Archive for Agriculture

Starting Up Struggles

This story originally appeared in our July 14th, 2011 e-magazine. Click here to download the pdf e-magazine.

The founder of a start-up agri-business recounts his experiences with establishing operational efficiencies and the challenges that most start-ups face.

By Srikumar Misra

When approached by Beyond Profit to write a piece on major starting up issues in building Milk Mantra, I thought it wouldn’t be a major ask as we have plenty of issues to deal with. My team and I have been busy laying the foundation – literally, too, for the shiny new milk-processing factory we’re building in Orissa – and the wireframe of our business model as we move towards product launch in the coming months.  Here’s my two cents on what I think are the gaps in management processes, from an entrepreneur’s point of view. » Continue reading “Starting Up Struggles”

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Cooperative for Sustainable Development

This story originally appeared in our April 7, 2011 e-magazine. Click here to subscribe.

L.P. Semwal, CEO of the Uttarakhand-based Syuri, discusses empowering apple farmers by building a cooperative.

What does Syuri do?

Syuri Nogaon Fruits Collection Private Ltd’s vision and mission is to encourage farmers to join a collective in order to form a joint venture private limited company with a business partner. Through [the collective], they can process and sell their produce jointly at better prices. The goal of the project is to facilitate a process of empowerment among small-scales apple farmers in order to promote sustainable socio-economic development through promotion of a value-addition business chain, owned and led by farmers themselves. » Continue reading “Cooperative for Sustainable Development”

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Rural Marketing: Trust is Critical

By Dipika Prasad

The nature, complexities and business model solutions of the BoP were the subject of a session delivered by S. Sivakumar, the Chief Executive of Agri Businesses at ITC, at iDiya 2010 last week. Beyond Profit live tweeted the discussion, which can be accessed here. We caught up with Sivakumar to learn more about his journey of innovations in rural marketing, and empowering the Indian farmer. » Continue reading “Rural Marketing: Trust is Critical”

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Seeding Progress in Developing Countries

Beyond Profit is reporting from the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City this week.

Thirty years ago, if you asked development experts how to move people out of poverty, they would tell you, “Invest in agriculture.” Today, if you asked development experts how to move people out of poverty, they would tell you, “Invest in agriculture.” The problem, according to Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, who spoke at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, is we haven’t done it to the extent that we should have. And, he says, USAID is as guilty as anyone. As a result, many African countries are falling behind, food inflation has been hitting developing countries in extreme ways, and more people are sliding back into poverty.

Why is agriculture development so important? By investing in agriculture, you can improve a country’s agricultural productivity, and in so doing, move many people up and out into new jobs. Not to mention, agricultural efficiency means lower food prices—and when you only have a dollar or two each day to make ends meet, and food makes up the majority of your expenses, lowering the cost of food allows for dramatic gains in family income. In fact, agricultural development is 3-4 times more effective in boosting an economy than GDP.

» Continue reading “Seeding Progress in Developing Countries”

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Organic Produce For Less?


Venkat Subramanian is the Founder and Managing Director of Matchbox Solutions, a company which uses technology to solve critical issues in India.  Efarm, one such solution, uses technology to provide supply chain efficiency for procuring and delivering fruits and vegetables grown on rural farms.

There is growing awareness across the globe about the benefits of organically grown food products. Fifty years ago, everything that farmers produced was “organic,” although it had no “fad value.” The simple farmers’ techniques revolved around a holistic view of the village ecosystem – the farm, animals, birds, insects. Everything had a collective role to play in different stages of a plant’s growth.

It was the elite, educated urban folks from colleges and institutions who ridiculed the farmer’s practices and said farming could be done another way. It was they who introduced “scientific” methods, artificial chemicals, and pesticides.

Now, the very same elite juntha (the masses), who have now realized the dangers of these chemicals filtering into the food we eat, are suddenly preaching the advantages of going “organic” and “eco-sensitive.”

But the last 50 years of systematic “brain washing” of the farmers has done deep damage – a whole generation has lost the tradition of these organic farm techniques. And worse still, those practices have not been properly documented.

