Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we want you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
GramHeet won this year’s People’s Choice Award of $10,000 USD, garnering the most votes from a public online competition among 43 finalists. GramHeet is addressing multiple factors that make smallholder farming a financially unviable profession in India – and force many farmers to abandon agriculture. The organization is currently serving more than 1000 farmers who have seen their income increase by 30 percent. They hope to scale their work in 35 villages in two districts to eventually reach the 118 million smallholder farmers across India who own less than five acres of land.
I recently met with the organization’s co-founders, CEO Pankaj Mahalle and COO Shweta Thakare, to learn how their solution is helping farmers and their families reap higher incomes from their produce.
What problem is your solution trying to solve?
Pankaj: There are multiple issues that farming communities are facing in India. Even though production has increased a lot, farmers’ income has not. In fact, it is decreasing day by day. Farmers don’t have storage space in their houses or in the village, but they need cash quickly after harvesting their crops – either to repay money lenders or to buy agri-inputs for the next crop cycle. As a result, farmers are forced to sell their produce right away and they often don’t get what their produce is worth. They are selling by force, not by choice. Also, due to poor post-harvest infrastructure, foodgrain losses are huge – losses alone in India are equivalent to the total agriculture production of Australia. All this has pushed 62 million farmers in India into a vicious debt cycle, and 75 percent of them want to quit farming if alternative employment opportunities are available to them.
Shweta: Also, highly male-dominated agri markets neglect the women farmers in the agribusiness value chain, even though the contribution of women farmers is around 70 percent. Our digital platform allows women farmers to own their produce which they grow, and includes them back into the value chain.
How does your solution work?
Pankaj: Since agrarian distress is a complex issue, solving it requires a holistic approach with several inter-linked micro-solutions. Even if one such aspect goes missing, it doesn’t bring about the necessary change. Thus, GramHeet proposes an integrated model that aims to provide a one-stop marketplace for farmers at the village level called GramHeet Mandi (Village Trade Centre), in collaboration with Community Based Organizations that operate as franchises. As a social enterprise, we are committed to the “farmers-first” approach and want to ensure that their income increases significantly.
At the Village Trade Centre, we provide integrated post-harvest services like storage, post-harvest credit, primary processing, and market linkages to address distress selling. Farmers can avail these services through our digital platform. When farmers bring their produce to GramHeet Mandi, they get instant credit with minimal interest. With this support, they can hold their produce for three to six months, and when the prices get favorable, they can sell easily from their home through a single click on their mobile app.
Shweta: Apart from better price realization, farmers get the agency to hold the produce and make the decision when to sell and at what price. Our innovative model ensures absolute transparency through quality analysis labs, efficiency through digital platforms, and affordability and accessibility through the Village Trade Center.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Shweta: I come from a smallholder farming family. I have seen my parents working on the farm day in and day out. Every year we cultivated with the hope that this year we will be able to repay the loan we had taken from the village moneylender, but that never happened. But even after working so hard, the income was not enough to feed the family of four. The family situation got worse and it was difficult for us to manage family expenses through farming; the vicious debt cycle led us to leave the village and find other livelihood sources in the city. All these experiences left a deep impression on my heart which motivated me to start GramHeet.
Pankaj: I come from a very small village in the Yavatmal district, which is unfortunately called the “Suicide Capital of India.” The district has recorded the highest number of farmers’ suicides in India, and 53 percent of the 189,000 smallholder farmers are in a vicious debt cycle. I saw how difficult farming was, and how my parents struggled. They were not able to buy new clothes for us even though we are cotton-growing farmers. These lived experiences propelled me to start our organization.
How has winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge helped you advance your business? How will you use the prize money?
Pankaj: Because of this global award, the local government and stakeholders in the agricultural ecosystem have started recognizing and approaching us for collaborations. This prize will help us to modify our quality analysis lab technology. Still, there are some aspects we do manually for quality analysis of food grains, and we want to develop affordable and accessible quality analysis technology for the smallholder farmers.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Shweta: Once you get a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve, then it will be easy to build the solution more effectively. For any entrepreneur who wants to address complex issues in society, it is essential to understand the problem holistically, then focus on the solution that will be easily scalable for the community.
Pankaj: When you are solving the complex issues of society, uncertainty and risk will be an inherent part of your journey. You need to accept that, and draw the picture that you want to see in the world, and work toward it.
Read the rest of our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winning team!