For nearly two decades, Banarsi Das had practiced farming in the same way that his forefathers had done. He grew basmati rice, sugarcane and vegetables in the 25-acre plot in Bhutankadi village in Haryana’s Karnal district. When in doubt, he would ask his brothers or peers. At the most, he would go to the local government agriculture officer for advice. Early last year, officials from HAFED, the agricultural co-operative run by the state government, asked him to put a green SIM card in his mobile handset and listen to the five voice messages that would be sent to him every day. The co-op officials promised that it would help him increase the yield of his crop.
The rice harvest is now over. And Das is ecstatic. “Today I can safely say that I know more about farming through these messages than from the 20 years of farming,” he says. His average harvest of basmati rice has increased from 11 quintals per acre last year to 15 quintals. Those messages carried much-needed information on preventive actions against crop diseases, when and what fertilisers to use, and how to timely irrigate the crop.
The breakthrough that Das has achieved on his farm is music to the ears of Ranjan Sharma. In 2005, Sharma decided to chuck a 27-year-long corporate career in the fertiliser industry. While working in the fields, Sharma realised that “Even for progressive and affluent farmers of Haryana, credible information is hard to come by. Think about the poorer ones in the rest of the country. How many times will the farmer seek help from the agriculture officer? That these sources are not enough is obvious when with the same soil type and weather conditions, difference in productivity can be as much as 50 percent.”
That’s when he came up with an idea: Use the mobile phone as a medium to send information to farmers on better agricultural practices.
Sharma roped in two critical partners: IFFCO, or Indian Farmers Fertilisers Co-operative, which sells almost 40 percent of the fertilisers sold in India, and Bharti Airtel, the biggest telecom player in the country. That partnership resulted in IFFCO Kisan Sanchar, or IKSL. IKSL uses IFFCO’s huge network to sell co-branded SIM cards to farmers, who use them to make calls. They also receive five free voice messages daily on agriculture and related issues. In less than three years, the service is available to over 85 lakh farmers across 18 states.
While IKSL itself remains relatively small — it earned revenues of Rs. 170 crore and a modest profit of Rs. 20 crore last year — it has already proven to be an incredible rural marketing machine for Airtel, a fact that the telco would prefer to keep under wraps. Yet consider the statistics: IKSL accounts for almost half a million of the 3 million subscribers that Airtel scoops up every month across the country. No wonder Sunil Mittal, the founder of the Bharti group, would be glad that he took an early call to buy 24.99 percent stake in IKSL in 2007.
As for Sharma, he’s now divorced himself from operations and is working on new services that add more utility for farmers. In the coming years, he could be looking to list the company on the stock exchanges.
Fruits of Failure
IKSL wasn’t Sharma’s first attempt at turning entrepreneur. Within months of saying goodbye to the corporate world, Sharma set up Matrix Energy. The company promoted use of SIM cards in electric meters to monitor usage and thus reduce transmission and distribution losses. Even though the pilot project in Patiala, Punjab, was relatively successful, it failed to take off. “The government officials were not interested… I realised that just like a good seed, a good idea also needs water and fertilisers to grow,” says Sharma.
Ironically, that fertiliser came from the IFFCO management with whom Sharma had formed a good rapport during his career in the industry. “When Sharma approached me with the idea, one could see that it was a scalable proposition,” says Manish Gupta, director, strategy and joint ventures, IFFCO. Both of them went to IFFCO’s managing director and CEO U.S. Awasthi, who deputed a team to assist Sharma to launch a pilot project. IFFCO’s help was crucial. After all, the behemoth works through over 40,000 co-operative bodies across rural India and counts more than a third of the country’s 15 crore farmers as its members. Each of the co-operative bodies also has a retail outlet. The visibility and acceptance of IFFCO’s 44-year-old brand helped Sharma create an instant rapport with his target audience.
So while IFFCO’s outlets would become IKSL’s distribution arm and also help garner content, Sharma needed another partner to deliver messages. That is when he met his friend Sanjay Kapoor, who is now CEO of Airtel. “He agreed to help us on the pilot project. Airtel supplied the SIM cards and also gave access to its network,” recounts Sharma. If the pilot project took off, it would help the mobile operator. The penetration of services in rural India was less than 2 percent in 2006 and service providers were looking to increase their presence.
The pilot was spread across 11 villages in western Uttar Pradesh. Sharma himself invested Rs. 5 lakh in the almost year-long project. “We bought and distributed mobile handsets to village leaders, including elders, panchayat heads and co-operative members who would then pass on the information to farmers. Through a code supplied by Airtel, we used to send voice messages to them on weather, electricity and water supply schedules and crop protection,” says Sharma. IKSL opted for voice messages as opposed to text messages to deal with the problems of illiteracy among the rural population.
The project proved to be a success for all the partners. Farmers agreed that the information helped them. IFFCO’s outlets proved effective in distributing SIM cards; for Airtel, three of the 11 villages turned “100 percent subscribers” despite the presence of other telecom service providers. Infographic: Sameer Pawar