Improving rural incomes and nutrition

First of all, I’d like to apologize for the very long and unusual break in posts on this blog. During the last few months I have been writing about my experiences and learnings in the agriculture sector, which I will share on this blog over the next few posts.

Earlier this year, I visited a nascent initiative by the Covenant Centre for Development (CCD), Madurai, to create a rural-to-rural vegetable supply chain.  Typically, most agriculture initiatives focus on building rural-to-urban supply chains. Their objective is to increase incomes of farmers and they believe that focusing on urban (or export) markets is the best way to do so.   Often, creating strong market linkages for agricultural produce reduces their availability in rural areas since the financial need to sell a commodity for cash is very high.

However, rural India also needs some of these high-value agricultural produce to be available locally, especially the more nutritious commodities such as vegetables, millets, milk and meats.  In villages, rural consumers have limited availability of vegetables and, whatever is available is often not fresh and of poor quality.  If we are to make a dent in the high incidence of malnutrition in India (about half the children in rural India are malnourished), it is essential for us create rural-to-rural supply chains which, while increasing farmer incomes, also increase nutritional choices in rural India.

CCD’s initiate is an exploratory step in this direction. While it is too early to talk about its impact, my team and I captured some of the ideas and insights from their initiative in the form of a case study for the benefit of other practitioners.  You can find the full case study here.

Soil nutrient management

Previously I have written about mobile-phone based personalized alerts for crop management offered by EkGaon Technologies founded by Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya. And about KC Mishra who is developing various software tools for helping farmers manage soil nutrients and select the right seeds. The software is available at his eKutir chain of shops run by micro-entrepreneurs.

And now, we hear that Re:char, a Kenyan company is creating a device called SoilIQ that would fit on an android phone and measure soil nutrients on the spot.

I wonder if these three could be combined to create an end-to-end solution for farmers.

  1. Soil testing using a device like Re:Char’s SoilIQ device
  2. Customized advisory on soil nutrient management through solutions such as eKutir’s tools or EkGaon’s research
  3. Soil nutrient management services via mobile SMS/calls through services such as EkGaon

Of course, there are still lots of issues that make the feasibility of such an end-to-end solution questionable:

SoilIQ measures only moisture content of soil. It is still in design phase. And, the cost of  such a combined service might be too high.  Plus, farmers’ may not be able to afford android devices.  But it is still interesting to imagine such a solution, perhaps leveraging a micro-entrepreneur or NGO as a service provider might solve some of these issues.

Given the deteriorating soil conditions in the country, it would be useful to have such information easily available, complete with advise on corrective measures not just for the macro fertilizers but also micro-nutrients for the soil.

As science begins to prove the link between nutrients in the soil, in the crops grown on these soils and in people who eat these crops, managing soil nutrients becomes an important tool for improving malnutrition in India.

Changing patriarchy through milk

Meera Bai and Kajori Bai
Meera Bai and Kajori Bai

I looked up in disbelief when I heard her say “I sent my daughter to Duni [a small town 15-20 minutes away] to study for her exams. We have rented a room for her in the town so that she can study without distraction.”
“You sent her there all by herself?” I asked, surprised that the resident of a tiny village in Rajasthan would take such a drastic step going against entrenched social norms against mobility and education of girls. “She is staying with other girls from her college”, the mother replied confidently even as she called to someone to go and deliver milk to her daughter on his way.

Kajori Bai lives in a village 80 km from the nearest city. Until 8 years ago she observed purdah and hesitated in speaking to men.  She was married at the age of 11 though allowed to complete schooling until 8th.

Her daughter is studying home science in college. Kajori is not planning to marry her 20 year old daughter just yet, although she already arranged the engagement some years ago, at the time of the older daughter’s wedding.  Narbada Bai, who lives in a nearby village also related a similar story concerning her thirteen year old who although engaged is also going to be allowed to finish 12th before being sent to the in-laws.

We met Meera Bai, 25, who convinced her husband to join a nursing course in Ajmer, while she herself works as a trained ‘pashu sakhi’ a para vet in her cluster of villages. She has travelled to Madhya Pradesh and interacted with women there on a trip organized by Srijan, an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya.

Four years into her marriage and she doesn’t have children yet.  She says, “My in-laws know the work that I am doing and how important it is.  They don’t put pressure any more. We will have children once we can stand on our own feet.” There’s no shy smile as she says this.  She speaks confidently and clearly.

