Age of eFarming is here

eFarm co-founder Venkat Subramanian stands barefoot on the ground floor of a three-storey building, pointing energetically to neatly sorted piles of potatoes, onions and coconuts.

“This is our Wipro, our Infosys and Tata,” Subramanian says, gesturing at each in turn. “We have top business school graduates who plot their prices like they’d analyse the stock market, which is how we can guarantee a good price to our clients.”

Around him, men in brown uniforms are sorting through blue and red milk crates of produce, carefully picking out the spoiled specimens and arranging the rest by size and quality.

“We treat everyone in our distribution chain like they’re from the Fortune 500—whether they’re a big hotel chain or a farmer,” Subramanian says.

A former architect and information technology professional-turned entrepreneur, Subramanian co-founded eFarm with his wife Srivalli Krishnan to address one of the biggest challenges affecting Indian farmers—a broken supply chain.

The Chennai-based start-up streamlines the rural-to-urban supply chain through a combination of technological innovations and on-the-ground logistics while providing farmers the tools to help them improve the quality of their produce and reliability of their yields, allowing them to earn higher profits.

It does so by networking with local non-governmental organizations and agricultural universities to get farmers up-to-date information on farming techniques, training and access to reliable labour pools.

Currently, Subramanian explains, the bulk of India’s agricultural produce reaches the consumer through an unreliable and informal chain of middle men, each of whom takes a cut of the proceeds, leaving farmers vulnerable to exploitation and resulting in unstable prices and unreliable quality.

“Farmers’ problems begin the moment their harvest ends,” says Subramanian.

“When I was in the US, I saw that India has the potential to apply the same sort of technology and processes that are used in the US to some of the basic issues here in India—and that it could be profitable,” he says.

His solution was eFarm, which, only in its third year, has broken even. Subramanian estimates it will start generating profit from November.

eFarm is one of a growing number of Indian businesses that are adopting models to generate a social return—traditionally the realm of NGOs, strategic philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives—while also turning a profit.

eFarm founder Subramanian found he was able to radically increase productivity by using low-cost technical solutions and tapping an underused pool of talent—people with disabilities.

One of his first stumbling blocks was finding people to staff his back-end operations. “No good IT graduates were interested in working for an agricultural start-up,” he says.

So he hired highly trained people who also happened to have disabilities. His office manager Rajender is blind, as is his computer programmer, using inexpensive voice-reading software to help read emails and work online. A number of staff—coconut shuckers—for example—have polio.

“I find them to be much more productive and loyal, and they inspire the rest of my staff,” Subramanian says.

While the concept of shared value may have originated in the West, Indian companies may be uniquely positioned to adopt it as a business strategy

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Posted on November 21, 2011, in Business and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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