“India is called an agrarian economy, but there is hardly anything agrarian about it,” points out Ajay Chaturvedi, founder-chairman of Gurgaon-based HarVa. “The grains are costly and neither the end user nor the farmer is benefiting,” he adds. The woe list continues as most of the cultivable soil has been destroyed from the heavy use of chemical fertilisers and many farmers are waiting for the land prices to go up so that they can sell out and pocket the profit.
Chaturvedi, an engineering graduate from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani and a graduate in management of technology from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, thinks little of the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and believes that value creation is important for any effort to integrate rural India with the mainstream. HarVa, which officially registered in 2008 and formally launched operations in March 2010, aims to do just this – provide rural women with opportunities to generate income by diverting business process outsourcing (BPO) jobs to them while simultaneously helping men revive their farmlands and return to agriculture, the natural way.
Sowing the seeds
Chaturvedi has over 13 years of experience in management, operations and information technology (IT) consulting across financial services, IT and ITeS industries in the U.S., U.K. and South East Asia. He was working with Citibank as senior vice-president, heading the strategy division prior to starting HarVa.
“The idea of HarVa took shape in 2002 when a business strategy class at University of Pennsylvania turned my mind inwards, and it developed when I was away in the Himalayas on a break. My travels across the globe also influenced my thinking,” says Chaturvedi. He was struck by the fact that in India, people have started wearing manmade fibres, using plastic bags and more, while in the U.S., people only wear cottons and are conscious in their use of plastics. “Yet, when I was growing up in Dehradun, it was exactly the reverse. We used to wear only cottons and carry cloth bags,” he points out.
He saw the plight of the farmers and realised that no innovation was taking place in agriculture though it was the backbone of the Indian economy. He wanted to start a venture that would focus on value creation based on self sustainable ecosystems that are not based on selling, financing and certainly not on charity.
HarVa wants to provide rural women with opportunities to generate income by diverting business process outsourcing (BPO) jobs to them and meanwhile, help men revive their farmlands and return to agriculture.
“The first challenge was to get the farmers to go back to natural methods of farming, but for that, their land has to remain fallow and then cash crops have to be grown to rejuvenate the soil,” he says. If the land remained fallow, they would need another source of income. That income would come from BPOs.
Trained to adapt
While the BPO industry is plagued by high attrition rates, there are millions without jobs. “Training is a challenge. But since it is only process training – training people in only one part of the process is a smaller challenge,” he says. And therefore, through his network, he started sourcing BPO jobs that he provides to women in the rural areas. He claims that 75 per cent of his customers are international companies.
He opts for women because they are the least likely to migrate and they can supplement the family income till the farms start yielding again. Soon, rural areas too would be talking of dual income families.
Simultaneously, HarVa also works with horticulturists to understand how the local soil can be rejuvenated and made fertile again. In Dehradun, for instance, lemongrass and aloe vera are grown since they can survive in low fertility areas and revive the soil at the same time.
In addition to these two services, HarVa also runs a career-counselling centre for students and lends through a microfinance arm. Harva will also play the role of offering farmers consultancy on the nature of crops they can grow, aggregate the products to create the volumes and find buyers. The returns will be in the form of a percentage for the services offered. Most of these services are in the experimental phase and restricted to small regions in the north of the country.
Geographically speaking, India is one country, but the cultural, social and climactic differences make it as diverse as working in different countries. “My model is scalable, but certain aspects cannot be replicated blindly,” explains Chaturvedi. So, if lemongrass works for Dehradun, it may not be the right answer for, say, Karnataka.
However, the BPO model is relatively easier to replicate and is hence, scalable. Currently, HarVa employs 150 people in four states – Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, and is targeting 10,000 people by 2015 with 100 centres in 20 states, primarily making revenues from local BPO clients and supplementary services. Thus far, HarVa has also worked on 120 acres of land.
Chaturvedi proudly claims that this is the first all-women BPO company in the world. It is funded entirely by him. “I had early stage investors. But I bought back my stake because our views did not match,” he admits candidly. He does not believe in self-help groups or the government’s ruling that two per cent of the revenues of companies should be spent on CSR. He is clearly focused on value creation and being cash-flow positive on a monthly basis, and is in no hurry to pursue funding opportunities. “We want to wait till we are 500 people strong before we go for funding and that too if we need it,” he says. Chaturvedi also says that as the need arises, HarVa will opt for debt funding. An area that he spends a great deal of time and money on is research and development and by his own admission, he is yet to break even.Self-sustaining model
One of his most difficult challenges is motivating rural folk. “My first attempt was an utter failure. The village we targeted was near the highway and we thought they would be responsive to our business plan,” he recalls. He had started with 15 centres and closed 10 due to lack of managers or lack of will in some regions. Even now, he realises the need to train managers in the BPOs that are up and running. Chaturvedi needs the managers to take charge of the local areas so that he can move on once they are self-sufficient.
The core team was formed by people who were convinced with his vision. “But since I am looking to expand, the challenge is to get people on a mass scale,” he admits.
HarVa arose from this question. Chaturvedi chose to let go of a top-notch banking job as it did not bring him contentment. His true calling came with the ambition to revolutionise Indian agriculture and he is willing to do all that it takes to really create an impact. There has always been a profit motive to his actions at HarVa for he believes that is the best way to make a self-sustaining effort. He has worked out most of it and is ready to go slow and steady, for rural India is different from urban India in more ways than one.
- Formally launched operations in 2010
- First women only BPO in the world
- Also offers consultancy services for farmers on improving land yield
- Offers student counselling in career and education in rural areas
- Employs 150 people
- Present in four states – Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh
- Targeting 10,000 people by 2015, with 100 centres in 20 states