Sunil Khairnar is bringing new resources and valuable networks to agricultural entrepreneurs in India. By providing the nation's traditionally poor farmers with a comprehensive source of knowledge and data, Indian farmers are building up-to-date, economically sound "agriclinics."
The New Idea
Sunil is helping entrepreneurs set up agriclinics to provide vital data to farmers around the country. New resources like an information technology system and a national network of farming experts allow farmers to maximize their use of agricultural knowledge. Raised on a farm, trained as an agricultural commodities broker, and inspired by the power of information to improve the lives of Indian farmers, Sunil is familiar with many of these converging environments.
Currently, the Indian government has rolled out a program to help unemployed college graduates start up agriclinics, but it has made little progress designing the training and support systems necessary for widespread success. Sunil and ISAP, the Indian Society of Agriculture Professionals, are stepping in to fill this gap and give direction to this promising, but still emerging opportunity.
The premise of the government plan is that entrepreneurs can make a living by serving the needs of local farmers. Beyond that, however, there seems to be little that would distinguish them from existing agricultural supply and brokerage outlets–little, that is, except their government backing. Sunil sees an opportunity to supply on a large scale the one commodity that has been absent in the rural sector: reliable agricultural information. By signing up budding entrepreneurs to style their agriclinics as real-time information providers and hooking them up to a peer network, Sunil plans to revolutionize India's farm sector.
Agriculture is a vast and complex element of Indian life. It accounts for 25 percent of the economy and employs two-thirds of the nation's people, yet it is still fair to say that India is largely a nation of poor farmers. Every imaginable form of assistance exists to support and develop the Indian farmer: new crop varieties; elaborate irrigation systems; organic fertilizers; integrated pest management; revolving loan funds; incentives to raise dairy cows; watershed management programs; campaigns for land reform; appropriate technology workshops; marketing programs; new distribution channels; niche cash crops; food-for-work subsidies; double cropping; triple cropping; alley cropping; terraces; aquaculture; sericulture; vermiculture; preservation of wetlands; wetting drylands; raising women's status; sending children to school; taking education out of the schools; bringing farming into the classroom; taking farming out of the classroom; taking the classroom out to the farm; bringing the farm to the city; slowing urban migration; creating cottage industries. Some of these, such as the dairy revolution, have been highly successful. Others have yielded far less than the imagined returns and in turn revealed new problems.
If this poverty is defined, at least in some part, by obstacles that prevent the farmer from making informed decisions about the future, then Indian farmers are also held back by a lack of timely and useful data. Information on which crop varieties grow well in which soil, predictions for the upcoming season's prices, comparative prices for fertilizers and other basic agriculture inputs are examples of information that most farmers cannot obtain independently. To provide such information on any meaningful scale would require a massive public effort, yet state and federal governments have tended to operate agricultural stations for project-specific extension of services or for research. Citizen sector organizations promoting alternative media and farmer-to-farmer communication have yet to reach widespread audiences.
Some resources have been developed to tackle this problem. Each year India produces around 13,000 food and agricultural graduates. Only half of them find gainful employment in government, social, or private sector organizations. The government of India and several state governments are planning huge investments through subsidies to turn these graduates into entrepreneurs independently operating agribusiness clinics. The central government has allocated about $40 million for this program in the coming fiscal year, and state governments are expected to put in matching funds. Maharashtra, for example, is already providing a subsidy of over $2,000 per clinic. Moreover, in other arrangements with the government, bank loans are available to qualified graduate-entrepreneurs.
Despite the availability of start-up capital, if a critical mass of information and personnel does not come together, clinics will not have any real services to offer. The government anticipates that the clinics will be run by agricultural graduates who will dispense knowledge and information from sources like the Internet and the local agricultural universities. However, generally speaking, a single agricultural graduate is not competent enough to dispense the kind of information needed. Agricultural universities are not good sources for relevant, up-to-date, or commercially useful knowledge about farming. Without the necessary knowledge network, the proposed agriclinics will not survive. On the other hand, with training and an information infrastructure, they can enter the marketplace and serve farmers in an economically viable way.
