The Value of Sowing Old Seeds Instead of New

Musings from Yoxi Executive Director, Kaz Brecher

In our Field Notes series, we share perspectives and insights as we take a closer look at the work being done by Yoxi explorers on their inspiring journeys of discovery. When we first met Usha Venkatachalam, she was running Appropriate IT, which develops solutions and expertise to utilize the power and promise of information and communication technologies (ICT) for sustainable social change across the world, particularly for underprivileged and underserved populations. While ICTs have revolutionized the ways in which people, organizations, and corporations communicate, collaborate, and create wealth, in some ways creating a borderless world, accelerating globalization, fostering extraordinary communities, producing people-powered movements, and generating innovative sources of commerce, many specific groups have been left out of ICTs potential to transform. Usha’s latest effort is Krishi Janani, a group buying and selling platform helping farmers secure better deals.

The Promise of the Butterfly Effect

Many of us have seen the beauty of the Monarch butterfly, but few know that every fourth generation a cohort of so-called super-butterflies are born. Each of the preceding generations complete their life cycle in about a month, migrating farther and farther north. But the special super-butterflies are the ones to migrate south, with all of their energy stores directed to the 80-plus days and 3000 miles of travel to their winter hibernation sites, from southern Canada to central Mexico. Usha Venkatachalam immediately calls to mind this kind of tenacity and courage, and it’s no accident that she has used the super-butterfly as a metaphor for the kind of capacity she’s passionate about fostering in young women through her entrepreneurial pursuits.

Usha spent many years in Washington D.C. working in both technology and social impact, including a stint at NASA. But her longer-term calling emerged at the intersection of these disciplines as she found herself returning regularly to India with Appropriate IT, eventually launching a Development Academy (AIDA) aimed at addressing social inequality by creating opportunities for underprivileged youth, particularly girls and young women, through training in software development, communication, and leadership.

In parallel, it made sense to maintain an Innovation Lab, using applied research and incubator services to pilot innovative solutions, explore emerging technologies, and establish collaborative ventures to solve long-standing social issues. The project-based approach that Usha used with the young women enrolled in AIDA and working with the Innovation Lab led her to see the glimmer of an opportunity around the ways in which women participate in the sprawling agricultural communities in southern India. And this is how Krishi Janani came to be developed, out of literal field research.

As Usha gets out in the field, she learns that Farmer “S” was a conventional farmer who converted to organic agriculture for economic and health reasons. Whatever the challenges, he believes that organic is a more profitable path, if only the transport logistics and sales & marketing can be figured out. Instead of focusing on their core competency (farming!), survival demands they be supply chain experts and great marketers, placing multiple burdens on their already overworked lives.

“You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” ~ Ray Bradbury.

As they tell it, Krishi Janani is “building a for-profit social enterprise for farmers in India on the twin wings of impact and profit.” Launched in April 2016 as a membership program to aggregate small farmers’ purchasing power, it provides market access services — buying and selling — to farmer-members in its network. Sound familiar? Just like Groupon, Krishi Janani leverages the power of the collective when buying products or services directly from manufacturers to procure higher quality products that were previously unaffordable to most farmers, passing along savings from wholesale discounts. And while the benefits of their three-pronged approach are obvious and have immediate and profound impact — reduce expenses, increase income and improve productivity in farm households — it’s the bigger vision to utilize the power of technology to revive, renew, and regenerate the agroecology across India (and beyond!) that provides the motivation to keep sleeves rolled up.

As Krishi Janani’s fearless leader, Usha is uniquely positioned to cross-pollinate knowledge between worlds as she straddles global fundraising efforts, keeping up with ag and fintech advances, and tapping into her network of entrepreneurial changemakers. A light bulb went off for her when she realized that a group buying system could deliver transformative short-term gains to farmers who would not otherwise have been interested in or able to adopt more environmentally-sound practices which lead to long-term resilience. Additionally, this could double as the catalyst to evangelize the benefits of agroecology, the study of ecological perspectives on agricultural systems, while providing new opportunities for women in the farming ecosystem.

