Venkat Subramanian and Valli, Founders, eFarm and Matchbox Solutions

Working on an “eFarm”
They say the “Real India” lives in the villages, and who typifies rural life more than the Indian farmer, toiling with age old techniques and breaking his back trying to make a living, conjuring up images of hapless farmers praying to the rain gods. When we speak of agriculture, most of us have no idea how the food on our table came to be, and farming as an industry sounds backward and volatile to, well almost everyone. Indian agriculture and the Indian Farmer have met its messiah in Venkat Subramanian. But do not take my word for it read on and judge for yourself…

Yourstory met up with Venkat who has decided to bring Indian farming to the new millennium. With 12 years of experience in IT/Software in several leading Indian Software Consulting firms in techno-commercial roles Venkat crossed over to entrepreneurship. Launching his company “eFarm” in 2008 he aims to build a nationwide agri-supply chain network platform, and enable fair, efficient, reliable business across the community. He hopes that collectively we can make agriculture a self sustaining business, and not remain dependent on government subsidies and loan waivers for survival. This would also further help to curtail inflation and erratic fluctuations in perishables & commodities in the retail market.

Venkat explains what “eFarm” intends to do, he says “the Indian agri-industry lacks an efficient, reliable end-to-end supply chain system for sourcing, distribution and marketing. “eFarm” aims to fill this gap. We want to ‘connect-the-dots’ to build a network of suppliers, intermediaries and buyers, bridging the online and offline world through an innovative business strategy which is simple, low cost, efficient yet scales very rapidly. To give a simple analogy, our business model is: “eBay” meets the “Dubba- wallahs” focused on farm produce.

The proposition sounds exciting on paper but it only gets better from thereon.

“eFarm” will touch all stakeholders in the agri-supply chain – farmers, transporters, retail buyers (branded and localized), exporters, institutional buyers(canteens etc.,), food & hospitality providers, exporters . Ultimately, it also reaches end customers who can hope to see fresher produce, wider varieties at cheaper prices. Since 70% of India is directly dependent on agriculture, even a small improvement in the efficiency of the system would impact a wider audience.

Venkat explains why the venture is different and why it will work where others have failed. Venkat says “Fundamentally we are a social enterprise. Our vision is to:-

  • Bring people together through creative use of technology platforms (‘connecting the dots’) to form socio-economic-webs
  • Create successful entrepreneurial, social enterprises which are profitable and sustainable
  • Make corporate and social responsibility our core business model and differentiator
  • Measure success not just in terms of financial growth, but also the social growth in the areas we serve

This model doesn’t replace or threaten livelihoods of the unorganized sector, which is currently involved in this trade. Rather it’s a reorganization of the system which will enable better functioning. “eFarm” would not and does not own any direct assets or farms – all are individually owned and operated on a  ‘partnership service model’. Believing in the adage that ‘Small drops make an ocean’- the ability to reach and include even the smallest supplier/buyer through the network and create a common eco-system will allow them to harness the vast potential of the Indian farmer

The processes are made simple to understand and accessible for lay men. Most of their customers can interact with eFarm’s systems through just a phone, sms or through their call centre. High end customers can access up-to-date information through portals and mobile devices.

“eFarm” does not hire staff but recruits and empowers ‘entrepreneurs’ and promotes self employment through partnering with existing microfinance while generating employment for the under privileged as well

Using both the online and offline model Venkat plans to scale upwards. The internet provides an efficient means to reach out to his urban customers. Offline models like micro finance, self help groups, gram panchayats, government agri agencies will help reach out to a wider audience.

Yourstory was curious to know why he chose such a volatile sector over a stable job. Venkat replied “I had a “been there done that” feeling. Secondly, I had a fire in my belly that the technical and business knowledge I gained can be put to better use than making boring ppts and responding to chain emails. Thirdly, an overriding fact that software or IT technology alone cannot survive unless it has sound businesses models behind it, motivated my decision. There are craving needs right in our own backyard that one doesn’t have to search too far for a suitable ‘niche’ space to play.”

