A farmer walks into the Organic Mandya store and puts a big bag of tomatoes and chillies on the table. The cashier weights it to be approximately 4.5 kg and 1.25 kg respectively and hands him a few crisp notes. The farmer pockets the money and walks away. The entire process took no less than six minutes. There were no delays, negotiations, middlemen or disappointments.
But Mandya wasn’t like this a year ago. In July 2015, more than 20 sugarcane farmers committed suicide. Perennially irrigated and verdant, Mandya is just about 100 km from Bengaluru. But the farmers are under the weight of heavy debt. Reports estimate that Mandya farmers owe banks Rs 1,200 crore in loans taken over the past year (2014-15). Government apathy, falling crop prices, excess stock and lack of guidance on proper farming techniques are the many reasons contributing to the grim scenario.
Disturbed by these prevailing conditions was 37-year-old MadhuChandan Chikkadevaiah, an IT professional living the life of dreams in California, but having roots in Mandya. Hailing from a family of farmers, Madhu was born in Mandya and spent his entire childhood in the sprawling 300 acres of University of Agriculture, Bengaluru, where his father retired as a Vice Chancellor. While Madhu went on to become a software engineer who worked across the globe, co-founded Verifaya Corporation that delivers automated software testing solutions to companies, he was always a farmer at heart.
In the entire world, the farmer is the only person who sells at wholesale but buys at a retail price.
He further explains,
Farmers are leaving their lands and migrating to cities in search of menial jobs. Lack of stability forces them to hop from one job to the other denying continued economic benefits. They are unable to take care of themselves and their families; eventually getting in to heavy debts and suicide. It’s a vicious cycle, albeit one which can be prevented. That’s what Organic Mandya set out to do – give farmers a prosperous, healthy life so that no one leaves the profession.
The seeds of Organic Mandya
When Madhu moved to Mandya, the first thing he noticed was a scattered landscape. There were many farmers who had shifted to organic methods, and practising indigenous techniques that were giving them decent yields. Yet, there were glaring gaps – lack of an organised market and information exchange.
Madhu’s first step was to gather passionate individuals (friends and ex-colleagues) who pooled in Rs 1 crore and he registered Mandya Organic Farmers Cooperative Society, bringing together nearly 240 farmers in the first phase. It took him eight months to complete all the government formalities and also establish Organic Mandya – the brand under which farmers will sell their produce.
We dabbled with many ideas – starting a chain of organic shops in Bengaluru, or an e-commerce website, tying up with restaurants and selling the produce. But none would allow farmers to directly interface with the customers. And to me, that was a priority. Until a customer realises the value of efforts the farmer puts in and a farmer understands customer priorities, farming will never be in vogue.
Madhu decided to leverage the Mandya Highway that connects Bengaluru and Mysuru, and he was convinced that travellers would stop by to buy his produce. To further enthuse people, he started an organic restaurant next to the shop. He says,
My strategy was that travellers will stop to have food and end up walking into the shop to buy their weekly groceries. But after a month or so, the trend reversed. People would first stop at our shop and that was fulfilling.
Incorporating the right practices
The real beauty of Organic Mandya is Madhu’s idea of connecting the farmers and customers. According to him,
On one hand, customers are hesitant to switch to organic given the costs, and on the other, a 24-year-old farmer dies of cancer caused by excessive chemicals his body was exposed to. It becomes imperative to educate people on the benefits of going organic and that cannot happen unless a common platform is created.
That’s how the company’s ‘Organic Tourism’ initiative took birth which has the following –
- Sweat Donation Campaign – A first-of-its-kind volunteering initiative that doesn’t ask for monetary contribution but sweat, Madhu says, “More than 20 percent of farmers’ yield is lost because of lack of timely labour.” In this initiative, people who enjoy farming or would want to experience it drive down over the weekend and work on Organic Mandya’s farms for the entire day. Citing an example, Madhu says, “A farmer (nearly 60-years old) was unable to spend Rs 3,000 for a day’s labour. But he needed to transplant his entire field. We put out a request on our Facebook page and had around 24 volunteers who completed the work in half a day.” In the last few months, the Sweat Donation Campaign has attracted over 1,000 volunteers from Bengaluru– right from college students to IT professionals and retired couples.
- Farm Share – Another unique initiative, Farm Share allows people to rent out farms of half to two acres for three months at approximately Rs 35,000 and grow their own food. The package allows families to stay on the farms for eight to nine nights over the three months and practice farming. In their absence, an Organic Mandya farmer will take care of the entire land. Once the yield is ready, families have the option to either sell the produce to Organic Mandya or use it for personal consumption. This ensures that farmers have continuous income as well as urban population is exposed to the joy of organic farming.
- Team @ Farm – This initiative encourages companies to bring in their employees for day-long farming activities, rural sports such as kabaddi, gilli dandalu and lagori, as well as farm tours such as the jaggery plant tour, which gives people a chance to understand the entire process. This is at a nominal cost of Rs 1,300 per day.
Reaping the benefits
It’s just been around six months since Organic Mandya has been fully operational and its well on its way to success. The cooperative has already over 500 registered farmers who collectively own close to 200 acres of land and are producing over 70 varieties for sale – rice, dals and pulses, edible oils, personal healthcare products, beverages, masalas and spices. In terms of revenue, the company reached Rs one crore in just four months. The monthly baskets priced at Rs 999, Rs 1,499 and Rs 1,999 have found many takers. “After all, who doesn’t want healthy supplies that will last an entire month that can be ordered online and delivered right at your doorstep,” asks Madhu.
But most importantly, Mandya is seeing reverse migration. Madhu says,
My biggest success is when someone returns from the city to start farming again. And so far, around 57 have returned to their land. This is only the beginning of a rural, organic revolution.
Road to a sustainable future
Madhu is well aware that sustainability is an important aspect for any business to flourish. But he wants to ensure that sustainability benefits both – farmers and customers. In the next one year, Madhu is working towards cultivating 10,000 families to generate revenues of approximately Rs 30 crore by making them buy monthly supplies averaging to approximately Rs 2,000 to 3,000.
He says, “The idea is to get families to register as our members, which will cost Rs 1,000 annually. This will have dual benefits – one is they will get a steep discount on all our products for the entire year, and second is we will introduce them to a range of healthy eating practices.”
Madhu’s boldest vision is to make the entire Mandya district go organic by 2020.