Saturday, 26 September 2015

Nuances of the Agricultural Value Chains in India

Earlier this week, I gave a talk on the subject in a Workshop of Development Professionals. One of the participants prepared this summary:

Drawing upon his extensive experience of setting up and managing businesses based on value chains in agricultural commodities, Sivakumar took off from where the previous speaker left.  He said that he would reconcile the two seemingly conflicting points of views brought up in the previous session. On one hand, farmers as well as consumers feel that the intermediaries in the value chain are getting all the cream at their expense. The other was the large body of research which says that there is no evidence to conclude that middlemen in any specific commodity sector are making any more returns than justified by the value they add through capital they invest, the costs they incur and the risks they take. Once he had done that, he said, he would propose a sort of “tool kit” that the participants could use to address the inefficiencies in the value chains.

He said that the situation in India was characterized by small ticket size, large geographic dispersion, and lack of homogeneity on both the producer and the consumer end. To reach the agri produce to appropriate buyers located elsewhere, seeking products at different times, and in different form, required the middlemen to discover mechanisms such as larger than required risk cover, substituting skills for instruments and local knowledge for things like credit rating or quality testing or bank reach. They then instituted less than "global optimal" solutions. The research on market efficiency in whichever commodity focussed on "local" connections between two subsequent legs of a value chain and these were competitively shaped leading to the conclusion about market efficiency. Yet, from the point of view of global marketplace, Indian value chains were very inefficient since the summation of local optimal efficiencies did not add up to a global optimum for the whole value chain because of the non-value adding costs and unwarranted risks. This explained the simultaneous existence of "efficient markets" as tested by economists at micro level with gross inefficiencies in aggregate.
The adverse impact of the inefficiency – in terms of higher costs and risks – have been pushed to the weakest link in the chain, namely, the small farmer! As a result, the producer’s share of a consumer rupee remained low. Also, neither the full market opportunity from the evolving consumer preferences, nor the full production potential of India’s rich agro-climatic conditions have been realised.   

He therefore suggested that any work to improve the lot of small farmers cannot be a “point” solution; interventions are needed to improve efficiencies of the value chains as a whole, by transferring the costs and the risks to the most capable players along the chain.
Citing his own experience in setting up ITC e-Choupals, he laid out an approach to build the "tool kit". He then talked of two points that move along the value chain: the first is related to how much a producer would be willing to go down the value chain to reach out to the consumer and the other as to how much a consumer would be willing to go up towards production side. For the former, he talked of producers willing to push their “value offer points” by reaching out to the consumers in terms of vendor managed inventory. For the latter, he talked of contract farming as an illustration of consumer extending the “order penetration point” up the stream in the value chain.

By studying what he called the “transaction velocity” metrics, he said it would be possible to identify the non-value adding transactions in a value chain and then eliminate them through suitable interventions. ITC e-Choupals, for example, eliminated the physical movement of goods from farmers to APMC and then from there to the factories through competitive price discovery at farmer’s doorstep. Through different business models, ITC reaches out to 70000 villages in 220 districts across 16 states of the country giving them a competitive edge in sourcing.
Next he talked of “identity preservation” of the product along the value chain to mix & match the heterogeneity of production to cater to the heterogeneity in demand. Giving an example, he said there were 16 major wheat types grown in the country and 7 major atta types preferred by the consumers in different regions of the country. By setting up suitable sourcing, storage, and movement systems – both physical and information flow – to ensure that right wheat went to right mills and the right atta to market, ITC could capture and retain a huge market share in the Rs 5000 cr branded atta market.

Third he talked of “intensity of information” embedded in the products and using it for the purpose of deriving extra value for the producers. This comprised things like organic produce, responsible produce, IPM produced stuff etc. for which some segments of consumers are willing to pay more if there is evidence of the claim of the produce being what it claims to be.
Fourth he talked about moving from backyard production to collective production systems, wherever “mass production to production by masses” ratios are favourable. He gave the example of small animal holders coming together for collective dairy farming.

He strongly recommended that it would be more productive for new entrants as well – irrespective of their size of operations – to start thinking in terms of steps to move towards a “global optimum” in their value chains rather than either engaging in a zero sum game of deriving more value by reducing someone else's earning or by competing within the existing system alone.    

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Rural is more about doing it the right way: Effective Execution of Strategies

The Event Theme:

Rural India is the next growth destination. The aspirations of today’s rural consumers, who are “better-connected” and “more-aware”, are rising. They are fuelled further by their increasing incomes. “Why” marketers should go rural is not a question anymore… The task now is to devise strategies that can seize this opportunity. The “how” of it!

To help marketers navigate this future effectively, Rural Marketing Association of India organized a Conclave with the theme “From why rural to how rural”.

