Now that the winners of the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 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 budding technology entrepreneurs who solve the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the contest has awarded its biggest prize pool ever, US$1 million, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
GramHeet won this year’s $10,000 People’s Choice Award, garnering the most votes in a public online contest among 43 finalists. GramHeet tackles several factors that are making peasant farming a financially unviable profession in India – and forcing many farmers out of farming. The organization currently serves more than 1,000 farmers who have seen their income increase by 30%. They hope to expand their work to 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 caught up with the organization’s co-founders, CEO Pankaj Mahalle and COO Shweta Thakare, to learn how their solution is helping farmers and their families earn higher incomes from their produce.
What problem is your solution trying to solve?
Pankaj: Farming communities face multiple challenges in India. Even though production has increased a lot, farmers’ income has not increased. In fact, it is decreasing day by day. Farmers don’t have storage space in their homes or in the village, but they need cash soon after their crops are harvested – either to repay lenders or to buy farm inputs for the next cycle of culture. As a result, farmers are forced to sell their products immediately and they often do not get what their products are worth. They sell by force, not by choice. Moreover, due to poor post-harvest infrastructure, the losses of food grains are enormous – the losses in India alone are equivalent to the total agricultural production of Australia. All of this has pushed 62 million Indian farmers into a vicious cycle of debt, and 75% of them want to quit farming if other job opportunities arise.
Shweta: Furthermore, agricultural markets that are heavily male-dominated neglect women farmers in the agribusiness value chain, even though the contribution of women farmers is around 70%. Our digital platform enables women farmers to take ownership of the products they grow and reintegrate them into the value chain.
How does your solution work?
Pankaj: Since agrarian distress is a complex problem, solving it requires a holistic approach with several interconnected micro-solutions. Even if one of these aspects is missing, it does not bring about the necessary change. Thus, GramHeet offers an integrated model that aims to provide a single market for farmers at the village level called GramHeet Mandi (Village Trade Center), in collaboration with community 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 Center we provide integrated post-harvest services such as storage, post-harvest credit, primary processing and market linkages to deal with distress selling. Farmers can benefit from 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 keep their products for three to six months, and when prices become favorable, they can easily sell from home with just one click on their mobile app.
Shweta: In addition to better price realization, farmers are asking the agency to keep produce and decide when to sell and at what price. Our innovative model guarantees absolute transparency thanks to quality analysis laboratories, efficiency thanks to digital platforms, as well as affordability and accessibility thanks to the Village Trade Center.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Shweta: I come from a family of small farmers. I saw my parents working day after day on the farm. Every year we have cultivated with the hope that this year we will be able to repay the loan we took from the moneylender in the village, but that never happened. But even after working so hard, the income was not enough to feed the family of four. The family situation deteriorated and it was difficult for us to manage family expenses thanks to agriculture; the vicious circle of debt led us to leave the village and find other means of subsistence in town. All of these experiences left a deep impression in my heart that motivated me to start GramHeet.
Pankaj: I come from a very small village in the district of Yavatmal, which is unfortunately called the “suicide capital of India”. The district has recorded the highest number of farmer suicides in India, and 53% of the 189,000 smallholder farmers are in a vicious cycle of debt. I saw how difficult farming was and how my parents struggled. They couldn’t buy us new clothes even though we are cotton producers. These lived experiences pushed me to start our organization.
How has winning an award in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge helped you move your business forward? How will you use the prize money?
Pankaj: Thanks to this global award, local government and agricultural ecosystem actors have started to recognize us and approach us for collaborations. This award will help us modify our quality analysis laboratory technology. Still, there are some aspects that we do manually for food grain quality analysis, and we want to develop affordable and accessible quality analysis technology for smallholder farmers.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Shweta: Once you have a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve, it will be easy to build the solution more efficiently. For any entrepreneur who wants to solve complex societal problems, it is essential to understand the problem holistically and then focus on the solution that will be easily scalable for the community.
Pankaj: As you solve complex problems in society, uncertainty and risk will be part of your journey. You have to accept that, draw the picture you want to see in the world, and work on it.
Read the rest of our blog series, featuring interviews with each winning Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 team!