Sunday, 20 December 2009

Indian Agriculture 2020

A friend was doing research for his company on rural India. He asked me to gaze into the crystal ball and tell him how Indian Agriculture will look like in 2020. Here is what I had shared with him over breakfast, earlier this morning.

Mega Trend 1: A counter-intuitive aspect of Indian agriculture today is the shortage of semi-skilled and unskilled farm labour. In itself, at a macro economic level this is a good sign; but, when you sound any farmer out, the first complaint is about labour shortage and consequent high wage bill. Over time, this is likely to trigger land consolidation and further fragmentation at once, at the two ends of the spectrum. Larger farmers will accumulate more land to make mechanization feasible. Medium farmers will off-load some land and keep just about the acreage they can cultivate with the labour available within the family. Opportunities for Business: Innovations in Indian specific farm mechanization (beyond the classic approach of tractorisation); innovations in labour saving crops, farm practices and inputs.

Mega Trend 2: Swifter shifts in land usage pattern (across different crops, as well as away from agriculture) triggered by shifting cost v benefit v risk and increasing role of free markets with decreasing information asymmetry. Gone are the days a farmer would cultivate a crop because that’s what he had done last year. Opportunities for Business: Networks for gathering market intelligence from grass roots for consumption by all the stakeholders (commodity businesses, brands with agri raw material, ag input companies, ag infrastructure companies, insurance companies, Governments)

Mega Trend 3: Inroads by Bio-Technology. After the phenomenal success of Bt Cotton, Bt Brinjal is waiting by the door. Once one food crop shows the way, others will follow! Farms will then turn into factories, farming with precision and producing crops with traits desired by the consumers. This will blur the differences between independent industry verticals like farm inputs, food, pharmaceutical and packaging. In turn, this may well create a vibrant “wellness” industry. After all, human beings long for four evergreen As. Ability (Physical & Mental performance), Anti-Ageing (internal organ functions) and Appearance (external). Bio-technology promises to deliver these!

Mega Trend 4: Concerns on Food Security for the poor will be outweighed by the concerns on Food Safety of the rich and middle class… The agri-food supply chains will need to deliver identity preserved products to retail shelves, some of which need tracing all the way to farm practices! This requires a recast of the roles of players along the supply chain. Role of Information Technology will be central.

Mega Trend 5: All of these changes ride on a fundamental shift in the agri-extension service. Today, the service is barely customized to crop and region. Tomorrow this needs to be personalized to individual farmers. More complex to design and deliver! But there lies the mother of all business opportunities… raise farm incomes and take a share of that. Create Fortune for the Bottom of the Pyramid and then look for Fortune for yourself.

I was actually looking for two more trends, shook the crystal ball vigorously; but no, can’t see them!

1. More conservation agriculture to preserve environment while improving productivity.

2. More partnerships among Government, Agri Businesses and Farmers (or their Collectives) to realise everyone’s goals!

May be passive gazing isn’t enough to make these happen. Let’s do something…

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Blending Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, Changing lives

Here is a summary of my opening remarks during the panel discussion on “Blending Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, Changing lives” at the Villgro Unconvention on 11th Dec 2009 (

1. What is “changing lives”?

To me, “changing lives” has two aspects and one outcome

(a) Align capacity of the people. Am saying “align” rather than the more commonly used term “build”, because I believe everyone has some sort of special capacity innately. Capacity could be social rights, economics knowledge, communication etc

(b) Enable unconstrained access to markets. Markets for information, knowledge, inputs (products and services) into production activity and access to output markets

so that

(c) everyone can fulfill their aspirations whatever they are, including a better quality of life!

2. Why do we still need to talk about “changing lives”, despite so many centuries of civilisation?

I will illustrate my arguments referring primarily to the context of rural Indian people (because that’s Villgro’s canvas, and that’s where my experience lies in any case), but many of these observations are relevant to all poor people.

Because of certain inherent and fundamental characteristics of rural people (especially farmers) and certain other challenges, their access to markets is constrained. Consequently all their hard work, innovation and risk are burnt in sheer survival rather than creation of wealth. Incidentally, in the same panel, Paul Polak described such people as “survival entrepreneurs”

I call some characteristics fundamental, because they are unlikely to change (to any significant effect) in the foreseeable future. They are:

(a) Fragmented Size: Each of the 120 million Indian farmers owns an average of just about a hectare-and-a-half of land. Consequently, they end up with weak bargaining power in any value chains they are part of. They end up buying any thing they buy at a very high retail price at the end of a long chain. CK Prahalad called this “Poverty Premium”. On the other hand, whatever they sell they sell at a whole sale price at the beginning of another long chain; receiving only a small share of the consumer Rupee as a result.

(b) Geographic Dispersion: These 120 million farmers live in some 600,000 villages spread across a large geography. As a result access to real-time information is difficult and cost of reaching goods becomes expensive.

