Coimbatore-based VilFresh is bringing fresh-from-the-farm food and milk products to urban consumers at village prices, raising farmers’ income and creating jobs for rural youth.
In a country where agriculture is said to be the bedrock of livelihood opportunities, one that employs 50 percent of the workforce, the irony is that agriculture is also the sector plagued by the highest number of problems.
Impoverished farmers, exhausted soils, exorbitant input costs, uncertain weather conditions, depleting groundwater levels, and loopholes in marketing structure have led to overall low returns, making a much less lucrative sector for India’s rural youth to invest and work in.
Agricultural production remains sluggish and with multiple middlemen involved, food costs are rising every year.
The problems do not end here since much of India’s urban population ends up consuming adulterated milk and food products, which makes them vulnerable to health hazards.
In the midst of these negative perceptions and challenges of creating an alternative, optimism fuels Laymen Agro Ventures, which is working to change perceptions and reinvent agriculture as an economically viable and sustainable enterprise.
Launched in 2016 by Selvakumar Varadharajan, Laymen Agro started VilFresh with the aim to provide the people of Coimbatore with “village fresh” unadulterated agro and milk products at their doorstep while empowering farmers and rural youth.
Going back to the roots
Selva, 36, hails from a typical rural Tamil medium background and pursued a bachelor’s degree in arts and a master’s degree in finance and control from SNMV, Coimbatore. He went on to do his M Phil in management from Periyar University, Salem.
Passionate about nurturing young entrepreneurs and leaders to empower young India, he has played a key role in providing employment to 2,000-plus youths across sectors by increasing their disposable income drastically.
Born into an agricultural family, Selva also practiced farming until he decided to pursue graduation.
“Since I was in Class 6, I had been playing the role of market connector for our agro products. As a child, I encouraged my grandfather to sell the directly to the end consumers in the nearby town where I was doing my schooling . When the selling price of tomatoes was Rs 12 per kg in the town, we used to get a 15 kg basket in the mandi for Rs 80. I used to carry greens and vegetables on my cycle to sell in town, channelising 100 percent of consumers’ price to my grandfather's pocket,” he recalls.
Fresh produce returned to his mind when Selva, then working and residing in Bengaluru, and his wife had a daughter. After two years, when the doctor asked them to get the child started on outside milk, Selva and his wife worried that the milk they were getting wasn’t the same quality as in their villages.
“When my wife complained about in-accessibility to quality agro-products in urban India for our daughter, my native knowledge helped me to arrive at a win-win model that would solve this problem for many people like us,” he says.
The couple decided to move back to Coimbatore and start their own venture.
A step towards sustainability
To ensure that the model was sustainable, Laymen Agro identified key stakeholders.
“In our model, we have identified our priorities as the three Es - enriching farmers, empowering rural youth, and exciting urban customers,” he says.
While doing the groundwork for their venture, Selva found that the farmers buy agro-inputs at retail price and sell outputs at wholesale price, a principle that was definitely against the principle of business economics.
“We turn agriculture into a viable proposition by setting up an alternate distribution channel for agro-outputs, bringing down their cost of farming with an efficient supply chain for agro-inputs,” Selva says.
Farmers are paid 25 percent more than the existing procurement price and are provided agro-inputs at wholesale prices. As much as 80 percent of consumer price is channelised back to the rural economy as against usual practices where a huge difference exists between what the consumer pays and what the farmer gets.
With Laymen Agro providing inputs, farmers make sure they use the best quality and nature-friendly inputs.
This way, farmers are selling at a better price and the consumers are buying unadulterated, and preservative- free food at a better price.
Laymen Agro is also working to reverse-migrate the rural youth of Coimbatore as “villagepreneurs ”, helping them make more than Rs 40,000 a month. The startup presently employs 17 such rural youth.
“We get them a vehicle and they shuttle between urban India and rural India with an assured income of Rs 35,000 per month. They spend four hours in the morning and three hours in the evening travelling; the rest on the farm,” Selvakumar says.
Coming of age
Winner of the Coca Cola Sustainable Enterprise Award 2017, Laymen Agro is now catering to 40-plus apartments, hotel chains like Radisson Blu, Marriot, Lemon Tree , Accor, Ibis, and a few mid-size restaurants in Coimbatore.
With a growth rate of 30 percent every month, Laymen Agro’s VilFresh “Milk as Milk” offering enjoys 95 percent customer retention and has cracked this model with an enviable last-mile connectivity of Rs 4 per delivery.
Sustainable agriculture entails essential focus on food security (quality and quantity), rural employment, and also environmentally sustainable technologies such as soil conservation and sustainable natural resource management for holistic rural development.
Access to better quality products is possible through ways that generate income for the producers.
With a model that focuses on all stakeholders, Laymen Agro is shaping how agriculture may be seen and practised for years to come.