The event saw an amalgamation of two generations of the rural marketing fraternity. Experienced industry veterans joined the new age professionals to share the best practices and preview the next practices through panel discussions, presentations and case studies.

My Session Theme:

While some marketers have hopped on to the rural bandwagon early, many have started exploring more recently. Strategies that worked in rural markets, as also those that didn't, have been well documented. Riding on the increasing penetration of mobile devices and internet, social media and e-commerce are no longer the things of the future in rural India.

Coming well after the mid-point of the event, on Day 2, my job was to pick a few widely recommended “hows” (the strategies) from the preceding sessions, and share my thoughts on “how exactly” does one go about implementing them.

I picked four “hows” and went on to prescribe “how exactlies” based on the lessons from ITC e-Choupal experience… 

How 1: Because rural is a ‘connected community’ and the rural people are ‘social’, you must work through “Opinion Leaders” to influence the buying decisions of rural consumers.

Such Opinion Leaders could be Panchayat Presidents, Large Farmers, Shop Keepers, Teachers, and so on…

How Exactly does one go about finding the right Opinion Leader relevant to my offering and my context?

Step 1 is to figure out the exact role such a person would play in your business model, and accordingly determine the relevant profile.

For example, it could be a Value Chain Intermediary who is making up some missing infrastructure to improve efficiency.

Like the way the village money lender knows whether or not to extend an additional loan when the previous loan has not been repaid. Despite the missing credit rating infrastructure, he would know what to do because he knows whether the crop has failed, or if an unforeseen domestic expense has come up, or if the farmer simply wants to renege despite having cash on hand.

Or the way an Adathiya in the Mandi knows if the lot of agri produce has to be priced higher or lower than the average. Despite the missing laboratory infrastructure, he would know whether the lot has more of good, bad or ugly material. With one look!

That’s how the role of Samyojak came into being in ITC e-Choupal system. One of the roles of Samyojak, located at Choupal Saagar (the hub of the hub & spoke e-Choupal architecture) is to disburse cash to farmers. While the Banks offered to do this job at a cost of 1.0% of transaction value (accounting for the cost of a bill clerk, a cashier, and a security person, working in two shifts to service our working hours of 0700-2100), the adathiyas were ready to do this at 0.25% by combining all three roles into one! We found a Samyojak in the adathiya. He was making up for the missing cash-less transaction ecosystem. One day, when the infrastructure is in place, Banks will be able to do this more effectively.

Other example could be an Influencer who demonstrates the value of an offering through personal usage. Sort of a “lead consumer”.

It is important that the rest of the consumers perceive this person as “one amongst them”. Not the Agent of a Company, promoting their offerings. Nor should the companies see him as a Leader of the farmers / consumers as in a Trade Union context.

Thus, a medium sized farmer became a Sanchalak in the e-Choupal system. Not a large farmer, nor a shop keeper or a teacher with whom the majority of the farmers cannot identify with.  

The Choupal Sanchalak was the “go to” person for both the villagers (when they had an issue with the companies riding on the e-Choupal platform) as well as the companies (when they had an issue with the villagers). Sanchalak was “one of us” for both the parties!

To my mind, this unique institution of Sanchalak is a bigger innovation in the ITC e-Choupal model than bringing Internet to the villages when most of them hadn’t even seen telephones!

The social capital of the Choupal Sanchalak is further enhanced through a public oath he takes in front of the whole village that he would act a like trustee etc.

How 2: Although the rural consumer’s aspirations are more urban-like, you must tailor-make products for rural consumers and their contexts because rural is heterogeneous (eg. single razor vs multi-blade systems

You must co-create with rural consumers, because you can’t otherwise keep up with the speed with they are changing. They are not urban consumers with a standard time lapse, as someone said.

How Exactly do you co-create? This is an often-used but hardly understood phrase!

It may be easier to understand co-creation, if we first understand what is not J

Co-creation is not more research. It is not bringing consumer voice to the boardroom.

Co-creation is not crowd-sourcing ideas.

Co-creation is not even marketers immersing with consumers and developing empathy.

Co-creation is not testing company-centric product designs with the consumers.

Co-creation is giving consumers the tools and structure that allow them to become designers!

Sanchalaks – as lead consumers (of crop management knowledge, for example) – were integral part of the e-Choupal web portal design team. It was at their instance that a typical “best practices’ content was structured as “current practices, what is right or not right with them” and “why some practice needs to be changed, and then the recommended practices”. This helped add credibility to the portal that the scientists panel understood their context and then only were recommending something else, rather than a conventional expert style instruction…

The structure of periodic village meetings with all the farmers, further rolled up into Sanchalak Sammelans, helped embed their insights and inputs into the continuously evolving design of e-Choupal on an ongoing basis instead of an occasional feedback system…

We pleasantly realised that the brand “e-Choupal” was owned by the community, and that ITC was a mere trustee, when such a co-creation process articulated the brand tagline as “kisanonke hithme, kisanonka apna” in the very second year of the initiative.  The highest level any brand can attain, to my mind J  

When everyone was looking for a low-cost-last-mile to reach the rural markets, ITC e-Choupal was working on an intelligent-first-mile by working together with the communities.

