IN CONVERSATION WITH MADHUCHANDAN SC
Smitha: Why did you start your venture in Mandya?
Madhu: When I wanted to come back to India from USA, I had enough opportunities in India. Transition was much easier. But when I look at people who have mass migrated to Bangalore from Mandya for the blue collar jobs, I saw that they don’t have an opportunity to come back to their roots if wanted to. So I wanted to be the change agent for them, hence Mandya.
Smitha: That’s a wonderful thought. But why agriculture?
Madhu: 25 years back, there was one general hospital in Mandya and today we have 55 nursing homes for the same region. The same road which had 1 medical store has 25 today! This clearly shows what we are eating is not safe. I wanted to produce healthy substitutes to food which might be genetically modified which are laden with pesticide.. Hence Organic Mandya.<Smiles>.
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
I am a trained software engineer born and brought up in Bangalore. I left to the US after my under graduation to work in the software industry. After a couple of years, I co-founded Verifaya Corporation that offers services around automated software test solutions. Life was great, but my wife and I were always felt a calling. We decided to wrap up our operations in San Jose, California and move to Bangalore lock stock and barrel.
Once I moved to Bangalore in mid-2014, Mandya district kept calling out to me – as that’s where my family originally hails from. Mandya is just about 100 km from Bangalore. Once I was back from the US in mid-2014, I came across a lot of people – sons and daughters of farmers who had mass migrated from Mandya in search of jobs in Bangalore. Usually they were all blue-collared jobs like office boys, in local restaurants and watering holes, spot and light boys in the world of cinema. These people had no job stability, or security, which meant they never had a steady source of income, that they could support and tide the farmer family back home. What they were earning was barely sufficient to make their ends meet. This meant borrowing money at extremely high interest rates. When unable to pay back, these people would take drastic steps like even committing suicide. The first challenge I wanted to solve was to see how to stop this migration, and get these people back to their families and working on the farms. This would create better stability to the agrarian ecosystem.
The second challenge that I saw, was Mandya had become the most dangerous place to stay in. Let me put this in perspective for you. Sudden mushrooming of hospitals, medical stores. Along with this, I did a quick math to check the average life longevity in Mandya; my grandparents lived close to 90 years, while my parents’ siblings barely managed to cross 62. What this meant was we have lost 25 years in one generation in life expectancy. This data point astonished me.
In addition, there was close to 1000 suicides in Mandya in 2015. Why this drastic increase in number? Reasons being, debt, government apathy, erratic pricing on crops, weather conditions and lacking knowledge on proper farming techniques and not enough labor. I am of the firm opinion that “In the entire world, the farmer is the only person who sells at wholesale but buys at a retail price.”
All these three things got me thinking. I realized that the migration was taking place because they felt there were no returns from farming; the shortening of the life expectancy was because people were consuming genetically modified food which were laden with pesticide and insecticide and also how can we support the farmers.
“Life was great, but my wife and I were always felt a calling. We decided to wrap up our operations in San Jose, California and move to Bangalore lock stock and barrel.”
“The first challenge I wanted to solve was to stop this migration, and get these people back to their families and working on the farms.”
“Mandya Organic Farmers Co-operative Society – This is the first in the world, where the urban dwellers have set-up a platform and supporting farmers.”
As first baby steps, we set-up a co-operative society called the Mandya Organic Farmers Co-operative Society with a cash pool of INR 1 crore in a PPP model. This is the first in the world, where the urban dwellers have set-up a platform and supporting farmers. This is unique. What we set out to do was ensure farmers have a platform or a mechanism to lead a prosperous, healthy life so that no one leaves the profession. The platform also promised an organized market and create an information exchange. We started off this society with 70 farmers; over a period of time this number has steadily grown to 400. The membership fee to join the cooperative is Rs. 1,000. We started offering good prices for their produce. Farmers can get their produce and sell it to us directly without a middle man, thereby eliminating any leakage in revenue. The society also started working with the farmers to educate and encourage them to implement organic farming techniques in their farms. It took me 8 months to complete all the government formalities and also establish the brand “Organic Mandya”. The products we would sell would be under this brand. Organic certification is also expensive. It costs close to INR 30,000 per farmer. Instead, what we have done is a group certification (export grade certification) of all the farmer (their land) part of the co-operative society. This brings down the certification costs to INR 50-100 per year of organic farming. Now the farmers have realized, that all they need to do is to become shareholders in the society to get certified. Also once in a week we do organic farming awareness coaching camps for farmers in 4 villages. In these camps, we train them an entire day on the new techniques and tips in organic farming.