(c) Heterogeneity: Besides the broader variations in soil types and climatic conditions across India, the individual farmers also differ from each other so much (eg. access to finance, cash flow needs, risk appetite, family labour and so on) that any generic solution is not going to be optimal for many. Personalisation of solutions is an imperative, but personalizing isn’t viable for any business when these people are fragmented and dispersed!

The challenges arising out of these fundamental characteristics are further compounded by inadequacies in the infrastructure. Infrastructure of three types. The more commonly known physical infrastructure viz. roads, power, telecom; also irrigation in case of farmers. Then the social infrastructure viz. education for competence building, health – a major reason for indebtedness in rural India. Finally, and most importantly, the still evolving institutional infrastructure viz. credit ratings, dispute resolution, commodity price risk management, farm yield risk management etc.

As a result of these fundamental characteristics and the infrastructure inadequacies, when the farmers access markets such as banks for loans, agri extension officers for farm management knowledge, mandis for selling agri produce etc their transaction costs are high; that is when they are actually able to access.
Otherwise they have to rely on middlemen in the villages who provide them all these services at one shop conveniently, but extract their pound of flesh by spinning a cycle of dependency and exploit it to their advantage!

In other words, these two options are like relying on the Devil or swimming through the Deep Sea to access the markets. What’s the outcome you then expect, except the world still looking for solutions to “change their lives”?

3. In this back drop, I propose that innovation along three vectors can make a difference and possibly hold a light at the end of the tunnel for these people:

(a) Technology: For relevant products (e.g. energy solutions – solar lights, communication solutions – mobile phones) at better value for money price points, and for remote access (information, knowledge, e-learning, health diagnosis & delivery) by side stepping or making up for infrastructure inadequacies

(b) Institutions: Fusing technology, social capital (making up the missing institutions and provide an alternative to the traditional middlemen e.g. Joint Liability Groups making up the missing credit appraisal mechanism; ITC eChoupal Sanchalak for facilitating value added access to Internet) and collaborative networks (that orchestrate an ecosystem to bring end-to-end solutions to the poor like middlemen, yet offer freedom of choice like the unbundled market institutions) to create more equitable markets

(c) New Business Models: Enmesh the interests of people and business (e.g. identity preserved supply chains in eChoupal system that raises the incomes of the farmers and increases ITC’s profits), and third party pays business models (leveraging the volume ala’ media business) for fiancial viability and scalability of the enterprises

Friday, 11 December 2009

Marketing to the Bottom of the Pyramid

Earlier this week (7 Dec), I spoke to the members of the six winning teams of ISB’s iDiya initiative ( My topic was “Marketing to the Bottom of the Pyramid”. Actually, I conducted the session much like an MBA class. I just asked the questions, got the participants to respond based on their experiences, and I put it all together as a synthesized output. Here it is:

A. Why is marketing to the consumers at the BoP different from marketing to the consumers at the ToP or MoP?

• What is different about these consumers?

1. By definition, income of these consumers is low
a. Incomes are seasonal for farmers. There is also variation in incomes across seasons
b. Most of the money is spent on Food. Purchasing power for discretionary products is low
c. People prefer single serve products. Low unit cost products.

2. Awareness levels of these consumers about most products / services is low (primary focus is on subsistence)

3. Acceptance of new products is low.
a. There was also a counterpoint that acceptance of new products is actually high, if the product is relevant and the value is communicated effectively)
b. New products are accepted when opinion leaders in the community use them and demonstrate value
c. Word of Mouth is a better communication channel among the BoP consumers

4. Urban BoP is more homogenous than their rural counterparts
a. Urban BoP has lower disposal income as their cost of living is higher than that of their rural counterparts
b. A number of urban BoP consumers may not have a permanent address, as they keep migrating for jobs and / or change addresses when they come back to towns seasonally

• What are the challenges in marketing to these consumers?

1. Reaching products to them is a challenge. Supply chain costs are high and unviable, compared to product margins, as they are scattered (especially rural consumers)

2. Communicating with them is also a challenge, due to low media penetration. Difficult to reach consumers other than top socio-economic segment in the village

3. Competition from the local middleman is a problem. Because he lends, he has a grip on the consumers. He pushes high margin products, not necessarily products that are relevant to the consumers. Alternative channels (eg Banks) have the risk of defaults, as they don’t know the consumers as well as the local money lender does. Their documentation processes are rigid, and borrowers prefer easy access from the money lenders.

