The Corporate Farmers

The Corporate Farmers

Her favourite pastime is browsing and playing Farmville on Facebook. She also loves interacting with people and handles all matters relating to her staff, clients and business partners. “Just last month, I collected almost 3000 visiting cards,” she exclaims. It is indeed easy to believe Srivalli Krishnan, co-founder and CEO of Chennai-based eFarm (Enabling Farmers Reach Markets), when she says she is a people’s person. Hence, in her organisation as well, she handles marketing, HR, and crises. Her husband and co-founder, Venkat Subramanian is the operations and IT man, as he quietly takes care of making the processes smooth in the backend.

“There is no time to socialise with friends. But since my entire day is spent meeting different people through work, I really don’t feel the need.”

Both come from a corporate background. Krishnan was in the banking and finance sector, and also handled CSR – thus getting an opportunity to interact with the socially and economically challenged communities. She also has experience running her own venture when she was in college – selling dolls – and another in 2000, running an online pet store – omydog.com. Both are closed down, but the experience has helped her understand how to run a venture.

The idea of eFarm was Subramanian’s, who found his IT job boring. Krishnan, who is ever game to pursue a dream and a challenge, agreed to give up her career too. “After a point, there is no challenge in a job when you are doing the same thing day in and day out,” she says. Indeed, since starting eFarm, no day has been like another. “There is no typical day for us,” she says. The two are together in whatever they do or wherever they go. They could be meeting with the farmers, doing surprise checks at the collection centres, organising and conducting a workshop, or consolidating the backend.

Breaking a vicious circle

A glance at the newspaper can reveal such contradictory news headlines as ‘Tomato prices shoot up’ while another says ‘Tomatoes dumped due to excess production’ on a same day/week in two different cities. “This is because there is no real-time information exchange between farmers and consumers,” points out Krishnan. The farmer does not know who is buying and what his customer’s needs are. Similarly, the customer too does not know what is being grown, the quantities, the status of crops. Both have no meeting points as the vegetables reach the customer through the mandi or the modern retail outlet. According to Krishnan, close to 40 per cent of vegetables are wasted due to unplanned buying and selling. eFarm aims to facilitate better communication between the buyer and the seller through technology solutions.

eFarm buys vegetables directly from farmers and also from Koyambedu wholesale vegetable market in Chennai, sorts, grades them and supplies it based on consumer order. “We started retailing to understand our end customers and found marketing to be the main issue,” says Krishnan. Farmers no longer want to pursue farming and the next generation is already trained for other professions since farming has become not only unprofitable, but also not looked upon with respect. “But if no one produces food, then what are we going to eat?” Krishnan asks pertinently. The farmer produces in tons and needs to sell in tons. By providing him with weather, marketing and pricing inputs in real-time, and proactively collecting information from the relevant departments, the markets and the farmers themselves – as the case requires – eFarm expects to help the farmer improve his business. “This is already happening in the dairy and commercial crops segments. But there is nothing for the agricultural segment, which is where we step in,” she points out.

Encouraging entrepreneurs

eFarm hopes to take the franchise route to encourage other entrepreneurs to partner with them as franchisees in the agribusiness segment. “We have a model collection centre, where farm produce from different regions of Tamil Nadu are collected through mobile vans, brought to the centre, sorted, graded and then sold in Chennai,” explains Krishnan. The duo works with Tata NEN (an organisation that encourages student entrepreneurs) to encourage budding entrepreneurs to consider agribusiness and show them an operating model through its collection centre. They also do workshops in colleges to highlight the importance of agriculture for the health of an economy and the potential opportunities present. Differently-abled people are also hired in various activities, including voice support for farmers.

A couple of months ago, an online solution was launched for information exchange. The next step will be to enable e-commerce. eFarm also provides an SMS gateway for price and weather information.

Spreading across

Having seen the model work well in Tamil Nadu – the company has broken even and has been funded by Mumbai Angels – the next step is to expand to Karnataka and Maharashtra. “I feel we have learnt some things and can now move on to the next step to benefit a larger community,” says Krishnan.

The two also rely on their experience to conduct workshops, and call experts every month to help farmers, housewives, students and corporate companies understand agri-related issues – right from organic farming, to how to set up a retail outlet, or understanding what agriculture is and how we can contribute to it. “About 300 people have attended our workshops in the last one year,” she says.

eFarm employs 30 full-time people whose jobs are rotated so that they get to learn all aspects of the business. “If they can stick on to us, then there is much they can learn,” smiles Krishnan. She admits that it is not easy working for the company. “We mostly hire students as interns for two months. But I can be quite demanding and brutal if work is not done properly.” She also does the balancing act for her husband. “Sometimes he tightens the hold too much, and I step in to ease the tension. Sometimes he lets go, and I counter that too,” she adds.

Unwinding

Both Krishnan and Subramanian have worked hard to see eFarm become a reality. “There was a time when we lived out of our car for days together. Our office was wherever we went.” Now, they have a physical office space and more time is spent consolidating the backend.

The couple unwinds together and a favourite way to end the day is by arguing. They love to watch movies, especially by buying the Rs. 10 tickets in all leading movie halls. “I can watch movies in any Indian language. He falls asleep if he does not understand,” she says. Besides visiting temples regularly, she also loves reading books on mythology and ethnic anthropology.

Typically, weekends are time with the extended family. “There is no time to socialise with friends. But since my entire day is spent meeting different people through work, I really don’t feel the need,” Krishnan says. But these are enriching meetings as her interactions are with people from different walks of life.


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Her Favourite Pastime:

Watching movies

Playing Farmville on Facebook

Meeting people

Reading books on ethnic anthropology and history

Love visiting temples

Her Pet Dream:

India is an agricultural economy but agriculture and farming is on the wane. Krishnan reaches out to colleges and budding entrepreneurs to help understand agriculture and related businesses better, and encourage them to start one of their own. From entrepreneurs, she would like to be a facilitator who encourages others to find their footing in rural India.