Many people ask me “What did you do to get an appointment to meet Mr Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet / Google?”
I would like to share below my journey to reach Mr Sundar Pichai. I never imagined that one day I will meet Mr. Sundar. However, I probably did all that Google was looking for an organization which is helping the Indian Farmer with modern Technology. It was our commitment, my team, my supporters, and the farmers, which led to this very significant event in my life.
When I met Mr. Sundar Pichai at the Oberoi hotel in Delhi, I did not expect it till that moment as it was kept a secret even to me. Till then the Google team told me that I would be meeting with a Senior Executive in Google. I assumed that it could be one of the Google India Top Level Officials. I was taken to a room in that Hotel. On entering, I saw Mr. Sundar Pichai. I was speechless and could not believe myself. Then I managed to regain my senses.
We started with a smile. One of the other executives present in the room said that as both Mr. Sundar and I are from Tamilnadu, “Why don’t we speak in Tamil?”. It was a pleasant surprise and helped me remain natural as talking in Tamil helped me express myself better. Mr. Sundar was very down to earth and started conversing with me in fluent Tamil.
Just like Athiyaman gave Gooseberries to Avvaiyar (the famous Tamil Poet) for her long healthy life, I handed over a pack of Indian Gooseberries to Mr. Pichai. I wished him health and happiness. He readily accepted it with a smile.
How did you start Vivasayam in Tamil App?
My father was a small agri trader from a village called Mathur in Krishagiri, Since my childhood, I had the opportunity to closely watch how the agri industry works. I started helping him at the age of 11, and acquired good knowledge about how this whole system works. I learnt from my father to grade various agri products. It was interesting. I notice, slowly the quality of Agri products going down over years. This is largely because farmers who produced good products did not get reasonable value for their products.
This led to decline in quality of the products, affecting everyone, from farmer to consumer. We do not normally notice this. This continued cycle has led to farming becoming unviable and not profitable. Many farmers quit their profession and ensured that their children did not continue, leading to lots of migration of people towards cities. I realized that the key reason for farmers’ suffering is that they do not have access to right information and consumers do not have access to sourcing quality products, even if they desire to. The intermediaries act to profit themselves but not in the interest of Farmers or Consumers. Information asymmetry is the important reason for this. People don’t know what is happening in the market. They cannot make informed decisions.
Growing up with Digital Technology, I liked to learn programming. After graduating in Visual Communication, I entered print media as an entry level Web designer. The experience in Print media taught me the role of media and how good responsible media can help the stakeholders. My dream is to use my knowledge in these three fields, that is Agriculture, Media and Digital Technologies to serve the farming community to support farmers, especially the small and marginal. They do not have access to latest knowledge, information about market, price, demand, weather issues, new ways of doing things and using digital channels to reach their market. In India, the farms will never become very large so that they can be corporatized. But these small farmers deserve the same advantage that large organized farms get from new technologies. Farming Farmer communities and bringing them together through digital means would be a great way to handle this challenge.
Then we launched AgriSakthi for Agriculture, largely in the local, Tamil Language. To address this gap. It was a tough journey to sustain this venture for many years now, without much income. Even as my father was suffering from Kidney disease, I spent all my time between two important things in my life, to take care of my father and my dream creation AgriSakthi. Eventually my father died. After that I started working on AgriSakthi with full vigor as there are many like my father in the agri industry who could earn enough to sustain their families and even take care of their health.
Thanks to Smartphones and Internet bandwidth, now I can reach more farmers who can use these devices and benefit from, in the language that they know.
Monetization has always been a problem. With the small advertisement income, we managed to keep the company float. I had to put all my other incomes from building a website to sustain Agriskathi. I may say, only my passion and strong belief helped me sustain. Also, I could manage to convince a number of young agriculture students to support me as interns. I was lucky to have got many mentors who encouraged me and supported me a lot. I still believe Agrisakthi will be one of the best services that Farmers in India can get. We want to go national and multilingual. AT the moment we are unable to expand as we do not have enough income. We will shortly.
