the start. The company, which has devoted substantial resources to implementing technology solutions along the agriculture supply chain, has pledged to do even more.
“We have only scratched the surface after six years,” Chen said on the conference call following the company’s release of third-quarter results. “There is still much more for us to do in agriculture, especially with technology. Therefore, we plan to deepen our investment in tech-enabled agricultural solutions, to address critical needs in this sector.”
Agriculture-related orders on Pinduoduo surged 279% during China’s National Day holiday period compared with a year ago. In 2020, the platform handled more than $40 billion worth of orders, a more than doubling in transaction value from the year before.
Chen said Pinduoduo will continue to focus on helping more rural communities to benefit from the digital economy through online sales of their agricultural products. The company will also design tech-enabled services to increase the efficiency of getting produce from farm to fork, he said.
For instance, matching local supply with local demand through better route planning and cold-chain optimization will further cut down transportation time, and provide consumers with fresher produce.
“These solutions help to lay the foundation for an infrastructure that is more suitable for agriculture produce and more environmentally sustainable,” he said.
Nurturing and fostering the talent needed to use the technology is the other important aspect of Pinduoduo’s strategy to improve agriculture. By doing so, the company hopes to make agriculture more attractive to younger and more tech-savvy generations.
“Agriculture is an industry with great potential for young people considering a future in technology and who aspire to make an impact on society,” Chen said. “As an agri-focused platform, we want to leverage our platform and technology to provide more opportunities for young talent to join the agriculture sector, working with them to apply technology to improve every link of the agricultural supply chain.”
Among its efforts in encouraging youths to consider a career in agriculture is the Smart Agriculture Competition, a precision farming contest that challenges participants not just in their agronomic and algorithmic skills, but also demands that they improve the nutritional profile of the product in an environmentally sustainable way.
The competition is co-organized by China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University, with technical guidance from the FAO. Pinduoduo has also partnered with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) of the Netherlands for this year’s competition. Leading experts at WUR shared their knowledge with competition participants in a series of exclusive seminars, on topics such as greenhouse horticulture, crop modelling and climate management.
With 80% of team members in the competition finals in their 20s, the competition is emerging as a leading showcase for young agricultural talent in China and proving ground for practical technologies for smallholder farmers.
Liu Haojie, 26, founder of an agritech startup, is taking part in the Smart Agriculture Competition to challenge himself. He is part of a team of horticulture researchers and data scientists that is aiming to implement the technology developed during the competition to help farmers improve their production.
“China is facing the challenge of rising labor costs and aging farmers,” said Liu. “Toward the end stage of the competition, we will review our technologies and come up with a viable solution. Ultimately, we hope to commercialize it to help farmers.”
Injecting more talent and technology into agriculture would go some way toward solving some of the unique challenges of dogging agriculture in China. Small farms continue to dominate agricultural production, compounded by a dwindling and aging labor force. This has made it much harder to reap economies of scale and productivity gains through conventional means such as mechanization and crop breeding seen in industrial agricultural nations.
Many of the aging farmers also lack the skills to market their products online, effectively shutting them out of a huge potential market. As of Sept. 30, Pinduoduo had 867.3 million customers who shopped on the platform in the preceding 12 months.
To narrow this skills gap, Pinduoduo said it will expand its course offerings to teach farmers about e-commerce and store operations. The company will also continue to maintain a “zero commission” policy on all agricultural products and improve consumer awareness and appreciation of the country’s vast agricultural riches so as to stimulate demand.
“Pinduoduo is closely connected to the communities that we operate in,” Chen said. “Their support has been crucial in our development, and we in turn want to support them to the best of our ability. Therefore, we are committed to taking on more responsibility to society.”
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