Though most people are aware of the benefits of organically grown produce and prefer it over chemically grown produce, what shocks people is the cost. Organic produce is often available only in high-end shops, and at such high prices that it is a privilege reserved for the upper class. There are several reasons attributed to this higher, “premium” cost – such as cost of production, less yield, certification, etc. But the reality is quite different.

Organic cultivation is CHEAPER!

Organic cultivation is cheaper than inorganic because typically the cost of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is over 70% of farmer’s expense. Organic manure is typically sourced from within the village itself (cow dung, agri-waste, compost), and thus they are not impacted by rising costs of fertilizers and black marketing of such items. » Continue reading “Organic Produce For Less?”

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In The Name of the Farmer

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The following is the second installment of Venkat’s In The Name of the Farmer series about how we can really help Indian farmers.

Myth #6: We need to invest in more agri research and dissemination to farmers

Crores (millions of dollars) are spent on research projects to find out how to increase yield and productivity. But, strangely, nobody seems to do much to reduce the ‘wastage’ which is almost 50% of the yield. What research are we doing to reduce wastage? To start with – do we even have demand/supply data with us?

Stop chasing the light at end of tunnel – because every researcher wants to ‘discover’ this silver bullet solution to solve world hunger. Often they are facing the wrong end of the tunnel.

Myth  #7: Genetically Modified (GM) crops are a boon to Indian farmer vs. Organic/Natural farming is the solution to restoring natural balance vs. Organic farming doesn’t have enough yield

Each one of these concepts originates from the west. All these statements are backed by research and consulting agencies and expensive certifications. GM crops which have been banned in Western countries are openly touted as God’s gift to the Indian farmer. And on the same note, we see the government claiming that abuse of fertilizers & chemicals has destroyed yield and promoting organic/ natural farming. We have saying in Tamil “pinch the kid and rock the cradle.” Dear Agricultural minister – when you are not busy between IPL cricket matches and posing with cheer leaders – can you please resolve this little dilemma?

Myth #8: India doesn’t get enough rain to do farming owing to repeated monsoon failure

Well, yaaawwwn.  How long are we going to hear this same sob story?  Is it that the rain gods are ONLY angry with India and the rest of the countries are all well taken care of? Global climate change is a 
pretty worldwide phenomenon by now. What others have done is anticipate this, and taken measures to plan, protect and allocate their natural resources wisely. For example, China doesn’t boo-hoo 
over poor rainfall. Is lord Indra leaning towards communism?

India’s agri planning & water resource planning has “Malfunction” written all over it. Between politicians, environmentalists, Naxals and NGOs, all the waters we get either get lost to ocean or results in skewed flood/drought combinations that when we look at the macroscopic picture, we have to admit – even God helps only those who help themselves.  The best of weather satellites and Abdul Kalams not withstanding, our rain & water management is pathetic.  We hope at least this time our prime minister can wield a stronger stick among the state governments to cooperate better – or else!

Myth #9: Information technology can rescue the farmers

Well, after they manage to rescue themselves.  Given the global meltdown and scams that have tarnished the much glorified IT Incs. Yes, technology definitely can aid the millions of India’s poor. But the
problem is the business houses have always been more tuned to working with HNIs and $$ customers, that the huge mindset shift which is required to adjust to Indian customers and that too those BPL is too vast for now. India’s IT companies have built the backbone of the world’s leading supply chains & agri businesses, but look within and we are just about to put a cell phone in every person’s hand. There is a 
lot that can be done in this sector, provided one knows where to start ad how to go about it.

Myth #10: We need to create rural hubs – provide commodity futures trading, healthcare, insurance and FMCG products to improve a farmer’s lifestyle and needs

Well, if you ask any farmer he will tell you he has already discovered such a hub – it is called the city.  Just like any city-bred middle class man always dreams of going to the West & settling down in the land of opportunity, the villagers also harbor dreams to coming to our cities! They want to drive cars (maybe not Tata’s Nano – but the swankier Camry’s), live in high rise apartments, and send their kids to private school and get treated in Apollo hospitals. You think I am joking – just look at any village today – you won’t find any youngsters – they are all in the city , powering the BPOs & call centers. Attend any rural job fair and the single requirement is to ”settle down in the city.” Even the farmers are pushing their kids to move away from their villages. The real estate boom has increased land values to such high proportions in the last few years that it is lot more lucrative to sell the land and live off its riches than toil on it.

