Meet Shashank Kumar From Bihar Who Is Turning Agriculture Into A Profitable Business For The Farming Community.

A Ray of Hope for the Farming Community and a Proud Son of Bihar: Shashank Kumar

Agriculture holds a very special place in everybody’s heart. We all want our farmers to lead a dignified life. But few are the people who walk the talk and work for the betterment of the farming community. One such person is Shashank Kumar.

He graduated from IIT Delhi and was placed in a well paying consultancy firm. But he quit his job and in association with his friend Manish, set up Farms n Farmers, a not-for-profit organisation which advised and helped farmers with cropping patterns.

From being advisors to providing one stop solution for everything related to agriculture, the business has grown and so has the prosperity of farmers. Currently, Shashank is the CEO of Green Agrevolution. He has also been included in the “champions of change” list of NITI Ayog for influencing policy making. In this interview with PatnaBeats, he talks about his venture, the hurdles faced, the milestones achieved, the reason behind choosing Bihar and the road ahead.

Having quit a well paying job, you choose something totally different i.e. agriculture. This seems very risky and there is a huge chance of failure. How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Shashank Kumar: Honestly speaking, I did have a fear. But even before entering the agriculture scenario, I had prepared myself for the worst. I knew there would be many challenges. Moreover, success and failure is very subjective. Today, even after 7 years, I can’t say that I have become successful or that I have failed, but I have certainly made progress. We did not set any target for the initial one and half years because we did not want any pressure from our side or you can say that we did not want any “fear of failure” to exist. All our efforts were based on solving the problems of farmers.

Before starting this venture of Farms n Famers, you did ground reports and surveys by meeting farmers from various areas. How did that pan out?

Shashank Kumar: The idea was to understand the kind of challenges that farmers faced. We also covered other states to figure out whether the challenges faced by famers in Bihar are similar to that of those in other states. Farmers have long conversations. They treat you quite well. In you they see an opportunity which could help them get out of their misery. However you do not get quantified responses regarding costs or produce. Still, the survey taught us to meet the people at grassroots as they are the ones who paint the real picture.

Like you, Manish was also an engineering student from rural background. To leave behind everything and pursue something like social entrepreneurship in a setup like Bihar, where job, if not govt job is the only criterion of being counted as successful, how much was the family pressure and how did you managed it?

Shashank Kumar: Manish and I were friends from the time of IIT coaching in Delhi. He enrolled into IIT-Kharagpur. I knew he had an inclination towards rural development. He was the first person to whom I pitched my idea. And he was very excited. He skipped college placements so that he could join this venture.

See, parents are naturally concerned about their child’s future. Having worked hard and paid your fee for IIT, they obviously want to see you working in MNCs. So when we came back, it was hard for them to believe. Initially I lied.  I said, “I am still working for the MNC, but its part time now. And they would pay me 50% of my salary.” I did not want it to be a burden on their mind.

Eventually the work started speaking for itself. Few stories were published in local newspapers. Those people in the society who initially doubted our credential started supporting us. You know the saying “Jitney wale ghode pe sab daav lagate hain”, that happened in our case as well.

Money is one of the most important ingredients for a successful venture. Where did the funding come from?

Shashank Kumar: I had some savings from my previous job. We invested that into the pilot project. We smartly participated in various Business plan competitions. Apart from prize money, it also provided platforms to pitch in our idea. Moreover, both of us together would spend just 3-4k Rs a month. Our advice, soil testing and anything else apart from the seeds was free.  We only charged for the superior quality seeds that we also had to buy.

A big breakthrough investment came from NABARD. Although not eligible on various criterions, still impressed by our work, spread via farmers, a regional manager of NABARD asked us to write a proposal for a loan. We were given a special grant of 9.5 lakh rupees.

You chose Rajma for your pilot project experiment, what were the reasons for that?

Shashank Kumar: Wheat, mainly grown in that area, was not yielding good profits. It’s crop cycle is very long. Almost 5 months. People were doing just two crops in the entire year. On the other hand, Rajma only had a crop cycle of 110 days giving the farmer an option of doing 3 crops in a season. It consumed less water than wheat thereby minimising the cost of the farmer. It’s leguminous in nature thus helping with the soil fertility. These were the genuine reasons.

For a movie, its trailer has to be powerful enough to create a buzz among the viewers. This was our first project, if we would have gone with the usual wheat and rice, people might not have paid much attention. Because Rajma was a totally new concept, the buzz that we expected was created and to help our cause, the pilot succeeded giving us 100% profit.

You introduced new varieties of cropping pattern. Changing a fixed pattern is kind of a rebellion and usually people don’t support that change. So how was the response of farmers to that?

Shashank Kumar: I clearly remember one incident. I had introduced Baby Corn in Vaishali. With baby corn, you have to harvest the corn while it is still very small. So I went to the farmers in the evening and told them, “This is the perfect stage to harvest. Since it is very perishable you would have to do that early morning tomorrow, so that we could take it to the market by 9’o clock”. Now, at 4.30 in the morning, a farmer called me asking me if I was sure that they should harvest the corn now. They in their lifetime had never harvested corn at such an early stage, so for them it was totally new and intimidating. They were afraid of incurring any loss because of us. But after that incident it was all normal. Our aim basically was to introduce cash crops to the farmers so that their income is raised.

