She is young, dynamic, and has a very clearly defined goal - improving agricultural productivity in India. It was thus natural for Sai Gole to quit her corporate job and establish her own venture, which went on to become an enabling platform for farmers in the interiors of India. Sai, along with her partner Siddharth Dialani, founded Bharat Agri in 2017, which essentially helps farmers with a comprehensive range of information and tools that they can use to increase production. Their brainchild, Bharat Agri has put the convenience and efficiency of technology together to make a significant difference to farmers. What made a crucial difference to Sai and Siddharth in their business venture were platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
In India, it has always been a challenge for farmers to access information that can help them improve their awareness, and sell their produce better. More specifically, reach has been a big problem for farmers in the villages. But BharatAgri hoped to change that. Gole and Dialani, who were students of Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, came up with the idea as an attempt to leapfrog the traditional obstacles faced by Indian farmers.
Offering a comprehensive solution to farmers
At the core of BharatAgri’s model of farmer interface are apps by Meta such as Facebook and WhatsApp. While Facebook provides a central arena for interaction, WhatsApp helps to disseminate information quickly to more close-knit communities. And the ease that these platforms provide users – farmers in this case – comprehensive information that too in their local languages, making Facebook and WhatsApp quite invaluable.
Leveraging the deep penetration of smartphones, BharatAgri was perhaps in many ways, the logical next step. Through its Android app, the service gives farmers regular updates such as weather forecasts to better deal with possible climatic aberrations, news about the farming scene around the country, the current prices at wholesale markets, and various other such information that can help them gain better control over variables and get better offers for their produce. Along with this, farmers are also given advice on fertilizer use, pest control and better farming practices to take productivity to the next level. And, yes, all this is free information. For subscribers, there is more localized and personalized information through individual customer support. BharatAgri also provides services such as soil and water testing, and helps with organic farming methods.
In the last year-and-a-half, BharatAgri has seen exponential growth from its digital approach on the back of the facilitation provided by Facebook and WhatsApp. Some of the main areas of connect were Facebook Live sessions with farmers packed with customised ads on Facebook that helped them increase their user base. Right now, BharatAgri has a traffic of about 450,000 users per month. What validates the freemium model further is that about 50,000 of these are paid subscribers. BharatAgri has its presence primarily in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but they are in the process of expanding to the southern states.
Digitally empowered - the stories of Ethnic Co and Bikayi
According to a Facebook-commissioned study, women and younger business leaders were more likely to start or increase use of digital tools and there were many SMBs in the country who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Digital tools are helping them adapt and overcome some of the challenges of the current environment.
Take the case of another woman entrepreneur Lekhinee Desai, who started Indian Ethnic Co as a hobby along with her mother. This online retailer of traditional Indian wear has built its business entirely on the back of Facebook and Instagram. As with many small businesses that have leveraged the platforms on Meta, Indian Ethnic too has seen quick and consistent growth. Beginning four years ago, the retailer has been tripling its business every year. Their first order came via Facebook, and even now the promotions and sales happen primarily through Instagram and Facebook. Their social impact has however hardly been modest. Indian Ethnic works with about 150 artisans in Airakhpur in Gujarat, and Lekhinee communicates with them through WhatsApp to get her work done seamlessly. From operating out of her home for three years, she now has three offices across Mumbai, and most of this has happened during the pandemic on the back of digital tools and personalized advertising.
Another enterprise that started small and grew phenomenally is Bikayi, the brainchild of Sonakshi Nathani. Bikayi helps sellers set up a WhatsApp-integrated shop and provides the ability to sell their products through WhatsApp. During Meta’s recent ‘Grow Your Business Summit’ Naithani said the company acquired 1000+ customers organically within the first month by offering free WhatsApp-integrated eCommerce stores for small businesses. They now serve over 4 million businesses across India. It has expanded its presence on Facebook 80-fold in less than a year. Their business model has been validated by a recent $10 million funding that they have got from Sequoia.
All these three businesses reiterate how women entrepreneurs today can leverage digital platforms to start and sustain their business. With digital becoming more pervasive, India is likely to see more women-led businesses build and scale powerful ideas into thriving businesses.