Krishna Mishra is changing Indian farmer’s quality of life by turning farming into a modern profitable livelihood opportunity. Seeing farmers as entrepreneurs who are operating in complex systems and are exposed to various risks—financial, institutional, market, and household—Mishra has built a personalized portfolio management system that holistically assesses risks and caters to the needs of farmers.
The New Idea
Mishra recognizes the complexity in farming: the criticality of timeliness, weather conditions, choice of inputs and the interconnectedness of each factor with the other. Organizing farmers bottom-up through local micro-entrepreneurs, he is introducing a sophisticated ICT platform that enables a small and marginalized group of farmers to analyze diverse factors, make critical decisions, and manage processes to effectively compete in the market.
In order to build a demand-driven system, Mishra identifies and supports local micro-entrepreneurs who become the point person within the village for farmers. They build a participatory framework by organizing and partnering with groups of farmers to understand their contexts and needs. Based on farmers’ needs and using cutting-edge ICT, the micro-entrepreneurs create a comprehensive portfolio that maps and analyzes the risks faced by each farmer. Leveraging such technology, they assist farmers in crop, resource, and financial planning. The micro-entrepreneurs then enable the farmers to take tangible action on such recommendations, by feeding their demand for different products and services into a central IT platform. Based on aggregated inputs, from the farmers and again from the entrepreneurs, Mishra builds appropriate partnerships with agro-stakeholders, including university experts, soil scientists, seed, pesticide and fertilizer suppliers and purchasers to cater to the needs of the farmer.
In this process, in addition to making farming an attractive profession, Mishra is building an independent supply chain platform that is driven by the demand of farmers, assures quality, and increases access to markets for companies. It also allows farmers to benefit from their collective negotiating power while still making individual choices for products and services.
Approximately 78 percent of India’s farmers are small and marginal (farmers who own less than five acres of land). A farming cycle is such that a small and marginal farmer, with an income of about $1 a day, is required to undertake various activities apart from laboring on his field. He 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 his produce.
Although there are enterprises, including government agencies, private companies and citizen organizations (COs), which provide farmers with products and services (such as seeds, fertilizers, advisory services, finance, and market linkage), a farmer is often not equipped with information to choose the product best suited for him/her or the manner of its application. Even if farmers are equipped with this information, products and services are provided by different vendors. Consequently, to acquire the potential help, the small and marginal farmer would have to go to each in turn, incurring expenses at each step, to procure what he needs. Because they are economically fragile and situated in remote areas, such farmers are in fact dependent on the ability of resource people or institutions to reach out to them. Since many potential services are not easily accessible, farmers are often left with no choice but to use what they can reach locally, irrespective of quality or cost. This also results in them not accessing necessary soil testing or advisory services.
Limited by his reach and capacity, a farmer’s inability to procure quality products and services multiplies his level of risk. For example, even if a farmer receives access to credit, he is adversely affected if he receives contaminated or diluted seeds or is unable to get timely access to the market. Factors that reduce his income also reduce his credit-worthiness for the next crop cycle. This cycle creates a systemic risk for the farmer that he cannot overcome on his own.
The complex supply chain for various agricultural inputs (such as seeds and fertilizers) involving a series of actors, amplifies the risk faced by farmers. The agricultural market is controlled and managed by middlemen and cartels, and it is common for distributors and retailors to adulterate the products received from manufacturers before selling it to the farmers. Multiple brands and products, many of which are not genuine, flood the markets making it hard for farmers to make the right choice and identify quality products. For instance, at one point close to 2,000 brands of hybrid seeds of cotton were being sold in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, most small and marginal farmers are largely ignorant of guarantees provided by the manufacturers. For instance, although the law requires seed companies to provide a guarantee of 80 percent germination, few farmers are made aware of this right by the retailers. The role of multiple actors in the supply chain also makes it harder to allocate responsibility. As a result of this complex supply chain, on one hand, seed and fertilizer companies find it challenging to reach markets directly and on the other, farmers receive spurious and adulterated products. The existing supply chain also perpetrates and amplifies a huge information gap between the needs of the farmer and the services that are provided.
All of these factors have resulted in farming becoming an unattractive, unviable livelihood opportunity. The younger generation is increasingly migrating to cities, leaving the land in the hands of the elderly.
In 2006 Mishra saw the opportunity to leverage technology to harness and analyze the complex factors that affect the agricultural cycle and make them actionable. To pursue this, he partnered with Grameen-Intel to develop a logic tree that maps different elements that impact the agricultural output of a farmer, factors their influence over each other, and analyzes them to provide personalized advisory services. For instance, Mishra has studied different factors that influence the output of tomatoes from a field and their relationship with each other—type of soil, size of land, quality of seeds, and timing of sowing, quantity, quality and application of fertilizer or pesticides among others. An algorithm developed on this logic allows one to place data relating to a farmer to recommend appropriate action.
Mishra has developed different, easy to use tools that capture and analyze data about each farmer to recommend products and services that best suit their needs. For instance, the portfolio management tool is designed to draw from detailed information captured on each farmer: the size of his land, type of soil and crops grown, brand and cost of seeds, fertilizers or pesticides and the mechanism/price at which produce is typically sold, to provide different advisory services. The seed selection tool helps farmers decide what seeds are best suited for them based on their land and portfolio. Likewise, the nutrient management tool recommends the quantity and types of fertilizer that are suitable by analyzing the condition of his soil, type of crop grown and contents of different fertilizers available in the market. This also helps in farmers understanding best and judicious practices to use fertilizer.
