Mandi alternatives: How agri-tech startups beat lockdown blues

Mandi alternatives: How agri-tech startups beat lockdown blues


GURUGRAM: While the farmers’ union protests against the Centre’s agriculture reform ordinances, now bills, the alternative path for farm produce that these legislations seek to open up — outside the mandi chain — has been evident for the past six months.
That’s how a Sonipat farmer, for instance, found a reseller in a Gurugram condominium. And another in west UP found the tomatoes and brinjals he grew being delivered by food aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato in Delhi-NCR.
It began with the lockdown, which froze all gears of the mandi machinery, setting off a desperate search for ways to sell millions of tonnes of farm produce. Some states like Haryana tapped the private sector, introducing agri-tech startups to a customer segment they had no access to. Farmers, too, signed up on directmarketing platforms in thousands (though this was a big bulk-up for these companies, it was still a tiny fraction of India’s colossal farm industry).
Asked if distribution models beyond mandis are sustainable, agriculture expert Ashok Gulati told TOI, “Yes, very much. Does milk move through mandis? Do chicken and egg move through mandis? But we get it at the doorstep. They move through alternative channels. Why shouldn’t fruits and veggies, cereals, pulses and oilseeds also move through alternative marketing channels? The basic point to emphasise is competition. It is this competition that will reduce the intermediation costs.”
How startups linked farmers and merchants
On June 5, the Centre passed the ordinance ending the monopoly of APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committees) and allowing farmers to opt to sell directly to private players. This got agri-tech startups — still only a handful in India — thinking scale for the first time with more confidence to invest.
In the March-August period, when the economy hit rock bottom, startups marketing farm produce all registered significant growth. Gurugram-based Bijak saw its business go up from 1,200 tonnes a day to 2,000 tonnes per day. Crofarm, another Gurugram-based startup in the farm to fork segment, registered a growth of 40%.
Bijak founder Nukul Upadhye said two weeks into the lockdown, he received requests from government agencies to procure from farmers and sell. Since it did not fit Bijak’s business model, Upadhye said he directed the departments to other startups in the space. “But we realised that no one was able to cater to the needs. We had to rethink and pivot our model to save the day,” says Upadhye. Bijak also helped NGO and civil society organisations feed lakhs of migrant workers by helping them procure.
A more organic business need had also evolved. “Farmers wanted to sell their commodities in nearby markets and aggregators were looking to source from nearby farmers but did not have the network needed for it. This is where we came into the picture. Our platform connects farmers, aggregators and merchants across the country,“ said Upadhye.
Farmers who tied up with startups saved on transportation, unlike in the mandi system where they have to carry it themselves.



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