UMD Undergrad Bridges Agriculture with Innovation
In a world where technology often appears omnipresent, Kamal Narra, a computer science undergrad at UMD, is making an impact in an industry often overlooked by many tech entrepreneurs: agriculture.
Customized for the world's 480 million smallholder farms, Kestrel, co-founded by Narra, is a digital banking platform with a unique approach. Unlike typical fintech applications, Kestrel focuses on a technology-first strategy that effectively bridges the challenging divide between farmers and financial institutions. This platform not only streamlines costs but also furnishes invaluable data, a groundbreaking solution that could revolutionize the time-honored farming industry.
The path to Kestrel began with tales from Narra's family in India. Many of his relatives, rooted in farming, shared stories of challenges, notably the looming burden of debt and tumultuous interactions with major banks. These narratives ignited Narra's desire to create a solution.
"Hearing about family members in debt to banks and private collectors was eye-opening,” Narra said. “While my background in debate and policy research shed light on the issue, I delved deep into the tech aspect of it, researching the root causes and potential solutions to this growing problem, dedicating time to understanding agriculture in smallholder countries."
Narra's motivation extended beyond personal aspirations. An internship during his freshman year at UMD underscored the profound connections between technology and agriculture, reinforcing his ambition to bridge the two domains.
"In my freshman year, I took part in a machine learning internship called NASA Harvest, focusing on food security and agriculture,” Narra said. “This exposed me to technological advancements that offer insights into the economic potential of small farms. By assessing crop yield and soil quality, I found out that we could aid banks and financial institutions in evaluating their investment worthiness, a gap that currently hinders small farmers' growth."
Making a difference
His approach distinguishes him from many in the tech sphere, who often lean towards more conventional industries. Owing to his Indian heritage and strong connections to the challenges of farming, Narra not only identifies but actively tackles the unique obstacles encountered by smallholder farmers.
"What sets us apart is our technology-first mindset," Narra said. "Many localized solutions, like micro-financial institutions or smaller nonprofits, have high upfront costs and struggle to make an impact beyond their immediate regions. Using technology, as we've seen in other sectors, we can help these entities scale. If we can remotely appraise a farm sufficiently for a bank or insurer to invest, then these smaller institutions can expand their reach.”
UMD's strong ecosystem
The University of Maryland has been more than just an academic institution for Narra. The Mokhtarzada Hatchery Program at UMD, created by the Mokhtarzada brothers who founded Truebill has been instrumental in transforming Kestrel from a concept to a tangible reality.
"The biggest boosts that helped us become more aware in the startup space came from joining programs like the Hatchery. We were among the only four teams selected as an incubee last year,” Narra shared. "The communities within the program played an integral role in our development.”
Narra's journey serves as a powerful message for aspiring tech enthusiasts: Innovation knows no boundaries; it can thrive even in the most traditional domains, like farming.
"In large institutions like UMD, it's easy to become hyper-focused on job hunting. However, computer science is about hands-on experience," Narra said. "Develop your skills by building what you're passionate about. And if that passion lies in an emerging, non-technical sector, immerse yourself in research and engage in conversations with industry players. I continue to learn about agriculture by doing just that."
In the rapidly evolving tech landscape, Kestrel stands as a beacon of Narra's dedication, illustrating the immense potential that arises when cutting-edge modern tech solutions intersect with traditional sectors
—Story by Samuel Malede Zewdu, CS Communications
Other Kestrel team members also include:
- Robert George (B.S. ’26, computer science)
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