YourStory recently caught up with Chandra Sekhar Reddy, Founder of Rural Bridges, to understand what it takes to build benchmark tech products for Rural India.Tell us a little bit about Rural Bridges.
Rural Bridges(http://ruralbridges.com) has been around for eight months now. The objective is essentially to understand how to add more value to lives of rural Indians. We picked up a couple of avenues where we thought maximum value can be added. One, was to bring technology to rural India in general, and start with agriculture in particular. Another space where we thought we could add value, is in skill building in rural India. So essentially, the genesis was to bridge the gap that exists between urban and rural India in terms of quality of life and opportunities. Most people in rural India rely on agriculture, the problems they face are very well documented and the methods that they apply are rudimentary and not much technology infusion has happened in the last few decades. So we aim to bring technology to rural India and also ensure that the rural Indians are gainfully employed by developing their skill sets.
With that perspective, we set up two companies, one is Rural Bridges, and the other one is EduBridge. The name Rural Bridges because we are trying to bridge the gap between the two Indias. Rural Bridges takes technology to rural India, whereas EduBridge focuses on building skill sets. Both the companies are up and running. EduBridge being a services company had a faster take off and EduBridge is one of the very few companies that received funding from NSDC(National Skill Development Corporation). While at Rural Bridges, we look at technologies that exist in the urban context, and tweak them according to the needs in rural context.
Why did you start Rural Bridges? Tell us about your moment of obligation.
Essentially all of us(the founding team) are from rural backgrounds. We have been fortunate to have gone to IITs and IIMs, and we have worked in the best of corporates. We have noticed that, the biggest danger to the society is the disparity that is being created in the country. In my perspective, the rich in India are richer than rich elsewhere and the poor in India are poorer than poor elsewhere. So we started looking at avenues as to how to bridge the gap and contribute to the society. Because we believe, unless we start bridging the gap between the two Indias, as a society we are going to fail. And to address this issue, to bring opportunity and needy people together, we started Rural Bridges.While globally we are being recognized as technologically strong country, technology hasn’t really permeated to places where most Indians get their livelihood from. We felt that taking technology to these areas could be a great facilitator, and one has to understand the technologies that exist in urban context and tweak them accordingly to make processes efficient in farming, preservation, supply chain and etc.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Share with us your educational background and previous work experience.
I did my engineering at REC Warrangal and did my masters at IIM Lucknow, then I worked at Procter and Gamble, which is where my first significant engagement with rural India has been, because I was a project leader in one of the projects for distribution to 18,000 villages in rural India. I extensively toured in the country, and understood how is it that we can take businesses to rural India and how to make them sustainable and scalable. I later worked at McKinsey for a couple of years as a management consultant. Post which, I have relocated to Bangalore for personal reasons and have been around for one and a half years now. I work at Rural Bridges and EduBridge, while I have a day job elsewhere. I work in a telecom company as VP of corporate strategy.
The second co-founder Rajasekhar, is also a CS engineer, he worked for 10 years in Cisco, and quit his job to run the company full-time. Third co-founder Girish and I supplement in areas we can add value. Girish is from IIM Bangalore. He has previously worked with P&G and Edelweiss. Girish is from IIM Bangalore. Rajasekhar takes care of technology and operations part of it, I handle the marketing part of it and Girish handles the strategic partnerships part of it.
Since how long have you been operational? Where are you based?
We have been around since past eight months. We are based in Bangalore.
What is the team size? Are you looking at hiring?
We are currently 9 people. And, yes we are looking at hiring. Now that our first product has been successfully field tested and received a great response, we are looking to hire a couple of marketing resources. We are looking at someone with rural management background. We are open to marketing interns as well.
What are the services/products that you offer?
The first product that we are launching is called KisanShakti. Essentially, it helps farmers operate their agricultural equipment from anywhere. They can operate pumps and mortars from anywhere via land-line or mobile phones. It is a GSM based product. What we have done before coming up with this product is, we understood what are the pain points of farmers while they try to operate motors/pumps. As the power supply in the rural India is very irregular, the farmers have to go late nights, early mornings whenever the power is available to operate their equipment.
Equally serious issue is the quality of power, because a lot of times there is an undue pressure on the grid due to which quality of power is a suspect and direct consequence of which is that failure of critical equipment at times, for example your motor gets burned because instead of three phase only two phase power was available and etc. So from a farmer’s perspective, we tried to understand what is that farmer exactly needs. The most basic feature is to obviously be able to switch on and switch of the motor, then we did a focused group study after which we came with the set of features that they need that will make the product more valuable to the farmers. What our device ensures is that all the fault conditions are checked, and only then the motor can be started.
How did you fund-raise? Do you have plans to fund-raise?
As of now, we have put in funds from our own pockets. However, we are planning to raise funds. Because we are a product company and unless we have enough volume to justify the product need, it is difficult to raise funds. So we feel three to six months is probably the right time to raise funds.
What is your revenue model?
