A farmer walks into the Organic Mandya store and puts a big bag of tomatoes and chillies on the table. The cashier weights it to be approximately 4.5 kg and 1.25 kg respectively and hands him a few crisp notes. The farmer pockets the money and walks away. The entire process took no less than six minutes. There were no delays, negotiations, middlemen or disappointments.
But Mandya wasn’t like this a year ago. In July 2015, more than 20 sugarcane farmers committed suicide. Perennially irrigated and verdant, Mandya is just about 100 km from Bengaluru. But the farmers are under the weight of heavy debt. Reports estimate that Mandya farmers owe banks Rs 1,200 crore in loans taken over the past year (2014-15). Government apathy, falling crop prices, excess stock and lack of guidance on proper farming techniques are the many reasons contributing to the grim scenario.
Disturbed by these prevailing conditions was 37-year-old MadhuChandan Chikkadevaiah, an IT professional living the life of dreams in California, but having roots in Mandya. Hailing from a family of farmers, Madhu was born in Mandya and spent his entire childhood in the sprawling 300 acres of University of Agriculture, Bengaluru, where his father retired as a Vice Chancellor. While Madhu went on to become a software engineer who worked across the globe, co-founded Verifaya Corporation that delivers automated software testing solutions to companies, he was always a farmer at heart.
In August 2014, he quit everything in less than a fortnight and came back to Mandya – to help the farming community flourish. He says,
In the entire world, the farmer is the only person who sells at wholesale but buys at a retail price.
He further explains,
Farmers are leaving their lands and migrating to cities in search of menial jobs. Lack of stability forces them to hop from one job to the other denying continued economic benefits. They are unable to take care of themselves and their families; eventually getting in to heavy debts and suicide. It’s a vicious cycle, albeit one which can be prevented. That’s what Organic Mandya set out to do – give farmers a prosperous, healthy life so that no one leaves the profession.
The seeds of Organic Mandya
When Madhu moved to Mandya, the first thing he noticed was a scattered landscape. There were many farmers who had shifted to organic methods, and practising indigenous techniques that were giving them decent yields. Yet, there were glaring gaps – lack of an organised market and information exchange.
Madhu’s first step was to gather passionate individuals (friends and ex-colleagues) who pooled in Rs 1 crore and he registered Mandya Organic Farmers Cooperative Society, bringing together nearly 240 organic farmers in the first phase. It took him eight months to complete all the government formalities and also establish Organic Mandya – the brand under which farmers will sell their produce.
We dabbled with many ideas – starting a chain of organic shops in Bengaluru, or an e-commerce website, tying up with restaurants and selling the produce. But none would allow farmers to directly interface with the customers. And to me, that was a priority. Until a customer realises the value of efforts the farmer puts in and a farmer understands customer priorities, farming will never be in vogue.
Madhu decided to leverage the Mandya Highway that connects Bengaluru and Mysuru, and he was convinced that travellers would stop by to buy his produce. To further enthuse people, he started an organic restaurant next to the shop. He says,
My strategy was that travellers will stop to have food and end up walking into the shop to buy their weekly groceries. But after a month or so, the trend reversed. People would first stop at our shop and that was fulfilling.