Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. In its fourth year, this online competition awards cash prizes to early-stage startups to develop a solution that drives economic development or solves a social or environmental problem.
We are excited for you to learn more about the 2020 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions. I had the honor of sitting down with founder and CEO of Gramhal, Vikas Birhma, winner of one of the Second Runner-Up $25,000 USD prizes.
What problem is Gramhal trying to solve?
Vikas: Gramhal is trying to solve the problem of distress selling faced by the farmers in India. Around the harvesting season, the prices of the crops are at its lowest. Since farmers in the same region grow the same crops, the supply is higher than the demand – which leads to crash in market prices. At the same time, the farmer’s need of money is at its peak. From sowing to the harvesting period, farmers invest everything they have into their crops and run out of money by the harvesting time. Thus, these multiple factors force farmers into distress selling. Farmers end up in difficult financial situation and they struggle to support their families, run homes, and prepare their fields for the next season.
About 85 percent of farmers in India are smallholder. These farmers have less than five acres of land and grow small quantities of produce. Sixty-two million of these farmers are under a brutal debt cycle. All the money they earn goes into repaying previous loans. It’s a hard life. Income is closely linked to mental health and, amongst farmers, the toll of these circumstances has led to more than 300,000 suicides over the last 20 years.
What if we could break the cycle of distress selling? If farmers have the agency to hold their harvest for just a little longer, maybe four weeks to eight weeks, they can access a more favorable market price (up to 40 percent better) because as the harvesting season goes away, the prices will increase.
We want to provide farmers [with] that agency and help them build a more financially resilient future. That’s where our post-harvest model comes into existence. If farmers can store their produce at a warehouse, they can use their produce as collateral to access credit, and the finances will give them the agency to wait to sell. It’s like turning the harvest into digital currency and farmers can sell their crops at the push of a button when the price is favorable.
How will this prize money help your company advance?
Vikas: We’re still in our early phases. We’re working with about 450 farmers and need to build our services into a scalable model. This prize money will help us expand our work to 5,000 farmers. By the end of 2021, our aim is to iterate and solidify our post-harvest model in a way that can be scaled across India.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Vikas: The pandemic amplified the very problem that Gramhal aims to solve – distress selling. As COVID-19 hit, all agriculture markets were closed, and supply chain broke across India. The prices of the produce went down putting farmers under tremendous stress and pushing them to a further vulnerable position.
However, during COVID, we learned that Gramhal’s work of providing bundled post-harvest services of storage, credit, and market linkage via a digital platform had become more urgent and relevant than it ever was.
The physical proximity of our warehouses to the villages allowed farmers to store the produce in a warehouse, take credit against it and sell it when the prices became favorable. Our digital platform allowed farmers to directly sell to end buyer without visiting us and by just using the phone.
During COVID, we saw a huge spike in demand for our services and in just a few months, the number of farmers seeking our services doubled.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise?
Vikas: This is a really interesting question for me because my family and my extended community still don’t understand what I’m doing. Where I come from, doing a job is more preferred and acceptable.
I grew up in a village in Haryana in Northern India. Most of my family’s livelihood is dependent on agriculture. That’s where I developed a keen interest in agriculture. I lived through the struggles of smallholder farmers. But I did not have the courage to start something of my own until I had the resources I needed to solve the problem. When I went to Harvard University in the US, it gave me the ecosystem and courage to start something of my own. At Harvard, I had access to the resources required to solve this problem. I immediately decided to bring these resources back to my community. I knew clearly that I have to use the privilege from my education for the benefit of my community. I wanted to grow with my community.
What is the best piece of advice you received in starting Gramhal?
Vikas: One of the most insightful pieces of advice I have received is that starting a for-profit startup is a marathon, not a sprint. To bring about change, you have to think in the long term. Things will not change within one or two years, so don’t beat yourself up if things are not going in the right direction. With this whole pandemic, things will take longer. So, stay in the game, think beyond two years. Understand your focus and seek clarity. Alleviating agricultural distress will always be our main focus – there is no doubt about that.
Do you have any advice for next year’s applicants?
Vikas: Cisco provides a lot of resources. One of the main things I liked is the feedback over the video session. I learned so much in those three hours. Use every opportunity and resource that Cisco provides you. Second, showcase the work you are doing in the field.
In your spare time, what do you like to do?
Vikas: I like to spend time with my family. And I read a lot. One of the books that I have gained a tremendous amount of new perspective [from] is Platform Revolution, by Geoffrey Parker. It’s about how platforms have changed our whole society and how to build a new platform. Most of the applicants who will apply to Cisco will be building some sort of platform. You can gain so many insights.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winning team!