In an exclusive interview with YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma, Karnataka's Agriculture Minister gets talking about why he has become a crusader of the Indian superfood, and what keeps him ticking when things don't always go right.
Shradha Sharma: Congratulations! We had a successful millets conference, with more than 50,000 visitors. What are you doing with millets?
Krishna Byre Gowda: Millets form our traditional food, and we have grown and eaten them for millennia. But since intensive agriculture came along with Green Revolution, rice, wheat, flour, starch-based food and sugar have become a predominant part of our diet. As a result, farmers have also stopped growing millets and the areas under cover also declined. But when you look deeper into millets, you find that nutritionally they are far superior to rice or flour. This leads to some lifestyle-related illnesses prevalent today. But millets actually fit in our desired intake for healthy diet and lifestyle. So it's a good proposition for the consumer. But it's also very good for the farmers as well, because millets can be grown in low rainfall areas where farmers have few choices. And millets can also be grown in very marginal lands, where commercial crops cannot be grown. Millets are good for the planet because they are very low in chemical requirement and can be grown with limited water. So as climate change becomes an increasingly real phenomenon, this is actually sustainable, climate-smart agriculture as the ecological footprint is light. That's what we are trying to take to the people. It was fantastic to see people from Bengaluru, and, in fact, many from outside Karnataka turning up at the expo. There is a lot of interest; we got twice the number of visitors than we expected. So it's a validation of the work we have done, but also means that we have a long way to go.
SS: I saw a lot of entrepreneurs who launched their products at the expo. Is there some kind of an engagement or an association that you would like to build with urban audiences and urban entrepreneurs?
KBG: Within Karnataka, we have built the movement and picked up a lot of momentum as well. Now, we need to work with talented entrepreneurs to take this message outside Karnataka, because the State market in itself is not enough. When you are an entrepreneur you look at larger opportunities, which are present in other urban centres, where the consumption potential is. So as we try to target these urban centres – I think we need a little bit of the talent and the creativity that these young entrepreneurs will bring, and combine their energy with the strength of government to see how we can take this message to the other urban centres. We look forward to working with these guys in an informal way, and we hope that early next year we can do a similar event where we bring in more of these entrepreneurs, and we spread the message far wider. We need the talent that these guys have and we want to work with them closely.
SS: When something becomes a big invest, then it becomes cool here in India. But you always said that the superfood is right here. So right now you have taken on the mantle of saying that millets, which is grown here in India, is big, rather than someone from the outside preaching to us. I saw a lot of entrepreneurs on the ground, and they were all excited about being there. What are you planning to do now that the conference is over?
KBG: You touched upon two issues. I will address the first one first, which was about imported solutions. So the moment you talk about health food and healthy lifestyles these days the first thing that comes to mind is oats, which is both grown and supplied from outside the country. I am not against foreign imports, but we have our own solutions, which are as competent as imported solutions; so why are we not paying attention to them? So there is a reverse of jingoism here that you relegate something to oblivion just because it is our own. And you find appeal in the imported just because it is foreign. So we are trying to just put the message right and get our people to understand this. The expo is over, and a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises have gotten into last-mile delivery of millets.
Some of the big companies have not still grabbed the opportunity because they are looking at scale. So, as a result, the current situation has created good opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises. You see a lot of startups and youngsters enthusiastically taking the message of millets and delivering it to people. Nobody was paying attention to them, so they were pretty much on their own.
So perhaps the excitement you saw was because somebody had created such a huge platform that could amplify their message and what they were trying to do. So, yes, to some extent, that was a platform, but the next step would be to see how we could take this message on a larger level, how the government of Karnataka can work innovatively and collaborate with some of these youngsters from small and medium companies, and startups to create a much larger national platform.
SS: You were an entrepreneur when you started this millet project. Building this from scratch you were a startup in that sense. Was it very difficult to pull this all together because it was a huge effort?
KBG: We started actually working on millets for four years. I am the Agriculture Minister so I look after production. I started by encouraging farmers to grow millets. I wanted to revive the areas under millets. But then I found that no matter what production incentive we give, unless there was a strong demand pull from the market, farmers were not ready to switch back to millets. So out of that learning two years ago we moved into market awareness. We started small, with small experiments of localised melas where we would take the message of millets and organic food to the people. And that started getting some traction. Then we graduated to this scale.
Yes, to some extent we had an idea. We didn't know how good the idea or the message was. So, over the last two-three years, we built it up. Though we are working within the government, the idea is that the startup should follow through. The validation of the idea is that we test it on a small scale and then we take it up. We have gradually evolved and it didn't seem such an insurmountable challenge.
SS: You are a modern man with agrarian roots. How are you trying to build the connection between the urban and the rural?
KBG: Yes, agriculture is still looked upon as a backward activity. It's still a labour-intensive process of toiling in the sun, working through the nights. There is a lot of physical sacrifice that agriculture calls for. It need not be that way. But that's the image we have cultivated, leading partly to the problem you highlighted of migration away from village, from agriculture towards secondary and tertiary services and industries, towards urban areas. These youngsters too aspire for a more certain lifestyle. So they don't want to be toiling through the night and under the baking sun every day.