B. In light of these differences and challenges, how should we approach marketing to these consumers? (Answers largely revolved around rural consumers)

1. We must offer Products relevant to these consumers. These are (a) those that raise their incomes and reduce their risk (b) low cost products
i. Reach R&D to people at grass roots to increase their productivity and improve quality
ii. Reach finance. Actually complete range of financial services credit, savings, remittances, insurance
iii. Bring Crop Insurance, Health Insurance, Commodity futures
iv. Information about new investment & employment opportunities is an important service that can be provided
v. Reduce dependence on agriculture, through allied activities like livestock or even BPO. Facilitate some primary processing activities in the villages.
vi. Build capacity for these other activities

2. We must leverage technology to create such products and also to overcome the infrastructure barriers
i. Technologies include mobile phones, radio, internet
ii. Apply basic & appropriate technology to solve problems, many times learn from the BoP people themselves

3. Organise people at BoP into groups to reduce transaction costs in dealing with them
i. Thereby build scales of economy in farm inputs sourcing
ii. Collective farming or cooperative farming also examples
iii. Reduce role of traditional middlemen, by bringing educated rural youth back to villages
iv. Leverage the discipline characteristic among women to be the new intermediaries, as demonstrated by SHGs

4. Multiple organizations must come together in a collaborative way to deliver complete solution to these consumers
i. PPP is a good way. Government financial support is crucial to many projects, especially in agriculture & employment
ii. Partnerships with Not-for-Profits are useful in establishing relationships with the community, and in communication

C. What are some of the challenges you visualize while executing these strategies?

1. Many execution challenges are cannot be anticipated; so be adaptable

2. Customising products and services to the local needs; understanding the local needs itself is a challenge
i. Delivering after sales services is expensive
ii. Acceptability of new products / technology / ideas will take time to build awareness and educate people about the benefits

3. Competition with middlemen and other local players isn’t easy.
i. If the products / services improve market transparency, there may be resistance too from these people
ii. Competing with counterfeit and look alike products at substantially lower prices will be a challenge too

4. Identification of right leaders within the village will be a challenge in itself

5. Retaining talent is also challenge, as most people would like to work in urban areas
6. We need a pipeline / platform to connect companies with BoP consumers (right from consumer understanding to distribution of products)
i. Such a pipeline could be built in a collaborative mode (Government could pitch in with some subsidy, especially for services like agri extension and other capacity building activities)

Here is a picture of a part of the White Board I scribbled on; this helped in putting this note together :-)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Twinterview on Franchising

Avishek Gupta, a member of the Dairy Network Enterprises team interviewed me on Twitter about franchising. Here is a transcript

If you would like to comment on the subject, please visit

Avishek_Gupta: What if I want to #franchise my business? What would a #franchisee look for?

S_Sivakumar: Actually just three things! RaRoI (to take home), Brand (to pull customers), SOP (to idiot proof execution)...

Avishek_Gupta: Thanks, that's precise!But, what if I don't have a brand? Will ONLY the other two work? My Query specific to small rural enterprises.
(Comment added later by Avishek to this transcript - assumption behind the question was that it will take some time to create a franchisable "brand" across different remote rural locations and hence the "lack" of brand for a relative newcomer like DNE)

S_Sivakumar: If not brand, something else to "pull" customers. Say, a unique product or service. Otherwise it's partnership, not franchising!

Avishek_Gupta: Partnership v/s Franchising!!...Thanks a LOT for the insight! :)

S_Sivakumar: When you franchise, you bring everything to the table except last mile. In partnership, you combine complementary strengths

Avishek_Gupta: How to get a rural entrepreneur set up a franchisee? How does he get to know about it? What can convince him, it works? Local NGO?

S_Sivakumar: As to who can convince your prospect depends on the profile of your prospect. Local NGO, Bank Manager, School Teacher.. Best would be to conduct a village meeting (aided by an AV showing Franchisee at Work) and create "pull" for applications

Avishek_Gupta: Is minimum revenue guarantee for start-up period an intelligent way to go to convince entrepreneur? Or is it absolutely foolish?

S_Sivakumar: Minimum Guarantee is a useful tool. Ideally you should link the guarantee to efforts on part of franchisee, not a free ride!

Avishek_Gupta: So true! And our job would be to be clear about how we would "measure" the efforts of the entrepreneur in initial periods of little revenue.

S_Sivakumar: The inputs that drive the desired outcomes will define the efforts...

S_Sivakumar: Yes, in any case you can't design reliable SOPs before running the business for a while

Avishek_Gupta: So, Franchise Package = SOP + min guarantee (proxy indicator 4 ROI) tied 2 efforts + a great service /product! Awareness thru AV of franchisee at work!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Lessons in Public Private Partnerships

Over a lunch meeting today, a few representatives of a Global Donor wanted to understand the lessons I learnt in managing Public Private Partnerships. Here are the three lessons I shared with them:

Lesson 1: Design PPP projects in specific areas where Governments have failed to deliver the goods, or where Institutions created at a point of time are not relevant any more. Identify what value Private Sector can add to change the outcome to more desirable ways. Propose an option with clear roles for both partners (Principal to Principal or Principal to Agent etc). Role of Government could be Policy Reform, Bringing Legitimacy, Make Investments, Facilitate Convergence; role of Private Sector could be in bringing Consumer Understanding, Building Market Linkages, Make Investments, Manage Convergence. Lack of clarity in roles, or lac of complementarity in roles, or lack of convergence in the outcome objectives will lead to failures.