How 3: You must forge partnerships to win in the “high-cost-to-reach but low-ticket-size” rural markets

Partnerships are relevant from many angles, how exactly do you determine what kind of a partnership does one forge?

I have a product, you have the channel. Let’s partner to expand outreach?

I have a product targeted at a market. You have a non-compete product for the same market. Let’s partner and go to market together and cut costs?

All such partnerships are eminently worthwhile. But the best partnership potential is in creating what is called a meta-market.

There is a fundamental disconnect in the conventional markets. Consumers think in terms of activities; companies think in terms products / services. For example, a car buyer would think in terms of information to understand the features of cars available in the market, source of credit, dealer in the vicinity, insurance, RTA etc. Each of these belong to a different industry, each trying to reach the consumer independently!

What a meta-market does is to cluster such complementary products / services and offer a complete solution to the consumer.

In the context of agriculture, farmers think in terms of weather forecasts, market prices, access to farm inputs, credit, insurance, markets for the produce, and so on… The ITC e-Choupal ecosystem assembled all these players from diverse set of industries on one platform to offer a seamless market experience to farmers / consumers at one place, right in the village! As many as 160 organisations ride on this platform today!

How 4: You must leverage technology to operate in the rural markets, because it can cut costs through remote delivery as well as personalise offerings

There is so much technology around me, how exactly do I use technology? Mobile advertising, geo-coding?

Simple! You understand the unfulfilled consumer needs and the current business processes first, and then see what role technology can play. Not the other way round.

For example, when the farmer goes to a mandi to sell his produce, four transactions are rolled into one. Price discovery, Sales, Delivery, Cash Collection. The sunk cost of transportation he has incurred even before discovering the price forces him to sell at whatever he is offered. Taking the produce back doubles his transportation cost with no guarantee that he would fetch a better prices next time he comes to sell.

ITC e-Choupal brought price discovery process to his doorstep using Internet (supplemented by the quality testing by the Sanchalak) empowering him to decide when and to whom he would sell without the pressure of a sunk cost.

When he sells to ITC, we have the ability to stack the produce of different farmers in different lots pooled as per our quality norms rather than the random aggregation done by the adathiya in a mandi. This helps preserve identity and maintain product integrity, so critical for the success of our brands.

A win more + win more solution enabled by technology J

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Union Budget 2015: Agriculture

“By the time of the 75th year of Indian independence, …India (has to) become a prosperous country and a responsible global power… Madam Speaker, I am mindful of the five major challenges I have to reckon with. Firstly, Agricultural incomes are under stress…” said the Finance Minister in his speech today.

His response to this rightly identified foremost challenge is embedded in three policy statements made in the budget, two sets of budget allocations, and some hope.

The Policy Statements:

1.      “I intend this year to work with the States, in NITI, for the creation of a Unified National Agriculture Market”, promised the FM. Such a unified market has the potential to transfer a larger share of the consumer price to the farmer. When the Economic Survey asserts, “If persuasion fails, it may be necessary to see what center can do, taking account of the allocation of subjects under the Constitution of India”, one sees some hope in converting this potential into reality.

2.      “I propose to merge the Forward Markets Commission with SEBI to strengthen regulation of commodity forward markets”, said the FM. Hopefully, this will ensure dusting the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s Report on the Forward Contracts (Regulation) Amendment Bill 2010, and introduction of Options and other forward looking instruments.

3.      “We need to cut the subsidies leakages, not subsidies themselves” declared the FM. Indeed subsidies are needed for the poor; what we need is a well-targeted system for subsidy delivery. For, these leakages distort the market and act as disincentive to private investments in the sector. As much as 42% of the grain distributed in the Public Distribution System leaks back into the open market per a study. The JAM trinity can help in Direct Transfer of such Benefits, minimize distortion and nurture vibrant markets.

The Budget Allocations:

1.      Rs 100,000 Crores is allocated to Rural Infrastructure Development Fund, and various Long & Short Term Rural Credit Funds. This will surely raise the investment capacity of the farmer and step up the Gross Capital Formation in the sector, besides expanding the much-needed rural infrastructure.  