But combatting the devastating impact of 50 years of marketing messages from the government and big business would take more than an app. So, Usha dug in to build and staff two Rural Ag Tech Centers for the purpose of community building and education, to be run by young women from local communities. They serve as hubs for distribution of farm inputs, a watering hole for knowledge exchange and experimentation tips, including demonstrations from manufacturers and training in regenerative methods. Usha quickly added a mobile shop-front out of necessity to extend logistical and educational services, but it has proven to be an invaluable source of advertising as well, sparking curiosity and garnering attention and excitement.

Women’s Empowerment by Any Other Name…

But while the expos, field visits, and demos have introduced new technologies to farmers, they have also underscored the value of traditional knowledge — and highlighted opportunities to dig for more nuance in Usha’s central mission to empower women. It quickly becomes clear that in these rural farming communities, women are often as involved as the men but they aren’t the obvious leaders. For instance, when a bank manager comes around to present new products to male farmers, even though the women may sit inside, they are actively listening to the pitch.

In many ways, women are equal partners, with decisions being collectively made and work in the field shared, but their public participation is significantly limited and, as a result, much less well understood. When viewed from this angle, an evolutionary approach, over a revolutionary one, seems to be best suited to transforming the system. But in Usha’s experience, very few Western impact investors or venture capitalists are willing to invest in efforts that don’t look like they overtly or immediately “empower” women — a huge miss from a human-centered design perspective, which requires keen cultural observation for critical a-ha moments.

Usha is quick to underscore that a big part of why Krishi Janani has 3300+ members just one year after launching (which includes almost 10,000 people in farm households!) is her deep commitment to and love of India. She differs sharply from many of the development folks who show up wanting to change things because they think they can do it better. She may use a plethora of post-its and Lego and newfangled design thinking methodologies from Silicon Valley or her time at the THNK School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam to uncover leverage points in the field, but the foundation of her success is an authentic appreciation of the unique beauty of her country, the historical context and structure of farming communities, and a humility that recognizes “new” isn’t always better.

Usha Venkatachalam, the founder of Krishi Janani, sharing her usual wit and wisdom with fellow innovators and entrepreneurs, including Chid Liberty of Liberty & Justice, another Yoxi explorer

A Closer Look at the Front Line of Farming

In addition to harnessing food systems as fertile ground for experimenting with gender equality, it turns out small farmers are at the forefront of the global challenges that we face today — not just food insecurity but also poverty, water crisis, and climate change. The so-called “green revolution” which began in the 1960s, when industrial farming practices were aggressively pushed by governments in developing countries, created a legacy which is anything but rosy.

A recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summed up the problem bluntly, stating: “Past agricultural performance is not indicative of future returns.” With swelling populations becoming upwardly mobile, extractive agriculture is taking its toll in trying to keep up with demand. Soil degradation, groundwater depletion, increasing input costs, and shrinking incomes add to the pressure as quality of life is sharply in decline for farming households. If technology can enable farmers to fight these calamities, it will ensure health and well-being for both our food producers and our planet.

According to the 2014 USDA census, in the United States, the number of farmers age 25 to 34 grew 2.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, a period when other groups of farmers — save the oldest — shrunk by double digits. A recent Washington Post article notes that these young farmers won’t be able to replace the ones we’re losing, in knowledge or numbers, but they’re more likely to “grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in their local food systems via community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets.” And this is becoming increasingly important as the myriad environmental concerns, from drought to floods, are only compounding the issues we’re seeing when soil becomes further degraded and poisoned as we demand more yield from each planting.

