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Krishna Mishra, Founder of eKutir Agriculture

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Meet Krishna Mishra, Founder of eKutir Agriculture. Krishna is a social entrepreneur running a for-profit social business, eKutir, to work for the progress of small and marginal farmers and improve their socio-economic state.

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Family Influence

Krishna grew up in a village of Odisha, a rural village that was surrounded by poverty and misery. He was deeply influenced by his father, a Gandhian who actively engaged in various development initiatives. As a child, Krishna observed and engaged with various relief efforts with his father. The famine that hit Orissa in the 1970s marked him deeply. He was moved by the way people coped with disaster and saw the nexus between poverty and food security from close quarters.

Seeking a future in government service, Krishna pursued his education in political science. His interest in psychology led him to focus on political behavior – a skill that helps him work with communities today. Convinced that agriculture is intrinsic to development in India, Krishna focused on exploring the interconnections between political structures and agriculture while pursuing his masters in political science. These experiences exposed him to various systems and seeded thoughts around designing political and community structures.

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Empowering Farmers

Krishna joined NABARD, a development institution in 1983, to empower farmers. During the 23 years with NABARD, he worked closely with communities launching self-help and farmer groups in India whilst designing several products. After eight years of working on the ground, he moved to Delhi and was instrumental in policies that continue to be offered even today, including; watershed development initiatives and orchard plantation initiatives, (popularly known as WADI), in collaboration with various national and international corporations. Krishna was also responsible for the creation of incentives that would orient commercial banks to focus on the agricultural sector and reach the poor communities in India.

All these initiatives gave Krishna insights into the limitations of existing approaches and he felt the need to re-design structures under which farmers were organized to ensure that it was participatory in nature and could withstand the pressures of the market forces. He drew from models in the U.S. where bonds of cooperatives were traded upon. However, he slowly became convinced that products and services targeting the farmers were driven by supply of the private sector and government and not based on farmer demand. This made him realize that there was a need to create a farmer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable model, which will involve a holistic, yet personalized approach to address the needs of farmers and ventured out to establish eKutir in 2009.

Value chain dysfunction and highly disconnected eco-system

In 2009-10, eKutir initiated its pilot in Agriculture with 6 micro-entrepreneurs and 300 farmers. This pilot initiative was in collaboration with Grameen-Intel Social Business in extending soil-testing and nutrient management solution to the farmers. With a rigorous pilot for one year, the results were quite intriguing, with benefits perceived for both micro-entrepreneur and farmers. An understanding of the agriculture value chain and institutional service delivery followed this pilot.

In Agriculture itself, the sheer dysfunction of the value chain, highly disconnected eco-system, and exploitative strategies keeps the smallholder farmer trapped in poverty. This further characterizes low yields, low incomes, few or no market linkages, and low access to finance. The smallholder farmer is prone to high risk owing to small land acreage alongside lack of confidence and trust by the system in the farmers. A farming cycle is such that a smallholder farmer, with an income of about $1 a day, is required to undertake various activities apart from laboring on the field. The farmer must assess the state of the soil, determine the choice of input supplements, application methods and best growth practices, acquire seeds and other inputs, manage pests and diseases, access credit and market information, organize transport, and identify purchasers for the produce.

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Promoting productivity and income

The innovation of eKutir is in designing a decentralized, risk-mitigated, and transparent system to extend agriculture services to the farmers. This led to the creation of “PIE” model, which is widely accepted to extend agriculture and non-agriculture services to the rural communities. In 2013, eKutir established Krishi Vikas (Farmer Development) to extend its PIE model and a gamut of agriculture services to more than 50,000 farmers. The model has been widely accepted by NABARD to promote smallholder productivity and income for 50,000 additional farmers by 2015. Gradually, the model has gained acceptance and spread to 4 different states with different field partners in India.

Grameen-Intel Social Business has deployed the ICT-enabled tools, co-designed through the domain knowledge and expertise of eKutir, in Bangladesh and Macedonia. International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) is taking the technology to countries like Cambodia and Nepal for the benefit of smallholder farmers.

PIE stands for Participatory, ICT enabled and Entrepreneurship-driven approach.

eKutir creates a distribution network of micro-entrepreneur independently or in collaboration with its field partners.

  • Identification, selection and training of micro-entrepreneurs
  • Market Opportunity and Gap Analysis
  • Business Planning and Handholding
  • Designing the Eco system to address to that problem

ICT-enabled tools under current deployment includes:

FPMT – A one-stop tool used to capture data, manage portfolio of the farmers, provide market linkages, access to advisory services, and aggregate demand-supply. This tool allows the potential input suppliers and buyers to gain access to a group of farmers, which becomes an opportunity for them to provide quality products at affordable prices. FPMT allows the farmers to choose quality inputs and sell the produce at fair prices, creating value through the agriculture value chain.

Seed Selection Tool (ankur) – ankur is a seed selection and recommendation tool. Last-mile entrepreneurs use Ankur to assist farmers with better seed selection to achieve increased productivity and farm yield.

Nutrient Management Tool (mrittika) – mrittika is the soil nutrient analysis and recommendation tool. Last-mile entrepreneurs offer soil-testing services to the farmers and use mrittika to analyze the results to recommend fertilizer for achieving cost-effective and optimum productivity.

There are several other software applications that are under development and will be rolled out in the next 5-10 years.

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Equipping farmers with the necessary soil knowledge

eKutir piloted mrittika, a software application that recommends nutrient application on the basis of soil-testing analysis. The value proposition of this tool was to equip the farmers with the necessary knowledge about their soil, crops to be grown, and the requisite application of nutrients and fertilizers, basis of soil characteristics.

When the first phase of pilot was conducted with 300 farmers, it created excitement among the farmers on seeing the soil testing conducted in front of them at their farm. When the test results were presented, the farmers were astonished with the appropriateness of soil analysis, as majority of these farmers had faced challenges in procuring the soil testing report timely, from the soil health centers established by the Government. The approach of using mobile soil test kits at the farm increased the inquisitiveness of the farmer and helped in disseminating appropriate knowledge on testing and soil health.

Post soil testing, the results were entered in to mrittika, which on the basis of the farmer information captured provided the quantity, quality, and availability of nutrient/fertilizer on the farmland. The software tool had a detailed step-wise algorithm at the back-end with a simplistic user interface to help the micro-entrepreneur enter details and get corresponding recommendations. The software application allowed localization and customization, tailored to a particular region. When compared with the current dosage given by the farmers, it was understood that there was over-application of fertilizers, which were spurious, and were bought at unfair prices.

To test the efficacy of mrittika, a control and treatment group were created. The control group applied the same dosage wherein the treatment group applied the dosage recommended by mrittika with the nutrient procured through eKutir. The results were overwhelming for the treatment group with the best farmer showing 133% reduction in costs, 200% increased crop yield, and 250% increased income on the crop. This established farmer’s trust in eKutir and helped us organically increase our outreach without any additional marketing.

The initial reaction of the farmers helped eKutir build a sense of trust and credibility, which increased farmer’s confidence in the system, and made them understand that this is a non-exploitative way to help them become more productive.

As, eKutir believe in designing appropriate software applications to benefit the needs of the farmers, eKutir came up with additional tools like ankur, FPMT, TIME Tool, and so on to help address the small gaps in the agriculture value chain, with a vision to create a suite of ICT-enabled tools that will help drive our mission to benefit millions of smallholder farmers.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/ekutir
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eKutirSB
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ekutirsb
YouTube: How eKutir works
Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/71197753

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Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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