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Supply Chain
The Human-Digital Platform Curating the Future of Food

As we get ready to select our semi-finalists for the 2018 Sustainable Brands Innovation Open, we wanted to check in with last year’s semi-finalists to learn about the impacts they continue to have on the business world. Here, we catch up with eKutir Global.

As we get ready to select our semi-finalists for the 2018 Sustainable Brands Innovation Open, we wanted to check in with last year’s semi-finalists to learn about the impacts they continue to have on the business world. Here, we catch up with eKutir Global.

eKutir Global is a US-based Public Benefit Corporation (and the first B Corp-certified organisation in India) whose digital technologies and data science provide a first-of-its-kind human-digital marketplace. Through a continuous stream of data points and information, eKutir’s platforms have helped create more efficient markets for smallholder farmers, with proven increases in productivity, income and dramatic cutbacks in waste. The products are developed on a SaaS platform tailored to the environmental constraints typical of BoP (Base of the Pyramid) markets.

Through a decentralized network of micro-entrepreneurs, eKutir’s platform converts an exploitative and fragmented agricultural system into a collaborative and connected soil-to-sale model. We caught up with CEO and co-founder Suvankar Mishra to hear about how the platform has evolved and its impacts to date.

Your FarmChalo platform now offers three data-driven services — Khyeti (farming), Haat (marketing) and Farm (credit/risk scoring). Can you tell us a bit about each product?

Suvankar Mishra: FarmChalo is a digital platform with a mobile front-end used to engage with farmers and a web-enabled back-end to aggregate data and transactions, and enable interactions with markets and financial institutions. It offers three sub-platforms – Khyeti, Haat and FARM.

Each of these sub-platforms has been designed to address the complete agri value chain, keeping the farmer at its nuclues. The platform captures farmer details; the data profiles the farmer and personalizes it for recommending use of inputs, buyers and practices through the cropping cycle. Both Khyeti and Haat provide a marketplace for linking input companies and buyers to farmers. The Smart Farming & Smart Trading allows intelligent, time-bound and contextualized decision-making for farmers and is offered as a subscription for a nominal fee.

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Khyeti – Data-driven Farming

This is a one-stop solution for pre-harvest needs, where both products and services are comprehensibly available and provided through a single point of sale. Khyeti captures and personalizes farmer details, as mentioned above; in addition, our Smart Farming Modules help farmers with everything from resource and crop planning to risk mitigation, seed selection, soil management, and integrated pest and disease management.

Haat – Data-driven Markets

Haat allows farmers to access markets both in urban and rural areas. It covers four parts of marketing [applicable only for vegetables, now] and will be extended to other crops, subsequently; the platform connects all the major stakeholders (sellers, retailers, agents) in the post-harvest industry. First, it connects the buyers and sellers with each other. The agent (aggregator/micro-retailer) enters the information on the farmers’ behalf, which details the quotation for their produce for spot, future and discounted trading. The retailer puts an online quotation for a commodity and then searches for a seller. After identifying one, the buyer and seller are connected to initiate the transaction. Similarly, the platform also links retailers and sellers with the local cold storages, warehouses and logistics providers; and it is enabled with geo-spatial tracking so that the entire supply chain is made transparent end-to-end.

Haat organises the agro trading into three categories:

  • Spot Market – a digital marketplace for vegetables immediately after harvest. The platform connects all major post-harvest stakeholders.
  • Future Market – a digital marketplace for ease of selection of crops from multiple reliable farmers or sellers. Perishable crops can be sold at fixed interval to avoid post-harvest damages.
  • Discounted Market – a digital marketplace for the buying and selling of unsold or lower-grade vegetables that are therefore wasted, causing major losses to everyone in the supply chain.

FARM – Data-driven Farm Credit Scores

Data and interactions enabled on Khyeti and Haat in syndication with third-party data sets helps generate statistically reliable FARM scores. The primary data asset used by FARM is the data collected on the FarmChalo platform, including plot soil quality; crop history; whether plot is irrigated; inputs used (herbicide, pesticide, seeds, fertilizer); crop quality and yields; size of plot; crop revenue by cycle; whether or not crops are financed; amount and repayment history for financing; and behavioral data about the farmer (age of account, frequency of payment, compliance with crop advice, growth in yield over pre-relationship period). FARM supplements the proprietary data asset with third-party data from public and private sources. Using machine learning, FARM will create a self-perpetuating, intelligent scoring system for small farmers to identify their credit worthiness and for financial institutions to underwrite credit.

Lenders’ perceived risk is a big deterrent for financial access to farmers and a great economic opportunity for insurance companies seeking to cover farmers in a formal insurance market. FARM helps financial institutions assess the credit and risk profiles of farmers and provide a risk-mitigation term sheet for loan disbursal. With a risk-mitigated lending system, the portfolio of the bank will be healthy, removing constraints for investment into the agriculture ecosystem.

How is the eKutir platform helping usher agriculture towards a more sustainable model? How are the apps helping equip farmers for climate change and an unpredictable future?

Climate change contributes to seasonal shifts, erratic weather patterns and extreme weather events, which severely affects farmers. In my personal interactions with small farmers in India, they have expressed that “untimely weather events have destroyed crops and taken away their incomes. And the low penetration of agriculture insurance further creates an exacerbating effect during these events, as the crops are not insured and the farmers are unable to meet their returns.” Through eKutir’s platform, we try to address this through a two pronged approach; (i) allow farmers to grow productively in an intelligent manner; and (ii) enable the agri ecosystem to respond objectively using data-driven insights to provide timely measures to safeguard the farmer, in time of unavoidable losses.

