Globally, 70% of the world’s food is produced by small-holder farmers using only 30% of the agricultural land. This implies that small farmers are actually more efficient in their use of resources. However, small farmers have their backs against the wall – and a key reason for this is the lack of market access that rewards a farmer for adopting sustainable and responsible farming practices.
While there are several inefficiencies in the agricultural industry, especially in India across production, distribution, risk management, financing etc., the market linkage piece is the most broken – there is demand, and there is supply – it’s just that they are completely mismatched. It’s a pity that there are hungry folks across the world, while at the same time such a huge percentage of our produced food gets wasted.
One aspect that does not get talked about much, which is critical, is that we as consumers are also responsible for the agriculture space problems. We ask for out of season produce all throughout the year, we ask for good-looking produce instead of nutritionally rich produce, we baulk at the first sign of imperfect produce, we are way too sensitive to food prices and like keeping it artificially low – our preferences play an important role in creating the inefficiencies in the agricultural market.
When Bengaluru-based Gitanjali Rajamani, Shameek Chakravarty & Sudaakeran Balasubramaian realised this fallback, they decided to come back with their agritech venture, Farmizen.
Farmizen is trying to build an alternative food system, where consumers eat locally grown nutritious food on soil that is tended well by farmers who make a fair living out of that. At the same time, it has also built a platform that lets small organic farmers sell directly to consumers without having to worry about demand generation and logistics.
Interesting isn’t it?!
So how exactly the entire idea kicked off?
“We saw that the food system is broken – for all three stakeholders – consumers, farmers and the planet. This is because all aspects of the food system are geared to optimising towards economies of scale. The current food supply chain demands goods transported to multiple distribution centres, via multiple aggregators, before they arrive at stores where they are presented to shoppers as anonymous produce that sit on shelves for days and weeks, and in the process, causes wastage of up to 40%. This food is mass-produced, giving us terrible food in terms of both taste and nutrition, and has a significant environmental impact in terms of soil and water health. It’s a lose-lose-lose system with farmers making less than 20% of what the food is sold for, consumers getting unhealthy food that is not fresh and does not taste great, and the planet suffering. We started Farmizen to fix this,” says Shameek, co-founder, Farmizen.
With Farmizen, Gitanjali & Shameek wanted to bring the much-needed change and the opportunities which small and poor farmers were losing.
None of them had an Agri background – so it was not an easy road to walk on. They learned hard lessons on how much effort is needed while growing food and then the amount of effort needed to get it to our plates. “We spent a bit longer than we should have, in the original model we had launched with – we should have pivoted to our current farm to fork model earlier,” Shameek shares. There were hurdles, fallbacks and a steep learning curve. But eventually, it paid off well!
“We don’t stop and think about it – but that 20 rupee bunch of palak we ate for lunch today – had a farmer preparing the soil, sowing seeds, harvesting, cleaning, bunching, dispatching it – and then someone did a quality check on it and figured out how to get it to you before it wilted. The chain is complex and requires close coordination across all pieces – it’s not easy,” Shameek further added.
Farmizen believes that the future of food is in helping small farmers succeed and letting them shepherd our soil and natural resources in a climate-friendly way.
It’s their hard work, dedication and undoubtedly the passion to bring a positive change that kept them going.
As of this writing, Farmizen is working with ~1000 farmers with an annual run rate of about 15 crores INR. In fact, the pandemic brought them 3x revenue!!
“Since ours is a localised supply chain – we did not see any disruptions and were able to keep operating all through the lockdown – smaller supply chains are more resilient. We were in business even while larger players like BigBasket were struggling to get going,” says Gitanjali.
Learnings & fallbacks
The government gives so many schemes for the welfare of farmers, yet the farming industry is still so down, and so many people are giving up on farming. According to Shameek, the following could be the possible reasons behind this:
“1. Many of the subsidies are ill-thought-out – and distort the market – for example, the urea subsidy is hugely problematic because it incentives modes of farming which destroy soil and pollute our water bodies. Free water for farming incentivises bad cropping practices, for example.
2. Several schemes are on paper – and very difficult to get benefits of, by farmers, at the ground level. Farmers need to deal with corruption and bribery at the local executive level to avail of some of these schemes.
3. Most of the schemes take a myopic view of the system – does not consider all costs involved – for example, does not consider long term costs that all of us pay in terms of environmental health and our health, in the pursuit of producing cheap food, which is important for political reasons.
4. There is a wrong narrative which is being set by Big Ag – fertiliser, pesticide, seed company lobbies – we need to understand that all of them are in business to extract profits pools from the agricultural value chain – and they need to be regulated far better – and the narratives they set need to be examined and questioned. Unfortunately, a lot of what is taught in our agricultural universities is designed to further the narrative, which makes profits for Big Ag – at the expense of the small farmer and our planet.
5. In a nutshell, the reason the small farmer today is giving up on farming is simple – they are not able to sell their produce at a fair price which allows them to live a dignified life.”
So, though it seems all shiny and abundant, there are enough potholes to fix!!
But it is also true that organic farming/ handmade/ sustainable living being the latest facades, it, indeed, is boosting the farmers’ economy as well. “Though it is helpful, more farmers need to take action – and build their own brands. We are seeing a D2C (direct to consumer) revolution in the country in other industries currently, and farmers must build their own brands – be it for their products or for value-added products they make out of their own produce,” Sudaakeran adds.
The modern agritech industry is slowly taking up, and it will continue to flourish in the coming years. As estimated by FAO, by 2050, the world will need 60% more food to feed the population. So yes, there is DEMAND!!
Talking about the future plans, Farmizen will soon be rolling across the country. “Our zero-inventory, cap-ex light and tech-enabled model make it easier to launch in multiple places without needing massive outlays. Now that we have fine-tuned our playbook, we plan to play on a bigger canvas in multiple locations,” Gitanjali shares.
With the pandemic at our doorstep, consumers have become more mindful about their food. They are trying to learn more about food, the benefits and the correct way to consume it. Farmizen helps its customers learn more about their food and how it is grown, thus helping them make better choices!
With almost 8.1K+ startups working in the agritech sector, the future is disruptive, competitive, yet demanding!
Stay tuned with NextBigWhat for more such inspiring and informative stories! #TowardsABetterWorld