As long as you look at agriculture as a primitive activity, it would not fit with the aspirations of the youngsters. The solution lies in modernising agriculture a little bit. There are people who are opposed to that also – who want to keep agriculture they way it has been. But these are actually not agriculturists themselves. If you talk to farmers they will tell you that they want to adopt modern methods. But then some of us who are sitting in the city – who look at agriculture as a sort of a romantic activity want to keep us in that sense. That is not going to solve the agrarian crisis. So my pitch has always been that we need to bring modern methods into agriculture. We need to mechanise. We need to have science-based solutions. I have been pushing this for the last four years. And to some extent I must say farmers have responded positively.
Today, labour is not available in the villages. That's another irony, but that's true. And even if labour is available it's very expensive. That makes agriculture itself prohibitive. So farmers are ready to adopt mechanisation and such science-based or modern methods. Unless we look in that direction, we would not be doing justice to agriculture. Yes, I am not a conventional agriculture minister. In fact when I was appointed the minister for agriculture a lot of people thought it was a mismatch. But I think our Chief Minister must have rightly thought that agriculture also requires a re-look. In the Indian economy, we took a hard re-look in 1991 and we reformed. And today also we are reaping the benefits. But Indian agriculture has never been subjected to a very scientific rigorous analysis of the problems and finding solutions. So I think it requires a fresh look.
SS: What is keeping you very excited about your role – you talked about how in the last four years you built the momentum around millet as a superfood. But what is keeping you going every day?
KBG: I have an opportunity that few people have. Yes, it is very challenging, but also I turn it around and see how many people have the type of opportunities I have. So in one sense, I am sort of blessed to have this opportunity. So that's number one. Number two is using that opportunity to make a difference. So I think that's what keeps us going every day, despite all the challenges and the negativity that we get from the public, from media, from everybody. Despite all the mud that gets thrown at us! With the small things that we achieve and when a few people come up to me and say that it has benefitted them it makes us get up the next day and go at it with equal vigour.
SS: What do you think anchors you personally? Is it something that you do in your personal life – as a minister, as a professional to keep yourself anchored?
KBG: I have a certain legacy – my father was in public life and he had an impeccable, remarkable reputation in Karnataka. So when I got into public life, my motto was to if I couldn't add to his reputation, at least keep it intact and not take anything away from it through my behaviour. So that's been one of the things that I have been guided by always. Other than that, it's a unique opportunity. I have my own set of grievances with public life. They tire me out – everyday they take a toll on me. But still I look at it and I tell myself, 'look, I am in a unique situation where I can make a difference. So that's something I must celebrate and that's something I must use to the fullest extent possible as long as I have it.' So as long as I am on a job, it could be just as a legislator or as a minister, there are hundreds of things I can do day in and day out. So that's what satisfies me. I am not even bothered by what people say – whether positive or negative. At the end of the day I must feel satisfied by what I have done.
SS: Just wanted to understand that the millet conference was such a spectacular success. Again I am saying on record: the number of farmers at one place was incredible; I have not seen anything like this anywhere in India. Equally incredible was the urban audience and everyone coming together. How are you going to spread this across India? Are the other States going to see you with your farmers promoting your mission of growing and consuming millets?
KBG: Yes, I would want to reiterate what you said about farmers. So it was not just farmers actually. It was farmers, the big manufacturers, the distributors, retailers and consumers – all under one roof. So there was consumers on one side and the business enterprises on the other. They were interfacing with consumers, and at the same time they were interfacing with their backward integration process also, which is farmers. So they were able to push their message to the consumers and line up their sources also with the farmers. So they were doing transactions with the farmers, because we want them to buy directly from farmers and reduce the role of middlemen as much as possible. So a greater share of the consumer rupee goes to the farmers. That's the only way we can enhance the farmer's income. In fact, more than 20 MoUs were signed between some of these companies and farmer groups for direct procurement in the future. Through this, we are hoping farmers will get reliable markets and better prices for their produce. So that is the backward integration part. At the same time, businesses were busy creating awareness about their product to their consumers also. So the feedback from them was also same, that this was a unique event. There are normally consumer expos, or B2B expos, or we have the typical Krishi Melas, which are meant only for the farmers. This was a unique combination of a Krishi Mela, where farmers came, and a lot of B2B transactions and B2C consumer awareness also happened. So it was a unique idea that we tried out.
Now I think, going forward, some of the other states are also waking up to this opportunity. I saw some of our neighbouring southern States starting to talk about millets, and they are trying to come up with strategy. Two neighbouring States have started working on this. But we want to position our State as the primary player in the millet or in the organic space. We are going to push aggressively to other urban centres where we will take our farmers' produce and try to deliver the message of millets and organics. At the same time, ensure that the produce of our farmers also finds markets in other urban centres. So we have to reach out to our audience. But we also have to, as I said earlier, partner with some of these companies because we can create this awareness. Somebody has to deliver these in the product format. We will work with them to create awareness and get them to deliver the products also and tie it up with our farmers. So this is the action plan for the next one year.
Wow. So you have a power packed, intense year ahead of you. All the best to you. Thanks!
(Transcribed by: Anagh Ajmire)