I’d love to hear about some examples of the impact that Vivasayam has had.
We largely focused on educating farmers. For example, there were new crops and agriculture economic lessons like which crops have a market and what kind of pricing they attract and how to market them and how to protect from pests are important for farmers.
Based on our studies which we regularly published. Many farmers chose to change their crops and benefitted. Unlike News, Agri field does not attract much advertisement and the revenue was not attractive. But every time when we publish our magazine we got 100s of appreciation from many farmers and they thanked and encouraged us. This gave us immense satisfaction and motivation to continue against all odds.
There was a farmer who could focus on Cold Press Oil and he is today selling directly to many distributors after he came to know about the demand. Jaggery producers did not know that this has such a value and health benefits. We had to help such producers to understand the processes like online ordering, using simple tools like WhatsApp and Payments via Google Pay etc and complete the transaction. Now they have regular orders.
We also attempted to brand these products under a common brand to reach out to larger markets. But we could not completely achieve this as it requires Working capital. In the process we learnt a lot, we are hoping that when we have financial support, we can go ahead and implement directly to consumer brands. The idea is not just to make lots of money, but to enable farmers to get better realization, by building a viable model.
Many of these large ventures which speak about farm to fork and table etc, are not able to understand the local farmers’ challenges and their scale is not big. We feel that aggregating farmers in a small region, like a cooperative, is the way to go. Something like Israel’s kibbutz model. We are confident we will evolve a new cooperative model that suits India and modernize the industry for the benefit of all stakeholders.
The advice given by our Agrisakthi to the goat and cow breeders and disease prevention measures were very useful for the farmers. If you send a picture, please send a suggestion. Even after illness We helped them. This reduces losses due to sickness. We have regular columns by Veterinarians who share their knowledge to help farmers to manage the livestocks.
We see that there are opportunities to create some kind of Ai based models for disease identification. We are trying to see how we can create these systems, as we have access to large farming community people.
Tell me about a few experiences, positive or otherwise, during this process. How did this shape your entrepreneurial journey?
On the positive side, many people who had similar visions or seen some purpose in what I am attempting to do, joined me and extended their support without expecting any returns. Without them I could not be sustained so far.
Notable among them is my friend, Neechalkar Rajaraman. With Rajaraman I have developed some applications to study the data that we gather and analyze them to see where problems are coming. At this point, these models are not complete. But we get a sense with more data and some people dedicated to working in this area, we can certainly come up with models, which can help farmers with actionable and valuable information. Such as market forecasting, weather issues and disease prevention measures etc.
The big challenge is cash flow to sustain the business, the portal, magazine and our ability to market and venture into the real agri business model that we want to evolve as already described. We made a few attempts and failed because we could not manage working capital and scale. Some of these efforts resulted in loss, but we learnt lots of lessons. Such as appointing reliable dealers and ensuring scale.
One of the most frustrating issues is there are lots of adulteration and grade mixing of products. End users often are not aware of the quality of the products they get. Even if they are willing to pay. The system is so corrupt in some channels, that producing quality items or buying quality items are becoming a big challenge. We want to change this. We want to source from a responsible farming community, give them adequate prices and serve the end users honestly. We notice a number of responsible consumers are ready to pay the premium and support genuine farmers, if they could identify the right sources.
I give the demo how TTS in Tamil Help to Farmers who don’t know Tamil Reading. I am targeting all kind of Ways to reach the farmers. He told me Very good. Developers have lot of creativity. They only choose where what technology need, Really Hats of you to choose the right technology.
Based on this experience, we are clear that the following are important
- Knowledge and timely information are key to success
- Scale can be achieved only creating a cooperative model which works for Indian context
- Technology can be extensively used to reduce problems that are created because of lack of information.
- Young farmers / New Generation farmers are open to adapting new technologies.
- Earning Farmers trust is the key to success as many heavily funded startups did not treat the farmers well. They are focused on valuation and get rich quick models, which is hurting all.