In India, these same challenges are unfolding on a scale we can hardly fathom, where there are 90+ million agricultural households. 80% are small farmers who own less than 2 hectares. Average monthly income is ₹6426 ($99) and consumption expenditure is ₹6223 ($96), of which agricultural expenditure (crop & animals) is ₹3580 ($55). And they are caught in a downward spiral as extractive practices overdraw natural resources, only to exacerbate the worsening environmental challenges. All of this unfolds against a backdrop of the worst drought India has seen since 1876. That Indian farm economics are stretched thin and farmers are facing a crisis is a dangerous understatement. Household debt and farmer suicides rise year after year. It is in this context that Krishi Janani was launched.

History May Hold Hope for the Future

At Yoxi, we believe using zooming in and out for varying perspectives in our reference frames is one of the keys to impactful innovation. Particularly interesting in the case of Krishi Janani is that their business model has benefitted from zooming back across time as well as zooming out to take in the big picture, looking to several previous generations for inspiration and clues on what has been lost that might serve the ecosystem of farmers and their families. Despite the widespread implicit assumption that modernization writ large is a good thing, and that modernizing will have an empowering impact on women, in rural Indian farming households, the exact opposite has been true.

Where previously women held many traditional agroecology roles, agribusiness has made them redundant in the push towards efficiency and monoculture. For example, Usha’s grandmother selected and saved seeds, safeguarding them through the seasons, and providing the critical ingredient for the next growing season. Usha’s mother inherited this knowledge, but as the shift toward purchasing seed from large conglomerates took hold, she practiced less and less, eventually losing touch with the role. And the transmission of this knowledge wasn’t passed along to Usha in her upbringing.

Just as agroecology itself requires framing food production as only one aspect of an overall system, we need to remain vigilant about the unintended consequences on social structures when “optimizing” for only one or two factors (i.e. crop yield and cost). This kind of narrowing and centralization, creating monolithic agriculture systems, has dire consequences for the whole, as we’re seeing the result of the environmental degradation impacting not only fragile crop cycles but also farm household well-being, including the ongoing disenfranchisement of women. The current Krishi Janani member households make up just 1% of the three districts in which they’re now operating. Imagine what they could do if they expanded to enroll just 1% of the 90 million ag households across India?

Krishi Janani’s two centers — KJ Ponnapuram & KJ Kurumandur — celebrated a landmark last March, when they each signed up their 1000th member!

Navigating the Blank Spots of the Map

As we head into 2018, Usha and the Krishi Janani team are focused on experiments with training and enlisting farmer-members into an Agent Network, to evangelize and spread what’s working, while collecting more insights from further afield. Then, as needed, the mobile education center can determine the best locations for additional centers. With the online platforms providing communication and transaction technologies and tech-savvy young women at the local Rural Ag Tech Centers acting as digital intermediaries, farmer data and feedback can inform new features like the equivalent of a Craigslist-type peer-to-peer listing and lending service. Finally, a vision is coming together around a string of demonstration farms which could serve as both inspiration and embodied exemplars of what’s possible when agroecology is fully embraced.

The journey into the unknown can be long and lonely with lots of potholes and pit stops, left turns and speed bumps. And asking audacious questions like, “how might we empower small-scale, rural farmers (including women) in India to holistically improve their outcomes while positively impacting the environment and community using technology?” will never be easy. But Krishi Janani is well on its way to enabling these farmers to extend their gains into transformative global impact by building social capital, finding micro solutions for complex global crises such as climate change, and creating local economic wealth in depressed rural economies.

We have been cheering as Usha continues the journey of a super butterfly — guided by quiet confidence, minding the signs and signals as she course corrects, and humbly seeks help when she needs it. Yoxi is proud to support this thoughtful exploration by offering strategic advice and follow-on investment. As we deepen our involvement with Krishi Janani, we will be experimenting with ways to capture all of the promising directions and complex interconnections, so that we can share tips with fellow trailblazers.

We’re especially excited to see what new insights spring from tending to old seeds!

This interactive mapping will evolve over time, so check back as we explore the complexities of how rural farming practices in India intersect with Krishi Janani’s technology and services.