Low-Cost Digital Transformation > A CFO Perspective

I recently wrote a piece for CFO Magazine A/NZ in which I talked about how SMEs can Digitally Transform their business and functions without a Fortune 500 budget. Continuing that thought, I had the privilege to sit with the CFO of an Agri-Tech business based out of Indonesia, Ashish Agarwal CFO, Jiva Agriculture. Founded in 2020, Jiva is an Agri-tech business.

Ashish Agarwal, CFO | Jiva

Jiva is in a scale-up phase, and just like any Finance Function of a start-up in a growing phase, it faces issues like disparate systems, manual processes, and multiple sources of data, to name a few. 

Ashish saw this as an opportunity to simplify and transform processes, but he had to balance it with a typical SME Finance budget. In this article, we explore how he managed to digitalize the finance function using low/no-code tools and transform the finance team into a co-pilot to the business growth.

Tariq: Jumping straight into action, what were some of the challenges Jiva Finance was facing? In other words, why was there the need to transform?

Ashish: Jiva has been in business for around 3 years and is growing rapidly. To ensure sustained growth, everyone in the organisation must play a role. Finance, no doubt, has the biggest role to play in terms of providing timely and accurate insights. However, we were facing a number of inefficiencies. Manual processes, lack of insights and analytics, and no single source of truth, to name a few. To ensure we help the business grow and act as a strategic business partner, we could not rely on traditional ways of working so had to transform ourselves.

Tariq: So how did you tackle these challenges and what was your tech stack like?

Ashish: Firstly, we had to pick our battles strategically. It was not possible to boil the entire ocean and take on everything. Being a lean and small organisation and limited budgets, we had to start small. So we looked at the aspects like cost involved, the complexity of the solution, and how agile and flexible the solution is. We ended up exploring low and no-code solutions which were not only flexible but were also highly cost-effective.

To give you an example, Jiva buys a lot of off-take from farmers. We are talking about 100 to 150 trucks coming from 500 to 700 farmers. All this information was being passed on initially through WhatsApp! Now that was a huge headache as you can imagine. Capturing the transactions, ensuring correct pricing, paying the right amounts, controls, and so on. To solve the problem, we used a no-code tool called Google AppSheet to control all that. Through that, not only we can upload GRNs, but we are able to upload all the other information needed to ensure we are paying the right amounts to the correct farmers. Our error rate went down from 10-15% to a mere 0.05%!

Another example is managing the receivable side. Working capital is a huge consideration for any organisation. Accounts Receivable (AR) makes a big portion of that, and it does come with its challenges. Raising invoices, receiving payments, monitoring overdue, and so on. We used a SAAS-based solution to manage all that. The cost per invoice was less than a cent. That enabled us to raise the invoice, send a digitally signed copy directly to the customer, apply receipts, and do a follow-up as needed. All within the SAAS solution.

Then leveraging Google AppSheet again, we developed an in-house expense reimbursement tool. Pretty much zero incremental cost but the benefits and efficiencies have been huge.

Tariq: Change is always a challenge. Was there any resistance to these changes and how did you overcome those ensuring you get broader buy-in?

Ashish: Firstly, the key to any successful change is Communication. We communicated what was coming up broadly and in a very transparent way. Everyone knew the impacts and how this was going to improve their ways of working. People tend to get a bit scared of digitalization that it will take away jobs etc. So as a leader, we had to be clear and open in our communications, removing any doubts.

Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, we started small. For instance, in the above example around truck tracking, we started with one district in one area. Once we had a proof of concept and could demonstrate the benefits, we got the green light to go ahead nationally. That helped us create the buy-in from other leaders.

Thirdly, and very importantly, we did not do things in isolation. We ensured that my entire team was involved in this transformation. We used in-house tech knowledge to do the Citizen coding. Once everyone in the team was working towards the common objective, everyone owned it and saw value in the initiatives. We had to ensure it is not just a top-down exercise.

Tarqi: What were some of the tangible benefits you saw of doing all of this?

Ashish: One of the biggest benefits has been our ability to provide timely and accurate information and decision analytics. We have grown our volumes by 25x over the past 3 years and our reach is more than 100,000 farmers. It would not have been possible without creating a strong process and data foundation for the business.

Moreover, we have become more efficient, doing more in less time and have created faster access to analysis. Our Accounts Payable error rate, as I mentioned, has reduced from 10-15% to below 0.05%.

Tariq: Thank you, Ashish…this was a great chat and highly insightful. As I ask at the end of every interview, in one sentence, what is that one message you want to give to other CFOs who are facing similar challenges?

Ashish: Start sooner than later, start small, and explore the fascinating world of low and no-code so you have the agility and flexibility in your digitalisation journey.

I hope you enjoyed reading the interview and key learnings from Ashish. For me the biggest take-aways were starting small, leveraging low and no-code tools, and engaging the organisation at scale. We do not need to have massive budgets or access to resources to embark on a successful digitalisation journey. 

In the end, it is all about mindset, curiosity, and leadership!