Venkat had a bit of a task unlearning all his years of corporate ‘wisdom’, especially when working at the grass root level. His challenge was breaking several of his personal myths about poor people, illiteracy v/s common sense, and revising the ‘real’ ambitions of the dwellers at the bottom of the pyramid.

Describing everyday as a learning experience, he says “The biggest learning has been to not approach the poor or under privileged as if ‘I am trying to help them’. They are fairly competent and can figure out how to survive. Just because I seemed to have better job prospects, did not mean they would adapt to it. Only when you treat them as equals, and actually live their lives will they treat you with respect and willingly work with you.” 

Venkat regrets not having made the jump sooner. He waited for 12 years to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. But nevertheless, he says “the corporate world has taught me a lot about resilience, confidence, and broadened my range of expertise to better equip myself for this ‘one-man-show’ ”.

He initially put his own money into “eFarm”. Some of his customers and clients also pitched in. Friends and alumni lent a helping hand, till the entry of some serious investors reduced the pressures of financing.

“eFarm” just recently completed their formal 6 months of pilot operations. They are already generating revenue and a slender profit on specific transactions. Since agriculture is basically “cash & carry”, they generated revenue right from day 1 of operations. They are hoping to reach a 2 crore turnover in 2 years and the future looks bright. 

Venkat is proud of having taken on a vague concept like “e-Farm”, in a field which was non-existent, with very little past experience in agriculture. He considers it an achievement after gaining a lot of ground and respect in the community. 

“eFarm” has gathered a few accolades along the way with Nominations in TATA NEN hottest startup. The Govt of India’s Dept of Science & technology and ICRISAT, Hyderabad have identified them for a TePP grant and have offered incubation facilities.

They also took 2nd place in IIM-Kozhikode Business plan contest (Whiteknight 09)

And were Finalists in the IIM Ahmedabad Leverage showcase 2009 and Anna University business plan contest

Venkat has also given thought to the turbulence in his sector he says “Rising vegetable prices and deteriorating conditions for farmers is a double edged sword. It needs a lot of focus, passion, drive and hard work to help fix this issue. We feel we have the right talent and attitude to move the mountain. We believe that to meet any social objective it is vital to also bring in a business objective to help achieve sustainable results. We believe that we can reach and include even the smallest of supplier/buyer through the network and build volume.”

“eFarm” is highly entrepreneur driven and promotes self employment through SHG/microfinance at all levels. We are not re-inventing the wheel, just connecting the dots/spokes in existing infrastructure & models to achieve our goals. We adapt and adopt technology to suit the needs and requirements of our smallest to our largest of customers to use the system with equal ease. Life is a roller coaster. But at least, by being your own boss, you know when to step on the accelerator and when to just glide.” 

By 2010 “eFarm” plans to “standardize the agri sourcing, delivery & distribution process” plus “Build a portal to facilitate direct end to end trading in agri produce”

And all this while stabilizing prices and improving availability. The end goal they say is to make our farmers and end customers happy. Our growth lies in their growth

 Yourstory asked Venkat if he had any lessons to pass on from his experiences. He says “I find 2 types of mistakes amongst budding entrepreneurs. Some jump in too early, without proper industry/work experience. They say “I can’t work under somebody, so I started on my own”. Well, a good leader is also a good follower. With such attitude, how do you expect others to work ‘under you’?”

“The other type , are those who have got too accustomed to the conveniences of a regular monthly pay check and always cat on the wall about the ‘right time’ to quit. Well, you can spend as much time in the gym and tread mill preparing for the race, but unless you jump in the field and run the race , you will never know if you are ‘Olympics’ material”

“So, my mantra is – work in a few firms, even if they are not directly related to your interests. Running a business, at end of day is about ‘making money’. So sometimes it is important to strip away the emotional elements and focus on fundamentals. That way, the day you are ready, you are already successful from day 1.” Wise words from Venkat, Yourstory hopes that his hard earned lessons serve him in good stead and wish him, and his farmer’s working on the “eFarm” good luck for the coming years.