- We feel the data that we have and the data that we can harness can give us much better insight into what is happening in this. Right now, we have acquired the audience and we are also able to engage with them. It is time to get the meaningful data and act on them.
- We also realize that this journey is going to be long and a bit tedious, but we are ready.
- We also realize the importance of putting the stakeholders’ interest first. That is farmers.
You seem to have a philosophy of making your content free and available for all, as long as it benefits the farmer. How do you intend to keep your business sustainable in the future?
I know a little about farmers. We cannot demand them to pay for information to start with. What we have done freely so far has helped us create a huge following and they trust Agrisakthi as a brand. At the moment, Google AdSense and Admobi are helping us get some revenue. I also invest my income from my Web / Software development company. It is cross subsidized.
We have slowly identified the most viable products to trade and started in a small way. Eventually AgriSakthi will be a common brand for all the farmers who will be brought together like a huge cooperative. And we would slowly start working on the end consumer side. To start with we are planning to set up branded genuine stores across the state. And later perhaps across India, like a farmer’s movement.
And also bring experts to teach farmers best farming practices and convince them of the crops to be selected and processes to be followed and the benefits of getting higher price realization etc. We will test and certify the products. We will also ensure safe and chemical free products which are attracting more customers. But our goal is to make this whole ecosystem viable and build a humane, sustainable ecosystem. We do not even see the players as competitors, our outlook is to act responsibly.
Because it is my childhood dream to help farmers who I have been observing since my childhood. I could have easily migrated to Cities to earn higher income. But my dream is different, that is why I have been doing all this work sitting in a small village in Pochampalli, employing committed youths who share my dream and mentors who support my initiatives.
We learnt a lot from Google. Our goal is to help our stakeholders and earn their trust. Once trust is built and brand is recognized well, then we can eventually make the business viable.
In What areas can we as Google add value to Vivasayam?
In many ways Google can help. Both technically and Financially. A few are here below
- Help us leverage Data science knowledge and with some expert assistance on collecting the right data and cheating useful datasets so that we can help farmers with right recommendations.
- How do we build these systems to leverage Ai / ML technologies? We do understand a bit, but not enough we see that experts can help us to do much better.
- We benefit a lot from Google’s various initiatives, for example, Google AppScale Academy. We learnt a lot.
- Our expectation is that Google generally provides the basic framework for building artificial intelligence technologies that detect quality agricultural products.
- If Google can consider helping us in Agri specific projects that are sponsored by them for India. Given our reach and experience, we would be able to partner with Google and jointly we can achieve the mission of helping Indian farmers and infuse technology into Indian farming sector.
My sincere and heartfelt thanks to Google. Google has been a great inspiration to people like me. You democratized knowledge and We want to extend this service to Farmers too. After all they are the sustainers of the planet.
Our commitment to serve this segment would continue.
Sage Thiruvallur Couplet is below
This translates into
Who ploughing eat their food, they truly live:
The rest to others bend subservient, eating what they give.
We owe our service to this community which sustains lives on this planet.
“When Sundar suggested I expand it across the country, I told him that this would involve language translation and additional expenses. He told me I could look into the Google Translate facility to offer the app in various regional languages and also bring down the cost,” explains Selva, whose aim is to use technology for the welfare ofpeople.
I asked him whether Google has any plans to make the training I received available to the wider population. He said that they are trialing it online so that they can provide it to much more than the 100 people or so they are doing now annually.
I was so pleased to have met Sundar Pichchai and conversed with him for more than sixteen minutes in my mother tongue Tamil. This meeting has provided me with a lot more inspiration to continue my journey of bringing innovative technological solutions to help our farmers.
I hoping with this recognition, more organizations would come forward to support our initiative with their CSR funding. Our grassroot reach has been very extensive. We have lots of valuable lessons learnt in this process. It is time for us to scale our effort. All these requires more effort, funding and harnessing the power of our stakeholders.