2.      Funds already allocated to the ‘Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gramin Kaushal Yojana’ and the Scholarships and Loans promised under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Vidya Lakshmi Karyakram’, will enhance the employability of rural youth in non-farm jobs. This will improve the ratio of arable land available per agri worker, which is otherwise deteriorating to unviable and unsustainable levels.

The Hope:

The Economic Survey reiterated the importance of agricultural research, extension, irrigation, mechanisation etc as the key drivers of growth of the sector. Hopefully, the funds allotted under different Government schemes, such as Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, the National Food Security Mission, the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture, the Soil Health Card Scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana etc, are channeled to appropriately technologise our farming to deal with the extreme weather variations which have now become the norm. Many of these schemes have been folded into the new Krishionnati Yojana, and the funding has been curtailed, with the FM expressing hope that the States will put in the required money from the higher allocations they now have from the 14th Finance Commission formula. I hope that hope is not belied...

It’s only then that the Amrut Mahotsav of our independence will be sweet!      

Monday, 16 February 2015

A New Deal for Oilseeds

Despite being one of the largest producers of oilseeds in the world, India’s import dependence has doubled over the past few years owing to expanding consumption of edible oils and stagnating production of oilseeds. The country imported vegetable oils worth $10 billion in 2013-14 compared with $5 billion in 2007-08. If this growing demand has to be met without adding to the country’s current account deficit, oilseed production and domestic manufacture of edible oils have to be ramped up significantly.

Yields down
Farm yields of oilseeds such as groundnut, mustard, soyabean and sunflower are barely 50-70 per cent of global averages. Demand for edible oils is likely to increase from 18.3 million tonnes (mt) in 2013-14 to 25.7 mt by 2020-21, with imports expected to touch 15.8 mt rising 40 per cent from the current level of 11.2 mt. It is possible to address this alarming deficit through a set of policy interventions that will enable expansion of area under oilseeds cultivation, increase farm productivity, and improve value-addition within the country.

Lack of incentives
The farmer gets no incentive to invest in oilseeds, in competition with cheap imported oils in the absence of any import restrictions. The recent removal of export duty on palm products by Malaysia and Indonesia to reduce their inventory has resulted in a spike in imports and a resultant downward spiral of domestic prices, adding to the woes of the farmer. India’s import of vegetable oils is expected to touch a record 12.3 mt in the current year. Avoidable costs such as multiple handling due to APMC regulations, mandi cess, etc make domestic manufacture of edible oil an expensive proposition, limiting the scope for value-addition.

Strategies suggested
To meet this challenge, CII has recommended a three-pronged strategy:
One, raising farm productivity through a complete package of practices i.e. new technology, quality inputs and farm-extension services; and linking farmers effectively with markets. The Integrated Scheme for Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize (ISOPOM) and National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) need to focus especially on increasing availability of high quality seed material to the producers. The private sector can focus on other inputs, and extension services.
Two, farmers need to be incentivised to undertake oilseed cultivation through higher price realisations. This can be done by raising import duties to bring prices on parity with domestic cost of cultivation. In due course, as the productivity improvement measures succeed, Indian prices also will be globally competitive. Based on recommendations from CII and other stakeholders, the Government has increased import duty on crude oil to 7.5 per cent from 2.5 per cent and that on refined edible oil to 15 per cent from 10 per cent.
Looking at the future price trends, there is room for further increase in rates, without hurting the consumer interests. In any case, the bound rates under WTO are also far higher than the current levels. The additional revenue generated can also be ploughed back into increasing oilseed productivity. There is also a need to lower transaction costs in the domestic value chain by lowering the mandi cess to a nominal 0.5 per cent. Reforming APMC Act to allow farmers to sell directly to manufacturers at their factories or warehouses will also fetch them better returns by reducing unwarranted multiple handling costs.
Three, increasing acreage of high oil content oilseeds is another key requirement. Cultivating more mustard in Punjab and palm in coastal areas can be explored. Between Punjab and Haryana, wheat is cultivated on some 6 million hectares. Part of this could be redirected towards mustard to meet the edible oil demand. This will also help the situation of depleting groundwater tables in these States. More wheat can be grown in the eastern parts of the country.
The area under oil-palm cultivation can also be increased to provide a rich source of edible oil and crude palm oil, which are widely imported. The Government has identified 19.30 lakh hectares as suitable for plantations. However, oil-palm is cultivated on only about 2 lakh hectares despite two decades of effort. Moreover, a major part of these plantations are still pre-mature and are yet to yield oil-palm. Declaring oil-palm as a plantation crop, along with policy support to allow better germplasm import can attract more investments into the sector.
The rich agro-climatic conditions of India offer an opportunity to produce a wide range of oilseeds globally competitively, when nurtured with the right policy environment. There is no reason why the country should remain an importer of edible oils for all times to come. 

Published in The Hindu Business Line at