All the women we met were affiliated with Srijan, which works on livelihood programs related to agriculture – cultivation and dairy – leveraging SHGs for creating village level structures and institutions.  They work almost exclusively through women.  According to Srijan team, when they started working on yield improvement programs for soya with male farmers, they realized that they had to do a lot of repetition and there was no cohesion in the farmer groups.  And they realized that much of the farm labor was provided by women. So they started leveraging SHGs for providing information about seed preparation, proper spacing, sowing of soya.  It was tough going at first.  It was difficult to convince people that if you plant only half as many seeds, your yield will be 20% higher.  But when one or two women tried it out on one ‘bigha’ of land and compared the yield, more women joined.

In milk collection, they also relied on SHG model for dissemination of good practices in care of milch animals.  And later launched an all woman pashu sakhi (para vet) program. It seems that mortality of buffaloes was a big issue in the area. With the help of pashu sakhis, who focus on health, hygiene and preventive care of buffaloes and goats, the mortality was reduced to only a single calf perishing in 12 months.

But there was a design behind all of this seemingly “purely” economic activity. The payment for milk deposited at collection centers is only given to the women (they have to come collect it). The receipt for soya deposited at collection centers is issued in the name of women. All records at Srijan are maintained in the womens’ names.

There are many reasons that Srijan, the non-profit founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya, has been able to bring about such change within 8 years of formation of the SHGs.  After having visited many such organizations and going through research on these topics, I believe that the reason Srijan has been able to achieve this has to do with the fact that the processes it has designed make it very clear to the women and everyone around them, that the extra income being brought home is due to the work of the household’s women.

The entire trip was one full of surprises.  While my colleague and I sat at Kajori Bai’s home discussing her work as SHG Federation president, as an operator of a milk collection center and as a ‘pashu sakhi’ (and many other roles), her mother-in-law quietly swept the courtyard and made tea for us. The father-in-law first sat near us, and then uncertain whether this was meant to be an SHG (therefore women members only) meeting, started moving away.  Someone from our meeting group told him that he can stay, it is only a discussion, not an SHG meeting.

When we enquired about Kajori Bai’s schedule for the rest of the day (she’d been with us from 7 in the morning), she said she had 3 more meetings to attend, one related to the SHG Federation, another relating to a visit to another SHG meeting (sort of like an inspection visit) and another in preparation for a PRA   to be conducted in a new village where they want to start an SHG.  She said that often people visit her with problems at their SHG, where she ends up resolving conflicts and such. Her schedule sounded as busy as any corporate CEO.

At Narbada Bai’s home and farm, we saw her husband sitting to one side and chopping green fodder for buffaloes, while Narbada Bai explained to us how she, an illiterate, keeps track of the dozens of animals under her care, as the village ‘pashu sakhi’.

Sunita Bai showing us fields
Sunita Bai showing us fields

At another household where we met soya farmers, the husband patiently hovered and waited during our discussion with about a dozen women, occasionally hovering but never interfering with his own ideas. Only once our discussion was over, he came across and sat down and started telling us about some of the services he provides to villagers as a Srijan service provider.

While all households might not be as emancipated as the three we visited, it is clear that these changes could not have been brought about if Srijan had followed more expedient ways of working. It may  have improved incomes for these families, but the processes, the new ways of thinking about agriculture, more scientific cultivation practices, and certainly the societal change relating to women’s stature would not have been possible.

One can only hope that now that the villagers understand a woman’s contribution to household and society, the next time a woman’s second child is also a baby girl she won’t name her Naraji (“upset”, as in “the gods are upset with us”) whom we met, or Mat-de Ram (“don’t give, Ram” as in “don’t give us more girls, god”) whom we heard about.

“I learnt how to talk to a security guard”

This was the response a 12-13 year old gave me when I asked her what she had learnt from the agriculture vocational training program at her school.

This answer was as unexpected as it was insightful.

I was visiting rural schools near Pune which participate in a program launched by Ashoka Fellow Sunanda Mane through her organization Lend A Hand India. The vocational training program covers four streams: Agriculture, Energy & Environment, Engineering (e.g. welding, drilling), Home/Health.

Student practicing welding

In Energy & Environment module they were learning about electrical circuits, switches and different types of wiring when I visited. One girl said she now felt confident that she could install a new bulb holder for her home.

In Engineering module, I saw girls practicing welding. One was quite nervous, but another (photo) handled it quite confidently. Apparently the kids have made some of the benches for their own and other schools.

