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This startup supports smallholder farmers by providing access to the right inputs at the right time

Saiyed Faisal Rizvi comes from Uttar Pradesh, a region in Northern India where much of the population consists of smallholder farmers, and received a degree in Aerospace Engineering. He eventually went on to work as a digital consultant for a number of different startups. Through this, he realized that there was a shortage of startups in the agritech sector, and thought, “I have to start something.”

Rizvi started by spending two months surveying farmers and trying to understand exactly what the most urgent needs in the sector were. Through this research, he and co-founder Sudhir Kumar, a farmer himself with a background of using technology in agriculture, spoke with over 200 farmers directly and used government datasets of over 20,000 farmers to find the regions with the greatest need. What they realized was that one of the biggest challenges for farmers was getting the right inputs at the right time. With a clear vision in mind, Rizvi and Kumar officially launched Kisan India in February 2020. The company aims to ensure access to agricultural inputs in rural areas at the time they are needed.

Doorstep delivery of agri-inputs to marginal farmers

“If you have a good system, you will have the right product at right time.” Rizvi says. “What matters in agriculture is timing…farming is seasonal. And it is totally dependent on the weather.”

Kisan began as a village entrepreneur model, with locals taking on the responsibility of getting orders and supplying orders to farmers. Farmers themselves often know what products they want – they recognize the brand names and understand the value of premium products such as hybrid seeds. “We cannot say this brand is good, no, no – they know.” Rizvi says. “Rather than randomly buying anything, [the farmers] have the knowledge, so they will ask for the brand product.” That being said, the company has realized how important additional advisory services are to their model, and that a business such as theirs cannot rely on providing inputs alone.

One client that worked with Kisan was a man who had been farming for over two decades. Last May, his crops were beset by pests. He tried everything he could, buying various pesticides in the market to try to save his harvest, but even with all the inputs he had purchased the pest ended up affecting over 40% of his crop. A neighbor ended up sharing the phone number for Kisan, and the team worked with the farmer to gather information and understand the problem and solution. The pesticide that would be effective was not available in the general market, and so Kisan worked with the producer to procure it from the closest service center, over 100km away. A week later, the farmer had recovered 90% of his crop and killed the pest. That farmer saved five thousand rupees worth of crops – but the impact to other farmers in the area is also worth noting. “Pests travel like WiFi,” Rizvi explains. “They fly from one field to another, and the other farmers will get it too. It is a big challenge farmers are facing.” Had Kisan not been able to stop the pest at the source, it likely would have affected many more farmers in the area.

Despite both founders’ technological skillsets, this ability to talk to farmers – having a common background with the farmers they work – with was one of the key attributes that has helped them the most so far.

“We belong to the rural area and rural towns.” Rizvi explains. “We know how to communicate, how to get information from the farmers. In terms of getting data, instead of just formalities, we learn how much farming they are doing – how much land they are using for cultivation, and how many members of their family are doing farming, what they are putting in and how much they are able to sell.”

The challenges the business faces in growing and scaling in rural areas are often unique. For example, one challenge Kisan has faced has been keeping in contact with the farmers who are their customers. Often, farmers will purchase new SIM cards in order to take advantage of bonus amounts of phone credit, rendering their old numbers obsolete. “After selling, we lose numbers. We sold them things and then tried calling them but the number was switched off,” Rizvi says. With most farmers not having internet access, keeping any type of customer database becomes more complicated than for companies with different client bases.

Farm awareness campaign amongst the marginal farmers

The other challenge for Kisan has been keeping up margins. Producers of agricultural inputs often offer much better prices for wholesale purchases made well in advance of the planting season. This, however, requires large amounts of working capital, which startups don’t often have. Ensuring that profit margins are high enough to cover the operating costs of selling and distributing the products to the end-level farmers is key. Part of what Kisan hopes to do includes raising money from venture capitalists to fund the working capital that the company needs, and Manush Labs has been critical to helping Rizvi understand both the willingness of VC funds to invest in a company like Kisan and the best way to pitch the business. The biggest pivot was to see the broader picture of where these agricultural services fit in.

“Manush Labs transformed the whole thing,” Rizvi explains. “How we have to train the ecosystem rather than thinking by ourselves.”

Part of that support comes from the large international corporations, who need the final agricultural produce but don’t have the on-the-ground knowledge of how to best distribute inputs to farmers.

Despite the challenges that Kisan faces, the company has been growing rapidly over the past year – at one point gaining more than 1,500 new customers in 3 months. Rizvi ascribes this success to his drive and passion for transforming the smallholder farming sector in India. In time, he hopes to focus more on high-value services that are currently out of reach for many, such as soil-testing, and to increase partnerships with other companies and organizations working on different aspects of the same challenge. “Rather than selling lots of products to farmers, we want them to become self-sustaining.” Smallholder farmers in India face numerous challenges, some of which will become worse in the coming years as climate change increases the risk of extreme weather events, pests, and disease. However, Rizvi is optimistic that his company’s solutions will help its customers long-term, and suggests that a long-term goal can help when the day-to-day aspects of running a business can feel exhausting. “Every morning I get up, I feel like we have to modernize the modern farmer within 5 years. We have to work.”

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