M Dinesh Kumar, from Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh, recalls the resistance from the farmers in this dry region when he tried to pursue farmers to shift to cultivation of millets instead of water-intensive groundnut. Farmers in this region which gets a paltry 500 millimetre of rains had been growing groundnut for the two decades or so as there was a ready market for the oilseeds leading to higher remuneration notwithstanding huge depletion of ground water.
A conservationist to the core, Dinesh started to think about long term solutions for the rainfed agriculture. This thinking had brought him to working on millets and eventually starting along with several likeminded people the Millet Network of India promoted by Deccan Development Society in 2008. The turning point was in 2009, when Anantapur received virtually no monsoon rains leaving most of the cultiviable land barren.
Dinesh mobilised the funds and support network to distribute around 15 tonne of millet seeds to the farmers covering around 5,000 acres. It was for the first time in last two decades that millets were being sown and despite severe drought the crop survived. Subsequently he founded Earth360 Eco Ventures with a sole mission to promote millet processing, marketing and besides creating awareness about highly nutritious millet. The company uses various technologies such as website, blogs, mobile phones and social media like Facebook to promote consumption of millets.
Through some borrowed funds, he ensured that millets processing facilities are provided to farmers thus leading to the creation of a small yet growing captive market for millet, a highly nutritious, non-glutinous and not acid forming foods. At present, the company with an annual turnover of R1 crore has helped around 10,000 farmers across seven districts of Andhra Pradesh to grow sorghum, pearl and finger millets. “As groundnut productivity has shrunk from around 480 kg per acre in 1980s to 220 kg per acre at present, my focus is to ensure that around one lakh farmers in the districts shift out of groundnut to more remunerative and less water intensive millets,” Kumar told FE. The recent decision of Andhra Pradesh government to help market millets through its agencies has given a boost to farmers taking up this drought resistance crop.
Inir Pinheiro, in his 30s now skipped placement offers after his MBA at the Xavier Institute of Management in Bhubaneswar, to start up his own company, Grassroutes. The company is a network of hospitality centres located in rural Maharashtra that offers tourists an opportunity to experience the richness of village life, while giving villagers a new livelihood. The centres are owned and managed by villagers.
The Grassroutes offers city dwellers a chance to holiday in India’s villages and get acquainted with its distinct local culture. The villagers are trained on keeping their homes clean especially the wash room. “The goal is to empower communities through tourism,” Pinheiro said. His startup is at present working with 500 families now. “Our goal is to create one million livelihood opportunities in rural India,” he said. The experiences of staying at a village is shared through websites, blogs, stories and social media thus getting the attention of domestic as well as international travellers.
The company, which recently got a nod from the Madhya Pradesh government to take rural tourism in 50 villages, has been sharing close to half of revenue earned with the local communities. “We do not equate tourism with infrastructure,” Inir said about the motto of his venture. Through using communication technologies — web, blogs, social media, the venture has been able to expand its outreach.
Ekta Jaju, from Kolkata has been working with around 2,000 farmers of Nadia district of West Bengal in marketing organic products like rice, millets, pulse and honey through ONganic, a startup. She said that a survey of farmers trained, revealed that the only reason they do not practice organic farming is because they do not have a direct market available for them to sell in. This learning was what gave rise to the idea of ONganic — a platform that allows farmers a direct market to sell in, thereby incentivising transitions into organic. The company sells organic rice besides other agriculture produce through using online platform besides through retail outlets.
These three new ventures or startsups by Kumar, Inir and Ekta have one common thread, that is, the support by an incubator for social enterprises set up through the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Enterprises (CSEE) located at Institute of Rural Management (IRMA), Anand, Gujarat. The incubator at IRMA which was recently launched, will work around three themes — agriculture and small agri-business, sustainable habitats and sanitation, and servicing rural India covering rural tourism, clean energy and education.
“Promoting startups which are focused on rural areas would go a long way improving rural incomes and such an incubation centre is one of its kind in the country,” T Nanda Kumar, chairman, IRMA said. CSEE would provide the startups with incubation support through mentoring and networking with IRMA’s alumni. Use of various communication technologies—websites, blogs, mobile phones etc which do not need huge budget, have been key strategy of these startups.
The department of science and technology, under its Innovation-Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Development programme had recently approved a five-year grant of Rs 2.89 crore to IRMA for supporting social entrepreneurs and enterprises focused on rural and social innovations. Besides, IRMA has been listed as a nodal agency by Gujarat government to support startups.