In Home & Health, they had just finished making ‘chikki’ (peanut brittle), which they were all very excited about.

Farming as a business

In the Agriculture module of the training, the kids were in the process of planting marigold plants in preparation for the Dussehra season demand for these flowers.

Students field of marigold

The children were learning how to prepare the field, creating nurseries, how to plant etc.  But equally important, they were learning how to do backward planning – knowing when the flowers will be in demand and counting the cultivation period backwards to plant accordingly.  If the flowers bloom too early or too late – the crop wouldn’t earn much.

The children were learning how to keep proper accounts of purchases and to calculate total input costs. They were also learning how to calculate gross profits from the crop, by figuring out how many seeds were in the seed packet, what percentage actually generated plants, how many flowers did each plant give on an average and how much they could sell these for.

None of the children wanted to grow up to be farmers.  One boy admitted that “I want to be a doctor, but if I can’t become a doctor, I will have to be a farmer. And this training is useful – I will know how to do cultivation and selling of produce.”  Many other boys nodded in affirmation.

Children’s perspective 

Mini greenhouse

Most kids said that the most important thing they learnt through the vocational training program was ‘how to sell’ and how to calculate price – precisely the kinds of things the next generation of farmers need to become much better at.  Two girls said that they learnt how to talk to customers.

It was then, that another girl stood up and said, I learnt how to talk to a security guard so that he will let me in [to the industrial complex, instead of sending me away]”.  According to the instructor, the kids go in groups of 3-4 with one adult to sell flowers to the managers running the factories in the industrial complex nearby.

When asked which of the four modules they find the most fun, one boy (maybe 11) answered with Home & Health. His reason was that he enjoyed making chikki.  A girl stood up and said she enjoyed welding and making things.  The rest of the kid’ answers, predictably, followed more stereotypical gender roles.

Poster about soil testing

When I asked the kids if any of them had applied their agri-learnings on their family farms, most said that their parents wouldn’t listen to them. But one girl responded that she learnt about proper spacing of plants and told her parents, but they ignored her the first year. However, she persisted her father is now experimenting with the new plant spacing technique on their plot in this year’s crop.

The program seemed well designed and the instructors enthusiastic. The kids seemed to take away different things from the programs depending on their individual inclinations — learning some useful life-skills along the way.


Program Design

One day per week is dedicated to the LAHI curriculum.  Each day covers one of the four streams.  So the children come back to the first topic after a gap of 3 weeks.

The instructors are local farmers and entrepreneurs who are better educated. They are trained by LAHI in teaching and other program activities. I met several of the instructors — one agri instructor stood out in particular.  I could see he was really enjoying teaching the kids.

Perspective of School Teachers

I asked the school teachers: “Doesn’t this increase your burden”?  “Yes, but we enjoy our work more. We get to break the class room routine. It is interesting work.  The children also like the program for the same reason. They get to do different things that they can talk about at home.  Our school’s attrition  rate has dropped.” This last comment she added triumphantly. She seemed genuinely excited about this program as were the LAHI instructors.

The existing school teachers take responsibility for one program.  For example a math teacher had taken up the energy stream.  Another was responsible for the entire LAHI program.  The teacher coordinators have  to coordinate various activities with the instructor for her program, and also coordinate with other teachers and instructors for the remaining 3 streams.  In addition, many of the activities require trips outside of the school (to buy marigold seeds or ingredients for chikki, to sell the flowers, etc.).  The teachers escort the students on such trips.

Classroom ceiling decoration

Note: Program Design section updated March 2013

Building the energy industry sector

Every time I come across a new social enterprise, I find myself eyeing them with a healthy dose of skepticism because some of them fail to understand the real needs of their target populations, some are inherently unviable businesses, and some hardly qualify as businesses with a social objective.

Several years ago when I first heard about SELCO Solar, which provides lighting solutions to rural households, I had wondered about similar questions.

Last October, I happened to meet SELCO’s founder Harish Hande at an Ashoka workshop on rural innovations and farming.  Within an hour it was clear that he was someone operating on a different plane than the typical entrepreneur (social or otherwise).

Not a Technology Company

One of the first things that struck me about Harish’s approach was that from the beginning he insisted that SELCO is not a technology company.  He focused on the household and its needs rather than the technology.

He asked the question: what are the kinds of things that a rural household is willing to spend money on? Clearly, they spend money on family functions, pay for bus and train fares to attend weddings, and on buying household assets, however small they may be by urban standards. So what is the thing that makes a household spend on X but not on Y?