You had Farms n Farmers as a setup which was not for profit and Non- Government Organisation. It grew well. But you came up with Green Agrevolution, why?

Shashank Kumar: When Farms n Farmers started, we were just two people advising farmers on what to grow and how to grow. We did not have a big team; neither did we have much money. As we grew, people started joining. Firstly Amrendra came, he had graduated from NIT Jameshdpur and then Adarsh from IIT Dhanbad also joined us. As the team grew, the funding increased. Instead of being advisers, we decided to provide a one stop solution for everything related to farming. And that’s how Green Agrevolution came into being. It is a profit making body. And we have made 78% profit in the last financial year. We wanted to set up a sustainable business so that we are not only on the mercy of grants. We wanted to build a legacy so that even when there is no Shashank or Manish, there still remains a DeHaat, Agrevolution and Farms n Farmers helping the farmers in need.

What is DeHaat and what’s the story behind it?

Shashank Kumar: With small farmers, they don’t take risks. They have a fear of failure. And one crop failure can cost them dear. You can’t directly ask them to experiment with the set cropping pattern. We first understood their behavioural aspects. We realised that to impact their livelihood, you have to share their risks and profits both. And that’s how we came up with the idea of DeHaat.

Be it seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, information, training, technical support, marketing or any other thing related to the standing crops of farmers, DeHaat would be the one stop solution. We built the DeHaat centres at block level which is hardly 5-7 km from the farmer’s field and village, thus providing everything under one roof at the nearest distance possible. Physical presence created an image in the mind of small farmers that these people would not run away. Plus we offered all the solutions at a very low cost and the advice from Farms n Farmers remained free as well. All this had a great influence on the farmer and thus the DeHaat model grew. And now we were able to influence the cropping pattern of the farmer for better results.

How did DeHaat developed?

Shashank Kumar: In 2012-13 we put together two DeHaat centres. In a small time period we had 2000 farmers registered with us. We were just 4 people handling 2000 farmers. So we put together a plan of expansion.

The youth in rural area is running towards the city for petty jobs. So we decided to open more DeHaat centres which would be run by these youth. We coined a term “Micro- Entrepreneur” for such youth. Instead of salaries they were given the command of one DeHaat centre each and they earned a share of profit as their income.

In 2014, we assembled all the data related to agriculture which we had accumulated with the four years of experience and created a database. We named it DeHaat technology.  From registration of farmers to data collection and field visits, it had an instruction for everything in it in a simplified manner to help the micro entrepreneurs. It came in the form of a mobile app to make it even more accessible. We have also made a farmer version of DeHaat App which was launched last year.

How is the DeHaat Application helping the farmers? 

Shashank Kumar: With this app, anybody can get access to our database. They can also ask for expert advice related to farming. The registered farmers get customized voice calls every week regarding the update on their crop. We have a toll free number 18002701420. As soon as we receive a call, the micro entrepreneur of the respective DeHaat centre reaches the location. He prepares a ground report and advises the farmer accordingly.

The mechanisation of agriculture in U.S. and western European countries has reached to 90% on an average, while we languish at 40%. What’s your take on Mechanisation in Agriculture Industry in India?

Shashank Kumar: I agree that there should be mechanisation in the agriculture sector; however we can’t compare ourselves with Western Europe or US. While farmers in those countries hold large amounts of land, our farmers have minimal land holding compared to them. So in country like ours, DeHaat type solutions are the best way forward.

In DeHaat, we provide best quality machines at rental services.  With that we take away the financial burden of owning a machine from the farmer; and other people can also get employment with such service providers.

What are the future plans and what’s the Road ahead for you?

Shashank Kumar: People always ask us one question, “Why did you choose Bihar when you had so many states to experiment with?” The first thing I tell them is; it’s my home. Then I say, “If you are agreeing to the fact that our model is successful in Bihar, where there are many hurdles, such as small land holdings, low connectivity, low Smartphone penetration etc. I am guaranteeing you that when we expand; we could be successful anywhere in the world!”

As of today, we have more than 66 DeHaat centres and 4 nodes (Regional Head Office) across Bihar. Nodes are present at Vaishali, Betiyan, Purnea and Samastipur. We are working on developing another node in Biharsharif. We also a have anode in Odisha. We are present in U.P as well.

We want to carry forward this momentum. In 2019, we would be entering Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. By 2021, we would be entering Andhra, Telangana and Karnataka. In terms of numbers,rght now we are working with 27 thousand farmers. We have set a target of working with 1million farmers by 2025.

Entrepreneurs don’t get enough encouragement from their family at the initial stage. You, having carved out a niche for yourself are a role model for those dreaming to begin their journey. What would be your message or advice to them?

Shashank Kumar: Result, result my friend! Result is the biggest perception changer. To bring a change in the mind set of people, you have to give them positive results. Your work can be very good, but it would have no effect until it brings out a change in the society. In Bihar, parents thrive on Prestige. Start-up has to reach a level where it can command respect in the eyes of people. For e.g. even when someone makes it to the IIT, the whole family gets excited, because of the recognition they get from the society. Similarly if start-ups start making it big, start getting the recognition, then I am sure mindset of parents would also change.  We along with many more people of Bihar are working in that direction. Hopefully 10 years down the line, you may find parents encouraging their pupil to follow DeHaat and create start-ups. But for now, people who believe in themselves and their ideas should follow their dreams.

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