Social Enterprise

How this serial entrepreneur is on a mission to double farmers’ income

Shruti Kedia
28th Feb 2018
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Moving from a single product company (solar water pumps) to a digital platform for agri products and services, Gold Farm is making it easy for farmers to book farm equipment.

Serial entrepreneur Abhilash Thirupathy, who co-founded Surya Power Magic with his childhood friend Karthic Ravindranath in 2012 and was involved in solar pump irrigation, was aware that people were moving out of agriculture due to lack of empowerment. Present-generation farmers were moving away from the profession due to the hardships involved, coupled with the lack of income and equipment.

Abhilash wanted to change this and make the agri-sector a profitable profession.

“In 2012-13, we came in touch with new business models in the form of Ola and Uber. We wanted to see whether a similar disruption is possible in the agriculture space. For me it was always about how can we impact more number of farmers,” the 38-year-old says.

Hence in 2016, the duo co-founded Gold Farm, based on Farming as a Service (FaaS) model, with the aim to provide farmers the access to book any farm equipment according to their requirement through a mobile application and a call centre service.

Till date, the team has converted 7,500 hectares of barren land and 25,000 hectares of land has been ploughed and harvested in Kolar and Chikbellapur district in Karnataka.

Passion for agriculture

Agriculture and farmers were perhaps closer to Abhilash than corporate jobs or living in the city. A dentist by qualification, post his studies he worked at a multinational company. Yet, he says, something was always missing and he was in search of a profession where he wouldn’t mind the repetition which a job demands.

Farmers installed solar water pumps
“The affinity I felt towards a farm land was instantaneous. When you go to the field, everything vanishes; it is just peace and serenity. For me I always felt at home there. And today, if I have the opportunity to create value for this eco-system at the kind of scale that I want to, I can’t think of anything bigger than that,” he says.

Belonging to a family of farmers, Coimbatore-based Abhilash had witnessed the hardships involved in this profession very closely. He was aware of the uncertainties in the sector due to factors not under a farmer’s control. However, he was motivated to use digital solutions to reduce the risk factors.

Through Solar Power Magic, he not only provided the farmers with irrigation facilities but he also educated them about rainwater harvesting. He explained to them the long-term benefits and the cost difference between installing a borewell as opposed to a rainwater harvesting system.

Further, through Gold Farm, he hoped to streamline farm equipment and create a mechanism where both farmers and tractor owners would benefit. Apart from the farm equipment owners, the mobile platform also connects the farmer with farming advisors, who help them with the harvesting process.

The service model 

From a two-person startup, Gold Farm has now grown to a 100-people company. Its aim is to provide farmers with products and services through a convenient platform and have a positive impact on their lives. Its platform has benefitted over 25,000 farmers on ground.

Farmers advised to adopt new strategies

Through its mobile application and a call service, the startup provides an easy way to book a farm equipment. For this, it collaborated with the local people and created a network of booking agents, who had a sound knowledge of using a smartphone and carrying out online transactions. They helped the farming community get access to the mobile app. At present, there are over 250 booking agents and over 500 tractor owners connected with the mobile app.

It also works closely with the government and farm equipment manufacturers to make farm mechanisation affordable to small and marginal farmers.

“We realised that the entire agriculture ecosystem was credit driven. The farmer needed a tractor; the tractor owners would rent their equipment based on credit, making this business model risky; for in a bad year without a good crop yield where would the farmer get the money to repay him?” says Karthic.

Hence, he wanted to create a platform wherein the farmer gets the tractor that he wants, and at a time and price convenient to him. Besides, he wanted to do away with the credit system and pay the tractor owner upfront for his services in real time.

Although creating this platform seemed easy, the duo initially met with a lot of resistance from both these stakeholders. The agrarian community is very close knit and any outsider is viewed with suspicion, he says.

“I do remember travelling to the farm in my car for the second or the third time. It took me some time to understand that you cannot earn a farmer’s trust by going in a very ‘flashy’ car. You will probably have to walk alongside him; you will have to have a tea with him; enquire about his family and even know his name,” Abhilash recalls.

Challenges

Capital and team building was the biggest challenge faced by Abhilash and Karthic. The constant travelling between the farms and the city often took a toll on them. The investors were reluctant to fund their venture because of the association of droughts, farmer suicides and climatic uncertainties with agriculture.

“They also thought that this ecosystem could be run only though government support; the other parallel being the fear of government intervention; the way it happened for Ola in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Delhi,” Abhilash adds.

However, this perception started to change with Narendra Modi government’s decision to involve the agri-startup community when formulating the policies related to agriculture. Recently in February, the government also called for a meeting with the agri startups to discuss ways in which the vision to double farmers income by 2022 could be realised.

“This interaction clears the air for potential investors. They are assured that with the backing of the government this sector will not face negative interference in the long run,” he adds.

Gold Farm has raised two rounds of funding till date with Infuse Venture and the Mahindra Group. It is looking to raise the next round of funding with the help of international strategic partners as well.

Plans ahead

Gold Farm is present only in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. However, in the coming years, they wish to spread across eight states in India and also start their venture in Bangladesh.

Further, each tractor registered on the platform is attached with a hardware device which collects data about the land holding and size of the farm. Through IoT, in the future, Abhilash hopes to accurately predict the efficient farm equipment model required by a farm based on its shape and size.

However, he remains sure about one thing. He says, “No matter which geography we go to, we will continue to work with the small and marginal farmers who cannot afford a tractor."
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