The nationwide lockdown in April 2020 helped 42-year-old Ruchit Garg realise the power and reach of social media. He is the CEO of Harvesting, a company that he founded in Silicon Valley in the US in 2016, to use technology to solve the problems for farmers, especially the millions of smallholder farmers across the world, who were the building blocks for the agriculture market but had not benefitted much from technology developments.
He had moved back to India in 2019 to reimagine the way he would solve the massive farmers’ problems. Based in Chandigarh, he was still convinced that artificial intelligence and technology would be ideal tools to address the challenges.
Agriculture is a massive market from whichever angle you look at it, with smallholder farmers being the backbone. However, says Ruchit, they are also among the most under-served. From an entrepreneur’s point of view, this is a big pain point and an enormous challenge, which meant huge opportunities. There are three main problems of access that farmers face – to markets, to financial products, and to quality, affordable inputs. Linking these problems is the massive information asymmetry between farmers and others in the value chain, says Ruchit.
Ruchit had joined Microsoft in India after completing his Master’s in Computer Applications from Meerut. After a few years, he was posted to the software giant’s headquarters in Seattle, where he worked on various products. He quit his job and started his own technology company, which got acquired in 2016. That is when the idea of addressing farmers’ challenges struck him.
The idea behind starting Harvesting was to use satellite imagery, analyse the data that is thrown up, use artificial intelligence and machine learning to come up with models that would help farmers with information. He was working with insurance companies, microfinance institutions in Africa and South-East Asia. He felt that there was not enough traction to what he was attempting to do. That is when he decided to move back to India, where the demand was huge and the market was large.
The pandemic-induced lockdown showed him the new path, he says. He had built a network of farmers while he was working on his products. And, during the lockdown, he read about how farmers were destroying their produce because they were not able to sell them. This was the ideal time for Ruchit to pivot his business and address the more immediate problems that farmers were facing.
“We were seeing a lot of news, about farmers throwing their crops. I was like, you know, I don’t know what to do, but can we do something to help,” says Ruchit. “I created this handle (Twitter handle) on April 12, 2020, Harvesting Farmer Network Twitter handle and said, what if I just started looking farther.” That day, Ruchit posted some information about six farmers – their names, location, crop, variety, price and the farmer’s phone number. “That took off,” recalls Ruchit, “it slowly and steadily became a small micro movement on the microblogging site Twitter.”
There was a farmer in Karnataka, who sold a large quantity of grapes within three days of Harvesting Farmer Network tweeting information about him. Another farmer, who was growing brinjal, got a regular order for about 100 kg a week. Over time, Harvesting Farmer Network’s Twitter handle @HarvestingFN has become busy. It has more than 15,400 followers.
Ruchit made clear the rules of engagement on the Twitter handle right at the beginning. Buyers were advised to call only local farmers, as those far away may not be able to deliver; buy in bulk as it will help both the buyer and the farmer; be fair to each other; how much the buyer pays is between the buyer and the farmer, but do buy; discuss with the local farmer how to get the product at the doorstep; and, create a Whatsapp group for your apartment building or society, so that everyone can buy and bulk orders can be placed.
How does it work? Ruchit says farmers send text messages over Whatsapp to HFN and they post it on the Twitter handle and help the farmers find buyers. It is an everyday occurrence to see HFN tweeting about a farmer in Uttarakhand wanting to sell paddy or another one in Andhra Pradesh looking for buyers for millet or someone in Kashmir valley trying to sell walnuts.
As the number of requests from farmers grew and Twitter messages increased, HFN realised the need for a website to keep track of all the orders. HFN also took steps to ensure that neither the seller nor the buyer was taken for a ride. The website, HFNMandi.com, has farmers from more than 22 States listing their produce. It facilitates sales to more than 30 cities. Over USD 300 million worth of produce has been posted on the site so far. It has even facilitated exports. Following requests from different parts of the country, HFN will start posting for poultry, fishery and meat products on its platform. It had raised some small funds from angel investors in the US and is looking to raise about USD 3-5 million to grow the business.
Ruchit compares HFN with Craigslist, the American classified advertisement website. According to him, HFN does not charge the farmers anything. Its aim is to connect the farmers with buyers. The Twitter posts provide all the relevant details and the buyer directly gets in touch with the seller; HFN only connects them, does not get involved in the transaction. It hand-holds farmers and charges a fee on the buyer. It does direct-to-consumer business with a limited number of products and also facilitates wholesale trade, for which it gets paid by the buyers. HFN also gets money through profit-sharing in some cases and now, farmers are open to sharing revenues, for the value add that HFN provides. “My hope is that when you are doing revenue sharing with the farmers, they will be more responsible for the product.” HFN, he says, gets money from wholesale buyers, from importers and exporters, and from retail buyers. Essentially, everybody pays except the farmer.
Ruchit says the farmers have definitely seen an increase in their income, not just through higher realisations but also because they get paid much quicker. HFN has also helped break the local trader-buyer nexus, which has benefitted the farmers. Their market has also increased, which, over time, will help farmers get much better prices.
The biggest benefit will come from the data that HFN collects and analyses. It will help farmers get cheaper and faster loans, insurance, quality inputs. HFN will also offer farmers’ agronomic advisory.
According to Ruchit, COVID has definitely pushed farmers to adopt technology much quicker and faster than what they otherwise would have done. Even customers were adopting to technology. Mobile internet penetration and COVID have definitely helped the agriculture sector, says Ruchit and adds that the benefits to both sellers and buyers are only bound to increase.
—N Ramakrishnan is a Chennai-based freelance journalist with over three decades of experience. The views expressed are personal.
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)