Banking on my IT exposure I started to spread the word around and creating an awareness around the organic farming movement in Mandya. This created a lot of demand. Organic Mandya Facebook page has over 25,000 fans over a period of 6 months and they are from across the globe with a reach of over 6M people. We currently have a good problem. The demand is at 100% while supply is at 20% of the demand.
Please tell about the successes on this journey?
Organic methods reduce crop yield. Debunking this myth was a great success that I had on this journey. It takes 3 years for a farm to rejuvenate and purge put the chemicals when exposed to the complex chemical fertilizers and chemicals used today. During this 3 year period, produce from the farm is closely monitored. It is tested against the ph. ranges specified by the government. Only if below the range and leads to lower yield as the alkali content is higher. But as we move along the 3 year journey, and implementing the organic farming techniques scientifically, one can observe that the yields are far higher than the farm that’s heavily using chemical insecticide and pesticide. We started with 30-40 acres, today the organic land bank has grown to over 1400 acres in the last 6 months. We have done over a crore in sale in the last 4 months.
My background allows me to get the trust from the PE easily and the Indian IT industry to set-up an IT firm; but to set-up an organic farming co-operative society means is not an easy task. The farmers are generally vary to trust educated outsiders, as they have been cheated one too many times, as they have been promised the moon by many but nothing moves beyond that promise. It takes a lot of patience and time to get them over to your side. Me and my team had to spend hours educating farmers to join the organic farming movement. Though the society has received 1,500 applications from farmers expressing their intent to join the society, we scrutinized each and every application before taking new members. Through the Organic Madhya platform set-up, farmers are getting double the price for their products through Organic Mandya. The math is simple, even if the yield is less in organic farming, the price a farmer gets is double than what a normal farmer gets. This was the biggest battle we had to win, if we needed to get the farmers interested in organic farming. The first crop we got was organic vegetables. The first day we got 2 full bags of vegetables. It consisted of brinjal, tomatoes and radish.
One part of my problem was solved, when I could get the trust of the farmers. They were bringing in their produce. But my other part of the supply chain was how do I get to the consumer? How can I market it? During my trips to Bangalore from Mandya, I would stop at a certain spot for a tea. The next couple of times, I saw about 10 stores empty which were available for rent. These stores were slightly away from the highway. I constantly felt that I needed to do something to create a greater connect. I decided to open a super market, across 5 stores and a restaurant across the other 5. I felt the restaurant will be like a feeder using the organic vegetables from the store. The store would be an added attraction when people would stop for a comfort break, and browse through our organic products. With this thought, I blocked the space, paying high rent. Then came the uphill task of convincing a restaurant chain to open the restaurant. I started knocking on the doors of the popular chains like Maiya and MTR, but no luck. Finally after a lot of persuasion, Gokul agreed to open a restaurant in that spot. I was also discouraged by a lot of my friends in the cities on how I was being foolish of opening a super market in a village on the highway. But I had gut-feel that the farmer needed to see how we displayed his products create a greater emotional stickiness and become a hub. I felt that it would be great branding initiative. Day 1 of the store when we opened the shop, we were expecting a sales of 1500 daily. The day we opened our doors, 3200 was the sale on day 1; then all of sudden our sales picked up; we have generated sales of over 1 crore with over 100 employees. This is one of the best success stories not just from agriculture but also in the industry in general.
