India is the second-most-populous country after China, with around 1.3 billion habitants as of 2020. Its farmer population is significant. While there are varying figures on its actual farmer population, it reportedly lies between 100 million and 150 million.
Most of those are disaggregated small to medium-sized farmers who typically lack direct access to markets for their produce, putting them at the whim of middlemen and low prices, a characteristic observed in other parts of the world like Africa too.
When Indian agritech Gramophone started out in 2016, it operated as a B2B marketplace for farmers to sell their produce to food processing companies and other buyers with the goal of getting them higher prices.
The startup, founded by Tauseef Khan, Nishant Mahatre, Harshit Gupta and Ashish Rajan Singh, also provided agronomic advice to India’s farmers after the realization that to improve their yields and incomes, farmers needed up-to-date and accurate information pertaining to weather, soil health, plant water levels and education on regenerative farming practices.
“Farmers more often than not get bad advice and we want to make sure that they are equipped with the right mechanisms for them to make the right decisions in terms of their farming activities,” Ramakrishnan M, vice president of financial solutions at Gramophone, tells AFN.
Providing ag-focused full-stack tech solutions
Like many farmtech startups targeting smallholder farmers, Gramophone evolved to provide a full-stack technology platform. After building confidence with farmers by offering agronomic advice to them, Gramophone sells farm inputs to farmers such as seeds, fertilizers, crop protection inputs, and machinery. A farm management system also features on the platform.
The farm management tool provides farmers with smart farming services such as crop nutrition management, disease prediction, as well as providing them with end-to-end crop lifecycle management.
Gramophone is also concerned about the long-term impact of farmers’ activities. According to Ramakrishnan, fertilizers in India are heavily subsidized. Farmers, therefore, have access to them but use the wrong combinations making the soil hard and killing its biodiversity.
Gramophone steps in to educate them on the appropriate fertilizers to use and how to prevent soil erosion among other farming methods that preserve soil health.
“This scientific approach optimizes overall input usage by farmers. We also give them quality inputs thus reducing their input costs. So it’s not about the margins or the trade in itself; it’s the overall agronomy engine in the backend,” Ramakrishnan says.
All this can be accessed through Gramophone’s mobile application. Farmers can also engage with the startup through a helpline, contacting local Gramophone agents, and walk-ins at local Gramophone stores.
“What we have seen is better advice leads to better practices, which leads to better yield,” he notes.
Embedding finance in the agri supply chain
A glaring challenge that remained despite all these challenges was farmers’ lack of credit to buy inputs and serve as working capital during the pre-harvest season.
This is why Gramophone decided this year to include a financial services offering on its platform. To achieve this, it is now partnering with Jai Kisan, an Indian agritech startup that provides credit to farmers and agriculture retailers. Jai Kisan just landed investment this year from Yara Growth Ventures and others.
Gramophone is working on an alternative risk assessment tool that will become fully integrated with Jai Kisan. This will involve the collection of basic farmer data, variables like farm size, the type of crops planted, what irrigation systems a farmer uses, and financial transaction history. This information is also the type of information that Gramophone has when a farmer reaches out to seek agronomic advice.
These are passed through a model which will determine a farmer’s eligibility for credit. If eligible, a limit is set in which they can purchase inputs from Gramophone.
The farmer then pays interest and processing upfront and can repay the principal after the harvest season.
Notably, Indian farmers have some form of credit history, according to Ramakrishnan, which aids in assessing their creditworthiness. Furthermore, India’s government via public sector banks introduced the Kisan Credit Card scheme in 1998. Under the initiative, farmers are issued with the Kisan Credit Card which they use to purchase agricultural inputs like seeds and fertilizers and cater to other production needs. According to Statista, 73 million farmers used the facility in 2021.
“Some of them (farmers) have good history and even those without history are bankable by Jai Kisan,” he says. With the credit facility, he hopes that farmers will be more open to trying out new technologies and products such as biological fertilizers as opposed to chemical fertilizers, which will improve soil conditions.
It has also been able to serve around 2.5 million Indian farmers. It currently has around 5,000 buyers on its platform, 50 of whom are food processing companies that form the bulk of purchases.
Through its efforts, Gramophone claims to have seen a 30% to 40% increase in farmers’ yields. The cost of inputs per acre has gone down to around 10% to 20%. Overall, it claims to have registered an increase in incomes of 50% to 60%, according to Gramophone’s impact tracking over its six years of operation.