Lesson 2: “Public” is not one entity. Understand that there are three layers in Public, viz. Political leadership, Senior Bureaucrats and Operating Level Government Employees. Understand that all three layers have different personal / professional objectives and postures. Need to build an alignment individually with the global outcomes expected from the project

Lesson 3: Need to co-opt an additional P to make the project relevant. People. Or Communities, if you were to use a PPCP instead of a PPPP! This co-option being somewhat social in nature (as opposed to purely economic logic) needs to factor in class and caste dynamics

Panel on “Rethinking Sustainable Growth: New Ideas and Approaches”

Panel on “Rethinking Sustainable Growth: New Ideas and Approaches”
at the ICC Regional CEO Forum on “Globalisation and Inclusive Growth”
Delhi, 4th December 2009

The Panel was chaired by the well known Professor of IMD Mr Jean-Pierre Lehmann. He set the stage by underscoring “poverty and sustainability’ as two of the greatest challenges identified by ICC as part of its agenda covering five dominant themes in all (which include ethics, values etc). He also suggested that India has to succeed if world has to succeed in 21st Century; and India will succeed if its “inclusive growth” strategy succeeds!

Economist Surjit Bhalla (Oxus) who spoke before me, recounted per capita income statistics over time (from around the world; and India & China in particular) and said he was skeptical of any improvement. He provoked the Panel by saying “Inclusive Growth” is a sequel of the same movie with similar unhappy endings of a rich and a poor world each time! First the world called it “Poverty Alleviation”, then “Bridging Inequalities”, thereafter “Pro-poor Growth”, and now “Inclusive Growth”

I had combined the points made by the two opening speakers, to argue that (1) Great challenges are big opportunities for business, and (2) Because Business is participating in the “inclusive growth” paradigm, there is hope for a different ending this time :-)

In the context, to me “inclusive growth” meant (1) including the poor in the growth process, by bringing them access to basic services viz. education & health, and empowering the producers among them to participate in the value chains to raise their incomes (2) including the people from our next generations in our thinking and actions, in a manner that we don’t aggressively consume non-renewable natural resources that belong to them, while we work on economic growth and superior quality of life of this generation

I highlighted three approaches and several ideas (primarily illustrating ITC’s actions) whereby Business can enmesh its financial objectives with the societal objective of “inclusive growth” defined as above…

Approach A: Product / Service innovations serving either or both dimensions of “inclusion”

Idea 1: Platforms such as ITC eChoupal that leverage ICT and Social Capital to deliver an end-to-end solution to small farmers and empower them by improving information flow, market signals, decision support, reducing transaction costs, raising productivity and improving quality. Extending the same platform to deliver end-to-end solution in non-farm employment space now.

Idea 2: Weather based Crop Insurance Scheme for yield risk reduction

Idea 3: Smoke less, energy efficient “Oorja Choolas” of BP Energy, now transferred to First Energy

Idea 4: Solar lighting and Cooking products developed by several companies

Idea 5: Micro finance with customized repayment cycles

Idea 6: Relevant applications (e.g. Nokia Life Tools) on low cost mobile phones

All these products / services are delivered through ITC eChoupal platform, so we know how appropriate these products are in “inclusion”.

Approach B: Process / Business Model innovations that extend along the whole value chain

Idea 1: Process innovations that reduce negative impact on environment , while improving efficiency or reducing costs of manufacturing (e.g. Wind Energy project of ITC Paperboards business)

Idea 2: Green Supply Chains (e.g. ITC Hotels, Sustainable forests integrated into ITC Paperboard business)

Idea 3: Recycling Waste: (e.g. WOW – Wealth out of Waste – initiative of ITC to recycle paper in urban areas)

Idea 4: Integrating rural people into the sourcing and / or marketing activities (e.g. ITC eChoupal)

Idea 5: Promotion of Conservation Agriculture through ITC eChoupal (viz. practicing minimal mechanical soil disturbance through Zero Till, managing organic soil fertility through mulching, crop rotation to minimize pests & weeds)

Approach C: Improve Corporate Governance & Transparency:

Idea: Publish Audited Sustainability Reports (as ITC has been doing for several years now) using GRI guidelines, to be accountable to all stakeholders beyond financial investors

Bottomline: I am very optimistic that the “inclusive growth” sequel will have a happy ending because businesses are driving this paradigm. More companies have to adopt this approach and do on a larger scale to be able to deal with the magnitude of the challenge. And this can only be done in partnership with Governments and Communities :-)