To keep up with the size and growth of the Indian agricultural sector, it is estimated the country needs about 50,000 agribusiness clinics. Sunil, through the Indian Society of Agricultural Professionals, aims to establish clinics and offer them a package of services that would allow them to work as independent operators within the ISAP network.
Sunil and ISAP will establish the knowledge network, identify graduates interested in starting agriclinics, and offer both training and information products and services to clinics. With this model the concept of agribusiness clinics is scalable and can expand to reach every major village in the country.
Information and communication technology will be used to develop a network of people and spread information in the agri-knowledge network. Appropriate IT software will enable ISAP to achieve rapid and low-cost growth in achieving its mission. Once the basic knowledge network and delivery mechanisms are in place, the operating cost of the clinics will be recovered by charging the farming community modest fees for information use and expert services.
The ISAP network is important here because it links experts around the country with the agriclinic system. Clinic proprietors refer questions and problems to experts who work as volunteers to relay the answers back to their clients. Experts include individuals, agriculture universities and research institutes, multilateral agencies, and private organizations. Sunil contacts the experts through email, direct mail, targeted advertisements, and through collection of data at relevant events.
ISAP would continue to identify individuals, citizen sector organizations and cooperatives that want to start agriclinics, prepare project profiles, train and educate staff, deliver information to the clinics, and provide replies to the farmers' queries. Farmers would be able both to market their products to appropriate purchasers at appropriate rates and to access useful expert advice on crop management quickly and at a reasonable rate.
Since the program's activation in November 2001, ISAP has registered 965 members as experts. Sunil aims to expand the network to 12,000 in the first year and to 69,000 experts over five years: . In the first year of operation, Sunil will help start 50 agriclinics. He has arranged with the government to refer each new inquiry about starting a clinic to ISAP, which will then invite the applicant to participate. Clinic proprietors are under no obligation to participate in Sunil's program–participation will not affect their funding. But since ISAP offers assistance in writing business plans, training entrepreneurs, and advising on how best to serve the local market, Sunil has found that ISAP has met with great interest.
ISAP will begin its work on the agriclinics in five districts of Haryana covering 41 villages. Sunil has identified volunteers in Agra and Calcutta to help expand the network base.
Sunil was born to a farming family that owned land in Maharashtra. As a child he worked in the family fields and orchards and eventually left the farm to pursue his education. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, with a degree in agricultural engineering, Sunil joined Godrej Agrovet Limited, the largest manufacturer of animal food in the country. After five successful years with the company, he joined the international agribusiness corporation Cargill as a commodities broker. But Sunil's success in these roles was only partially satisfying. All that he learned about commodities, markets, the intricate networks of purchasers and traders that move food from the field to the market to the export dock did nothing to relieve the legacy of the Indian farmer–5,000 years of toil and suffering. Sunil knows that with the right ideas and structures in place, India can become an "agricultural superpower."
In March 2000, he used his life's savings to set up Indian Agribusiness Systems, a private company that distributes commodity news to traders and farmers around the country. Some of his former colleagues challenged this move, which was for the first time sharing information–the most valuable commodity of all–with smaller-scale traders and middlemen. IAS runs two daily newspapers, a farm weekly, and a monthly magazine–all under the trade name Agriwatch. Over the past two years Sunil has run the organization and overseen its growth.
But even Agriwatch was really just a step on the path preceding Sunil's social venture, ISAP. He removed himself from his executive position with IAS to devote himself fully to setting up the agriclinics. Sunil has found that the outcomes of working in the corporate sector are different from these in the social sector. "I was working hard and performing well," he says of his time as a broker, "but ultimately the result was that I made a small number of people wealthy." IAS and Agriwatch were the beginnings of a new economy for India's agriculture sector, bringing it into the information age. "ISAP," he says, "will benefit millions."