The great minds in our planning commissions assume the farmers to be ‘village idiots’ – but the joke is on them. The pace of change in rural India is so drastic and the migrations to the city so rapid, that most of these utopian projects like farmer’s hubs are becoming ghost towns.  People have always tried to sell  things to farmers, without actually realizing that they haven’t done much to buy things from them.  Every village now has one rupee sachet shampoos which have become success stories in rural BOP marketing, read by generations of MBA graduates.  But go to any wholesale mandi (vegetable market) near the city and look at how vegetables are sold – in crude gunny bags and open crates!  No case study there Mr. IIM professor!

The city dweller may cherish this dream of fresh air, green fields and swinging by the babul tree – but the villagers are just bored.  They would rather see all that in a multiplex. Mr. Gandhi, had he been 
alive would have rephrased his statement – “India lives in villages, but the villagers are living in our metros.”

Well, shocked? Upset? Dazed? So are we.  The myths about villagers are breaking every day  The more we think we know about rural India, the farther we seem to be from the truth.

Let’s stop romanticizing about farmers. There is nothing romantic about being an Indian farmer today. 
Even if you can’t genuinely do anything for them, at least stop raping them and telling them you are doing a great service. As Michael Jackson said, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a…CHANGE.”

In next few posts, we will look at what farmers really want and a few projects that are creating success.

Venkat Subramanian is the Founder and Managing Director of Matchbox Solutions, a company which uses technology to solve critical issues in India.  Efarm, one such solution, uses technology to provide supply chain efficiency for procuring and delivering fruits and vegetables grown on rural farms.

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In the Name of the Farmer

Venkat Subramanian is the Founder and Managing Director of Matchbox Solutions, a company which uses technology to solve critical issues in India.  Efarm, one such solution, uses technology to provide supply chain efficiency for procuring and delivering fruits and vegetables grown on rural farms.

How can we really help Indian farmers?

How can we really help Indian farmers?

With monsoon failure and farmer suicides back to hogging the media headlines in India, it is once again time for doles to farmers. It is now that every arm chair socialist suddenly develops a bleeding heart for the “poor farmer in distress,” and every rural marketing project which has been shelved, suddenly resurfaces with the tagline, “to benefit the poor Indian kisan (farmer).”

Most people know very little of rural India, or are too scared to speak on such a touchy topic lest they be seen as anti-social. As social entrepreneurs, the least we can do is rip the mask off such pseudo measures and myths. This post is dedicated to the thousands of people who have benefited “in the name of the farmer.”  I hope that by the end of this post, even if one of them develops a real conscience, we will have made a small step in the right direction. » Continue reading “In the Name of the Farmer”

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On the Horizon: Hippos in India


These past few days, Beyond Profit has been busy participating in and enjoying the Opportunity Collaboration, a gathering of development practitioners and leaders in Mexico. One of the social entrepreneurs we really have enjoyed meeting at the Opportunity Collaboration has been Cynthia Koenig, founder of Hippo Water, an organization that manufactures and distributes a tool called a Hippo in Southern Africa. A Hippo is a 24-gallon drum that rolls water, transforming the daily chore of carrying water over long distances into a much easier and less frequent task. It’s amazing that something as simple as the Hippo can make a huge the difference to impoverished women, children, and families. We’re excited that Hippo has decided to scale up and bring this new low-tech, high impact solution to India over the next six months.

Learn more at and see a Hippo in action at Check out the Hippo entry on JustMeans’ India Social Entrepreneurship Journey Contest. The winner is sent on a 9-day tour of Indian social entrepreneurship hotspots. Read about their entry here, and if you like what you see, you can vote for it too!