Obviously, we sell our products. We also have a fairly innovative way of generating ad revenue from this product. Three to six months down the line, we would have a network of farmers from all over India. Once we have a database of all the farmers that we work with, we can reach out to the farmers or inform them about new offers from fertilizers companies and seed companies etc. So, once we have say a 10,000 farmer base, we have a lot of potential to generate ad revenue.
What is your outreach model?
Some of it is confidential as we are not yet full-fledged in the market. But, the most obvious way is through a set up of distributors and super distributors. We have participated in two agricultural fests, one in Karnataka and one in Andhra. And the response has been phenomenal. As of now, we have 40 to 50 distributor applications. But, we are exploring two other options as well. We are currently talking to a couple of telecom providers. If you look at companies like Airtel, Vodafone which are trying to add a lot of value to the rural customer.
For example, Airtel is doing a co-branded service to provide information related to agriculture to rural customers. These telecom companies are inclined to partner with companies who are interested in delivering services to rural India. So the idea is to bundle the equipment along with the sim card. We are also looking at partnerships with a couple of micro-finance institutions. Essentially, we don’t want to add much cost to the distribution channel, as the objective is to take products to the farmer at the lowest possible cost.
Who are your competitors?
There is no single big competitor, there are some very basic models of this product in market now. It depends on how we define our product, if we define it as a basic remote controller that is used to control the motor then we have competitors. But, if you define the product with all the features we are offering, then there is no competitor. There is a company called Nano Ganesh, based out of Pune, and I believe there are in the market and are selling from two to three years at least. But, I don’t think they are very big, because if you look at the number of pump sets available in each state, the market is huge, which is still untapped. There are no big competitors, but, Nano Ganesh is considered as a pioneer in this space, as they are the ones who came first with a basic version of this equipment.
What is your competitive advantage?
I would say with this product we have been able to address the exact pain points of the farmers. The product is a controller of agricultural motor and a lot more. The farmer would appreciate the thought process that has gone into making the product, because the product not only controls, but, also safeguards the motor which is a big advancement in the rural market. Second is that, we believe we have a thorough understanding of the rural supply chain, because of which we think that we would be able to take the product to the end user at a far less price than the competitors.
What are your biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge is cost, we have been trying to understand the cost of the system for the farmer, when we started working on the product, we wanted to keep it between 3000 to 4000 Rupees, but, we have still not been able to, as it is a big trade off between cost and reliability. So it is a trade off between how robust you build the product and whether you have a network of service providers for maintenance support. We have still not been able to reach our price point. We have a price currently based on the cost of the equipment and etc. And even at the current price point the interest seems to be pretty good, but, we are still working towards our initial objective which around 3,500 Rupees.
We are done with the pilot, we have what we call a scalable model, we just signed our contract with our bulk manufacturer and we started taking orders from the distributors. In four to six weeks, our product would be available in the market.
As an entrepreneur, share with us your successes and failures.
There are two ways of looking at it, from Rural Bridges point of view, it is too early to call it a success or a failure. So far, the product has come out really well, the response has been really good and encouraging. My only other entrepreneurial experience has been with EduBridge. EduBridge is slightly older because we can market a services company faster. From skill building perspective, we had huge interest from Indian Angel Network, we had huge amount of interest from NSDC. Eventually, we opted to take funding from NSDC, primarily because of the Govt. network that they can provide to us. I believe there are only 24 companies that are funded by NSDC. A lot of big corporates like sentum and manipal group got funded by NSDC, so in that context for a startup by just the three of us, to be able to get funded by the same platform is a success. We already raised a million dollars. So from that perspective, it has been been a great journey so far. But, there are constraints in my personal life, because entrepreneurship is a 24/7 commitment. It is slightly difficult to de-stress and relax. But, thankfully because of the network that we have been able to build in the colleges we went to, like IIM network and MCKinsey network, which have been very forthright in offering help to us. So the journey so far has been smooth, but, the real test for rural bridges is going to come in the next three to four months.
Where do you see Rural Bridges a couple of years down the line?
We already have a road map of products that we want to develop. Over the coming years, we what we are looking at is to build a large scale rural networks between both Rural Bridges and EduBridge, which we will leverage to provide both services and products to rural India. We have a pipeline of 4-5 products coming in, which we think will take us three years for completion. We also have a small focused group on renewables. We are doing our research on how to take renewable energy to rural Indians in terms of house lighting and in terms of providing large scale employment. In three to five years we would definitely see that 4-5 products for rural market have been rolled out from our portfolio.
What kind of support are you looking for from YourStory’s readers?
At this point of time, we are looking to hire marketing resources. We are also very happy to collaborate with people to work in rural context. Because the biggest challenge for everyone right now is to bring down the cost of supply chain. For example, if there is a company, that sells a non-competing product in rural India, then it makes a lot of sense or for us to collaborate with them and do a distribution tie-up to bring down the cost.
We are open to people coming in as volunteers and working on product development. We are currently trying to build an incubator kind of a set up, where we will focus on multiple product development activities. So if there are experts in particular area interested in product development for rural India we are always happy to help them.
We at YourStory wish success to Rural Bridges team. We hope they continue innovating and coming up with products that make lives better in rural India.
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