The former enables a balance amongst soil and water use for crop growth, while the latter enables the farmer to get their fair returns and continue to sustain themselves for the next season, so that farming becomes a continual activity.

eKutir is a multi-sided platform enabling farmers, input companies, buyers and financial institutions to best access inputs, manage business, and enable transactions. It is driven by micro entrepreneurs and enabled by technology, lowering costs and augmenting scalability. And every stakeholder (agents, suppliers, farmers, banks) leverages its core competency, retains value, and makes the solution sustainable and replicable.

The technology model also helps in providing data and information to farmers for sustainable land management, soil analysis, crop recommendation, nutrient management, avoiding crop diseases, promoting organic farming and precision agriculture, leading it towards a more sustainable model. Over time, it creates potential for this system to make a substantial impact by increasing returns on investment and reducing transaction costs throughout a wide range of value chains. In particular, the model is designed in a way in which micro-entrepreneurs are trained on technological solutions that allow them to train farmers and other beneficiaries on best practices; and to provide them with personalized, market-driven solutions to create sustainable models in agriculture.

Where is your software currently in use? Why these markets?

With earlier versions of the software, eKutir had worked with 287 users reaching 70,000 farmers. These users were acquired on a project basis, linked with different developmental institutions and partners, and provided eKutir with avenues to learn and understand through iterations the need-gap-cost-value of a digital application/platform in smallholder communities. To test and iterate the acceptability of providing digital-enabled and data-driven services to the farmers, eKutir worked with its own base in Odisha and with partners in Bihar, Maharashtra, Bangladesh, and Cambodia.

Two critical learnings from the past iterations were; (i) To drive stickiness to the users and reduce the churn rate; and (ii) To provide farmer-specific products and services on an unified platform, instead of multiple applications, which makes it tedious for farmer and user. Based on this feedback and learnings, eKutir revamped its technology and business model to curate an integrated platform, and target users and farmers with a holistic ecosystem of products and services. Post-pivot (June 2017), eKutir is actively working across India and Nepal and has acquired upwards of 300 users and reached out to 6,000 new farmers.

The rationale behind working in these markets is driven by two factors; (i) Contribution of agriculture to economic growth of the nation; and (ii) One-fourth of the global smallholder population is based between India and Nepal.

eKutir has an agenda for incremental growth to multiple emerging countries. We have started a pilot for Agri Value Chain development in Haiti in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and are in mature-level discussions for engaging across LatAm and a couple of nations in Africa within the next five years. According to a study conducted by IFPRI and McGill University, farmers who worked with eKutir cut their costs by 50 percent and increased their productivity by as much as 75 percent. This enabled them to earn twice the profits relative to farmers who did not work with eKutir. In some pilots, eKutir has raised the income levels of farmers 200 percent and increased yield 150-170 percent whilst digitally enabling 400+ micro-entrepreneurs and impacting about 70,000+ farmers.

Consumers are increasingly demanding that businesses be more transparent. How does your technology help companies do this?

The next step in eKutir’s technology growth is based on aligning the platform to use blockchain and Ethereum Smart Contracts, which remain at an exploratory stage. The actual application and its alignment with eKutir’s platform will be understood through a series of tests to be carried through 2018-19.

Do you see your products as an asset to certification bodies/farmers seeking certification?

Absolutely! eKutir’s products and services are curated, tried, tested and scaled over a decade. eKutir valuates its products and services on par with the market standards and quality, and has been proactive in seeking partnerships and collaborations with certification bodies/organisations. As a B Corp, eKutir seeks to further “reinforce [their] philosophy to do good for [their] customers, clients, and community, whilst challenging and pushing the status quo to creating equitable lives for people in low-income markets.”

An independent report published by Deloitte (circa August 2017) highlights eKutir as one of the 20 social enterprises that are reaching into the interiors of low-income/BoP communities.

Can you speak to the growing role of technology in agriculture and why it is so important for smallholder producers?

The expansion of digital infrastructure and mobile technologies is vital for agricultural development, globally. Mobile technologies allow smallholder farmers to make and receive payments, access loans, obtain tailored information on seed and input selection and availability, better receive weather forecasts, gain optimum farming practices through information and hotlines and improve negotiation leverage at the time of sale. Mobile payments scan also enable governments to provide targeted subsidies to farmers. If approximately 275-350 million farms gain access to mobile-based services by 2030, 250–500 million more tonnes of food could be produced and 20–65 million fewer tonnes of food lost. The total additional income would be US$100-200 billion, an increase of 3–6 percent of the total production value. The environmental impacts would also be considerable: 50-100 fewer megatonnes of CO2 equivalent and 40–100 billion cubic metres less water use.

Over time, there is potential for this system to make a substantial impact by increasing returns on investment and reducing transaction costs throughout a wide range of value chains. According to research from Tufts University, the expansion of personalized, digitally enabled services on a large scale could eventually “change the dynamics of how food is produced and how interactions with small farmers happen across the globe.”

The future of food can be secured by smallholder farmers, and technology (digital and hardware) has to align to play a pivotal role as an enabler of the new paradigm of agri development.

I call this the human-digital platform for curating the future of food.