This agriculture startup is uplifting West Bengal’s farmer community through organic produceShruti Kedia
ONganic Foods aims to increase profitability from agriculture for small holders through a holistic and integrated approach, by creating a platform where multiple interventions can converge.
Farmers suicide, droughts, debt, crop failure, and poverty — these words echo the massive scale of problems faced by the agrarian community in India. Further, a dearth of innovation, basic infrastructure, market connect, and India’s overdependency on monsoons has led to slowdowns and stagnation in the farming sector.
Farming as a profession for small and marginal farmers, with land holding up to 2 hectares, is barely a profitable proposition today. According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the income of a farmer in West Bengal is lower by 1.1 percent against the national average of $300/year.
In this distressing context, an agri-social startup ONganic Foods, in West Bengal, is working with 1,000 small farmers, on 200 hectors of land, across nine villages with the aim to increase their profitability by 50 percent by 2025.
Ekta Jaju, Founder of ONganic Foods, says, “We realised that finding a reliable market is the single largest challenge faced by small organic farmers. And a model that is financially sustainable and scalable can help this movement hit the tipping point it needs, to exponentially grow its impact. I am passionate about finding that model, that can revolutionise the agriculture sector for small farmers in India.”
Through contract farming, ONganic gives farmers access to premium markets and market information, which ensures that the farmer makes an informed decision on what to grow. The organisation’s vision is for better livelihoods for farmers; health and wellness for consumers; and a sustainable planet.
ONganic was founded in November, 2015, and has its presence in Hanskhali Block of Nadia. In the past three years, the enterprise has trained farmers in organic cultivation, input preparation, seed saving, and good post-harvest practices. It has organised farmers into a farmers’ produce company — ON Farm Fresh Innovation Producers Company Limited — supported by NABARD.
“We identify crops — grains/pulses/spices — which will offer over 50 percent higher price realisation compared to the traditional crops, to the farmer. We provide quality inputs in the form of certified seeds, inputs that will guarantee the targeted yields,” 35-year-old Ekta says.
ONganic produces 50 plus organic products.
Farmers associated with ONganic receive seeds and organic inputs as credit, without any interest, which is paid off at the time of purchase of the raw material. With storage, processing, and in-house packaging unit, the enterprise maintains strict measures for quality control and the farmers are certified under the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP).
ONganic connects the farmers with various government schemes and supports them with bank and credit linkages. Further, they promote the organic products grown by their farmer groups through various national and international trade fairs and e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Spencer’s Retail.
“We are building our niche through product differentiation, by growing exotic, aromatic and diabetic varieties of black rice and red rice. Many of its by-products including rice husk, bran, and oil cakes, which are generated during the production phase are then sold as fish food, chicken feed, etc.” Ekta adds.
She says that earning the faith and trust of farmers has been ONganic’s biggest achievement and, over the last two years, they have never defaulted on a payment, or not procured as promised.
A spin-off of non-profit SwitchON, ONganic is supported by the Technology Development Board, Government of India; Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprise; and is incubated by Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. Their current competitors include Sresta, Terra Green, and a China-based company Jasberry.
Using automation and technology to bring down cost of cultivation and increase productivity, ONganic farmers receive 25 percent premiums on their produce. Farmers who grow black rice have had a 60 percent increase in their incomes, for this produce is categorised as a premium product.
“ONganic changed our lives by providing suitable market for our produce. We are not dependent on middlemen to sell our produce. There is no carrying cost which makes our life easy and makes agriculture a profitable business. Also, organic produce sells at a better price as compared to inorganic. For example, the cost of 60 kg of organic Gobindobhog rice is Rs 1,650 as against Rs 1,150, for inorganic produce,” Nira Da, a farmer associated with ONFarm, explains.
ONganic procures the produce at a pre-determined price irrespective of the market price; hence, farmers associated with the startup are safeguarded from uncertainties. Further, the farmers reduce the costs by using in-house organically grown fertilisers and bio pesticides including cow dung, locally available water hyacinth, banana stem, mustard oil cakes, cow urine, neem cakes, and oil.
"Training on organic farming, inputs preparation, etc., has helped increase farmers’ knowledge and expertise on organic agriculture. More than 200 farmers have been trained through various training programmes and exposure visits. Additionally, the quality of soil, biodiversity and farmers’ fields have shown significant improvements,” Ekta adds.
In the long term, the startup plans to set up an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) platform connecting its 1,000 farmers for information sharing on weather, organic package of practices, trouble shooting, and booking of farm implements. ONganic will also provide consultancy services to other organic groups, companies and NGOs for organic farming, and certification.
Though the company has raised funds through the United Kingdom’s INVENT Programme for Social Entrepreneurship, Ekta also hopes to raise funds though soft loans and equity.
She ends with a message to fellow social enterprises who too are looking to raise funds for their organisation.
Relationship with your funder is like a marriage. Get to know them, date them, before you decide if it’s the right match for your organisation. Finding the right fit is very important, so that the energies of both are positively focussed to help the organisation scale.