To answer this question, Harish lived in a village in Sri Lanka for six months as part of his Ph.D. work.  Later in India, he tried to answer the same question for households in rural Karnataka. He realized that one of the main reasons for households to spend on lighting is to enable them to continue income-generating activities such as weaving during the night.  Other households wanted lighting to enable their children to do homework.

Such insights into the purchase decisions were critical for not only the design of the product, but also its price and financing, as well as the business model he created for SELCO Solar.

Participant at CREAM training at SELCO, explain’s her team’s marketing poster to the whole class

Recently my TREE Society colleagues and I conducted a business management training (“CREAM”) for the managers of SELCO branches. This program focused on Finance, Sales and Marketing (For more about this program, see here and here).

This gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet the operations team of SELCO and develop a deeper understanding of their business.

We discovered that the pricing of the product was calculated based on substitution cost.  SELCO had calculated that the average spend per household on candles and kerosene for lighting was around Rs. 5 per day and estimated the current lighting budget of rural Karnataka households to be Rs. 150 per month.  Keeping this in mind, they designed lighting systems whose monthly installments would roughly match this amount.  By the way, I am not giving away any company secrets here – these calculations have been covered in previous case studies.

Why sell four lights when you can sell two?

The way any company goes about conducting its business says more about it than any amount of press coverage or awards.  At SELCO, while financial incentives for sales staff are tied only to total revenues, performance metrics also include the number of small power systems sold such as two-light systems (as opposed to the large value systems of 4 lights or more).  This discourages the sales staff from straying too far from the original mission of the company.

SELCO is now a 17 year old company with annual revenues of about $4 million and about 125,000 customers across Karnataka.

Along the way, they worked hard to get banks to recognize lighting as a sector worthy of bank loans.  Convincing the first bank was hardest, but the next few weren’t exactly easy either.  A big part of the sales process now involves helping the customers with the documentation process for securing a loan and building relationships with local bank branch managers for financing.

Growing the sector, beyond the business

The reason that SELCO wanted upskill their Branch Managers was because SELCO was undergoing a transition where the founders and other key members of the original team are leaving SELCO to start a sustainable energy incubator.

Over the last year or so, the company has been undergoing a planned succession from the original team to the next generation of leaders. This is very rare sight even in most large companies where founders remain closely involved with the business even after giving up formal positions.  At SELCO, both Harish Hande and Ashis Sahu (erstwhile COO) have handed over their responsibilities and have turned their attention to launching a pre-incubator in the sustainable energy sector.

Harish explained their thinking:  He believes that the growth and expansion of SELCO beyond Karnataka borders is best handled by the experienced senior managers of SELCO.  He himself will focus on identifying, encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs around the country to create many more sustainable energy enterprises.

In particular, they plan to focus on those entrepreneurs who do not have IIT/IIM degrees and international experience (who seem to constitute the vast majority of incubatees/investees of Indian incubators and venture funds). They want to reach out to non-English speaking entrepreneurs, help them create sound business plans, embed them in SECLO operations for several months to give them a clear idea of what running such an enterprises entails.  The first batch of entrepreneurs has started their journey.

And now they have embarked on their search for the next generation of entrepreneurs (read more here).

I will be watching them closely in the hopes of applying learnings from their efforts towards the agri-sector platform that I’m launching.

Personalized Alerts for Crop Cultivation

Imagine you are a farmer.  For slightly over Rs. 100, you subscribe to a service that sends to alerts for how much fertilizer to apply and when.  The service provider already knows about the GPS location of the farmland, the size of land, the crop, seed variety as well as when you planted the crop.  You get personalized alerts about farm preparation, seed treatment, fertilizer usage, weed management, etc. in the form of timed alerts. Someone from the company follows up with you to confirm the completion of the cultivation stage.  And you also get alerts when there is a release of water happening upstream, or there is a local outbreak of some pests.

That is the kind of highly personalized and localized alert service that EkGaon Technologies provides.

EkGaon Soil & Nutrient Advisory Alerts

The company was founded by Ashoka Fellow Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya.  According to him, the package of services are designed to increase productivity while decreasing production cost.  The service is so personalized to crop, seed variety, farm size, etc. that two neighboring farmers may get different information alerts.  EkGaon’s service is one of the best ones I have come across so far, which combines localized information with information customized based on details of the farm/crop to create a unified source for info/alerts that a farmer would find useful.

The service is currently available only in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, so the rest of the country has to wait till it scales further.