After a few pilots to launch his idea on the ground and achieve sustainability, Mishra left NABARD and in 2009 founded the social venture eKutir to make farming a modern competitive enterprise. As the ICT designed requires real-time data on the needs of farmers, he put in place a highly decentralized structure that is driven by micro-entrepreneurs at the village level. Mishra identifies and trains micro-entrepreneurs from the village who have the acumen to deliver results to become trusted partners of farmers. Such micro-entrepreneurs are responsible to organize and work with approximately 300 to 500 farmers from nearby villages. They begin to build their network of farmers by organizing farmers into Farmer Interest Groups comprising of 15 to 20 farmers each. The groups discuss problems faced by farmers and identify their needs. A farmer within the group acts as leader and helps the entrepreneur create individual portfolios.
Mishra does not stop with providing farmers with raw information or advice. eKutir also provides the framework for farmers to continuously ascertain their risks and act on them. The leader of the Farmer Interest Group communicates the needs of the group to the entrepreneur on an ongoing basis. The entrepreneur also organizes a meeting with the group, once a month, to discuss problems faced—the needs and services required by farmers and also receives feedback on the services provided. Based on these meetings and the management services provided, the entrepreneur aggregates the demands at the village level and feeds the information into the IT platform. For instance, based on seed management services and pest management services provided, if a farmer seeks to purchase a particular type of seed or pesticide, the entrepreneur places an appropriate order.
While micro-entrepreneurs are responsible for identifying and communicating the demands of the farmers on an ongoing basis, Mishra (through eKutir) builds partnerships with different institutions that can effectively cater to the demand of the farmers by aggregating orders from various entrepreneurs. Based on the demand of farmers, Mishra has to build relationships with fertilizer, pesticide, seed, produce companies, and experts at universities. By building such partnerships, he is able to bridge the information gap between demand and supply of products and services. As seeds and fertilizers are directly dispatched to the farmers, products are available at subsidized rates and quality is assured. Farmers are also made aware of guarantees and assurances provided by the suppliers. Going forward, Mishra intends to extend these partnerships to provide farmers harvesting management, marketing management, and value addition of agro produce.
As a result of these initiatives, the cost of inputs to farmers has reduced. For instance, fertilizers that were available at US$3.50 (200 rupees) per 500 gm. are now available to the farmer at US$2.00 (120 rupees). Farmers are also assured better quality of products and timely service for different products and services. In some areas, eKutir has focused on exclusively organizing women farmers, who were never previously serviced by intermediaries. More importantly, modernizing agriculture through ICT based micro-enterprises is making farming attractive to younger people and bringing them back into the farming.
Mishra, through eKutir, generates revenues through commissions from the companies for products sold, fees paid by farmers for services and advertising revenues. To do that Mishra has evolved a unique participatory and profit-sharing mechanism where approximately 50 percent of the income generated is shared with the micro-entrepreneurs and 5 percent of the income is shared with the farmers in proportion to their transaction volume (or ‘participatory dividend’). In addition, he ensures that 5 percent of the net-profit of the enterprise is shared with the employees. By catering to the individual farmer, Mishra integrates farmers with agro-input and output value chains and creates a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Moreover, the farmer receives customized advice, products, and services in a single window interface and the suppliers gain access to their markets.
Since 2009 Mishra has created a network of fifteen micro-entrepreneurs in five districts to bring 1,000 farmers as members of eKutir within the state of Orissa. While Mishra continues to expand his presence in Orissa, he is beginning to extend his presence in Maharashtra in partnership with a local CO. He is also in different stages of partnerships with other organizations in India to share tools and processes and launch similar models across the country. As an advisor to Bottom of the Pyramid Hub, Mishra is also training a CO in Cambodia to identify and train micro-entrepreneurs. With each of its partners, eKutir will share IT tools and receive a commission for transactions undertaken on the platform.
Mishra grew up in a village in Orissa, seeing a lot of poverty and misery around him. He was deeply influenced by his father who was a Gandhian and actively engaged in various development initiatives. As a child, Mishra observed and engaged with various relief efforts with his father. The famine that hit Orissa in the 1970s left a mark on him in particular. Mishra 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, he pursued his education in political science. His interest in psychology led him to focus on political behavior—a skill that helps his work with communities today. Convinced that agriculture is intrinsic to development in India, Mishra focused on exploring the interconnections between political structures and agriculture while pursuing his Master’s degree in political science. These experiences exposed him to various systems and seeded thoughts around designing political and community structures.
To empower farmers, Mishra joined NABARD, a governmental institution in 1983. In his years there, he worked closely with communities launching self-help groups and farmer groups. He was also instrumental in 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 including, watershed development initiatives and orchard plantation initiatives, (popularly known as WADI), in collaboration with various national and international COs. Mishra was also responsible for the creation of incentives that would orient commercial banks to focus on the agricultural sector and reach the poor.
All these initiatives gave Mishra insights into the limitations of existing approaches. He felt the need to redesign structures under which farmers were organized to ensure that it was participatory in nature and could withstand the pressures of the market. He drew from models in the U.S. where bonds of cooperatives were traded upon. However, Mishra slowly became convinced that products and services targeting the farmers were driven by supply of the private sector and government and not farmer demand. However, he realized that there was a need to create a farmer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable model. Mishra saw the urgent need to design a holistic yet personalized approach to address the needs of farmers.