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Indian Agriculture at a Crossroads


We are excited to welcome Venkat Subramanian as the newest addition to our Beyond Profit Guest Bloggers. We look forward to having him as our “ears to the ground” on agricultural issues, both in India and worldwide.

Indian agriculture is at a crossroads. The fact that India is the world’s leading producer of agricultural products in several categories, but is unable to meet its own demand and is reduced to importing even basic commodities, is often unexplained. Though several attempts have been made by the government, the private sector, and socially conscious organizations over the years, they have failed to scale up to “bell the cat.”* There are several questions and points that lie unanswered or unattended to:

  • Crores (US$ millions) of money are being allocated for agriculture grants and loans every year by the Indian government, but why does the situation only seem to get worse?
  • India was once the granary to world civilization, but today our nation is seen with a begging bowl in every world forum – even staple foods like rice, wheat, dal, sugar, vegetables, and fruits are being imported – some from countries such as Singapore, which is smaller than a neighborhood in Mumbai.
  • History books would say that every invading army that conquered India was attracted by its rich spices, commodities, and wealth of biodiversity. But after 500 years of alien rule, India is nowhere near the world’s top 25 agricultural exporters or processors.
  • On one hand, Indians hail the arrival of genetically modified crops that are seen as the solution to eradicate poverty, and on the other hand, there are activists on the streets promoting natural foods and organic cultivation – both sponsored by the same government departments!

Having jumped into social entrepreneurship after 12 years of corporate life, these questions have intrigued me, and gotten under my skin, forcing me to seek answers and solutions, which often aren’t as forthcoming as I’d like. In this series for Beyond Profit, I will look at a holistic view of what is wrong with the Indian agricultural economy and then at solutions on how to fix it – many trees have been burnt in writing about problems, but it is the solutions that need our attention.

As India’s supply chain is still predominantly unorganized, there are several inefficiencies in the way it functions. There have been several attempts to fix this – from government, private agencies, and research institutions alike. Though there has been some success in these attempts, these have not scaled fast enough to stem the crisis. Given the vast diversity in India, coupled with problems of illiteracy and poor infrastructure, such complex problems often need innovative, quick, and practical solutions.

But these have only lead to more questions:

  • Why has the branded retailer’s glorious entry into this sector, which was hailed as a revolution some eight years ago, fizzled into a lame game?
  • Why, despite the fact that Indian farmers have raised their quality to global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards in post harvest technologies, do we see international apples and pears being sold in our roadside thelaas (carts)?
  • Why are microfinance companies mushrooming in every corner, but money lenders still dominate?
  • Operation Flood, which organized India’s milk cooperatives and farmers into a dairy giant, is seen as a great success. Why haven’t these same farmers and rural cooperatives modernized the Indian agriculture supply chain.

This blog will delve deeper into each of these ideas, identify why they failed, and offer some guidelines for future agri-business entrepreneurs and policy makers. The idea again is not to find faults, but rather to gain from these experiences.

The agriculture industry in India has always been a low growth, low attention sector. The educated and elite have in general shunned this sector. Hence, there are several myths and misconceptions.  I will attempt to unravel these and also look for lessons from other industries and paradigms – like the Mumbai dabbawallahs and the story of Amul.

Why so much fuss over food, one may ask … well, the French revolution was triggered by one such innocuous comment – “If people don’t have wheat (bread), let them eat cake.” People who forget history are condemned to repeat it.  Let’s change, let’s look beyond immediate gains to ensure a more stable food economy for our future generations – while we still have the chance!

(To be continued…)

*An English saying meaning “to do the difficult work.”

About the author:

Venkata Subramanian is the founder of a social enterprise called Matchbox Solutions, which creates sustainable, social businesses for underprivileged people. eFarm is one of their primary ventures that is an agri-supply chain start-up operating in Southern India. It is a shared agri-supply chain platform, connecting all stakeholders in the chain to a common shared platform to enable efficient, transparent agri-business trade.

Venkat teaches food supply chain management at leading institutions and has made presentations in in agri business and food supply chain related topics. He is a member of the NEN speakers club and has given talks on entrepreneurship.

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