“Organic methods reduce crop yield – Debunking this myth was a great success that I had on this journey.”
“We started with 30-40 acres, today the organic land bank has grown to over 1400 acres in the last 6 months.”
“I was also discouraged by a lot of my friends in the cities on how I was being foolish of opening a super market in a village on the highway.”
“People who enjoy farming or would want to experience it, go over and work on Organic Mandya’s farms for an entire day during a weekend.”
Since we work in a close community, all our farmers belong to the same or neighboring villages. They are always in the knowhow of what’s happening in their surroundings. This also ensures that farmers don’t use pesticide or insecticide when implementing organic farming, apart from the checks from our quality control team, which performs regular checks.
I was also looking at how to stop this mass migration from Mandya. I wanted to bring back the pride that the farmer faces for his contribution to society. I used a 2 prong approach. One was to get more urban people to come and spend time in the farm. Every time people from the city will come in their cars to the farms, then the farmer immediately starts to feel happy and also acknowledged that there is value in what he/she is doing. We achieved this through “sweat donation days”. In this initiative, people who enjoy farming or would want to experience it, go over and work on Organic Mandya’s farms for an entire day during a weekend. I also counsel many of the young men/women who have migrated to the city to come back and get back to farming. I met a young man who was working for ICICI Bank in the loan recovery department. His father was already into organic farming and part of our co-operative society. I asked this young boy how much are you earning by working in the city? He said 12,000 rupees. Then I counselled the boy on how his father was a rue entrepreneur and was giving employment to many youth while making more monies definitely than what he was earning by being the city. Next time, I went back to visit the field; I met the same boy. I enquired if he was on vacation, instead there was a proud smile on his face and he said no sir, I have come back for good and going to working on the farm going forward. Like this over 65 people have been brought back from Bangalore and employed back in the fields and farms in Mandya. This would be the best measure of my success.
Monthly Basket – Provisions that land at your doorstep. To promote affordable Organic food we have recently launched 3 types of Monthly Grocery Baskets, each basket contains daily essential items sourced from various reputed Organic Suppliers. This ensures that the budget conscious home can still enjoy the organic ingredients without moving too far away from their monthly grocery budget.
Any role models on your philanthropy journey?
My grandparents are my role models. My grandfather especially, as he was a farmer himself and my grandmother who used to believe that inclusivity was key and ensure that she used to cook for all the workers in the field and care for them as a family.
What are your future plans?
My dream is to make Mandya to be a chemical free district by 2020. I want farmers and people to voluntarily take up organic farming to protect our soil and Mother Nature. This will ensure that marginal farmers practicing organic farming in Mandya district will lead better lifestyles and greatly benefit from this. This goodness from Mandya will also spread Pan-India leading to more farmers and more people to take up organic farming – like Organic Shimoga and Organic Nainital.
Our goal is also to strengthen production, and we are not looking to raise funds for Organic Mandya as of now.
We are also encouraging our farmers to do multi-cropping. In between sugarcane please grow onion, okra, brinjal. This ensures constant cash flow, even in the case of one crop failing. This also ensures that the PH level and the other mineral level in the soil is maintained, as each crop discharges different minerals which can recharge the soil again.
We have tie-ups with restaurants, institutions, industries that manufacture baby food (my little muppet) among others. These tie-ups seem to be on the rise and we only these ramping up rapidly.
We look to open Organic Mandya super markets across tier-1 and tier 2 cities. We have identified a couple of spots to open our next store in Bangalore.
“Our goal is also to strengthen production, and we are not looking to raise funds for Organic Mandya as of now.”
Come engage in organic farming, you will be happy, contented and also get health. It makes people a complete person. If you don’t know how to go about with the activity, then please come and join us in our sweat donation days or stay at a farm, so that you can sense a slice of life that can leave you extremely contented. Feel free to reach us at Organic Mandya if you need to know more.