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This IIT Alumnus Has Changed the Lives of More Than 600 ‘Aquafarmers’. Here’s How!

His initiative is called Aqua Connect, and aims at helping aquafarmers get access to the best practices, so that they can earn a livelihood.

Spending time making attractive handwritten postcards and sending them to friends on special occasions was once a routine activity. Sadly, in today’s electronic age, the bicycle-borne postman delivering letters and postcards is an infrequent visitor, and postcards themselves are rare sights.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a person who was posting a handful of postcards. Out of curiosity, I struck up a conversation with him, and he informed me about the bi-weekly post card magazine initiative, by a startup called Aqua Connect. The initiative helps aquafarmers get access to best practices.

My interest in finding out more about this endeavour, led me to Rajamanohar Somasundaram, who has successfully founded several tech ventures including Aqua Connect.

Rajamanohar isn’t new to the startup ecosystem. A graduate of IIT Kanpur, he is a serial technology entrepreneur with extensive experience in building Internet and mobile technology-driven businesses.

When asked about how he got this idea of using postcards to get aquafarmers to connect with each other, he said, “As most farmers live with limited access to mobile connectivity, we run this initiative, with a motive to reach out to the farmers at the bottom of the pyramid to educate and empower them by providing them tips on sustainable aquafarming practices.”

I was inspired by his work and continued to interview him for the story.

“A chance meeting with Sanjai (Sanjai Kumar) on a train journey was the beginning of this wonderful adventure. Sanjai is an aquafarmer, who went on to become my friend and business partner,” he said.

Aquafarming refers to the rearing of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants, algae, and other aquatic organisms, and involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions.

It is a popular livelihood activity in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. As per the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), seafood exports in 2016-17 reached a record $5.8 billion, and the trends in the on-going financial year are just as encouraging.

A passionate conversation with Sanjai opened his eyes to the struggles faced by small and medium land-holding aquafarmers and prompted him to look into opportunities to promote sustainable aquafarming practices.

As is common in other sectors, farmers were unaware of market rates and export trends and were being exploited by middlemen.

Rajamanohar spent the next two months at various farms to understand how he and Sanjai could create an exchange that helps farmers directly connect with a set of exporters.

The duo was joined by Shanmugha Sundara Raj, a banker turned entrepreneur, and together, they set up Aqua Connect. Their idea was to create a marketplace where farmers could buy quality seeds, inputs such as feeds/probiotics and find the exporters for their produce.

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“We initially created a mobile app where farmers could buy quality seeds online but realized that farmers weren’t comfortable with this practice. We then set up a toll-free helpline to enable farmers to dial in and share their requirements, but it was difficult to convey marketplace concepts and gain the confidence of farmers over telephonic calls. We then understood that nothing could replace face-to-face meetings. Now we provide an Omnichannel marketplace where farmers can connect with us over the app, telephonic calls, and face-to-face meetings.

His team clocks 1200kms—from Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu to Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh—every week to meet farmers and engage with them.

“It was a great experience to know how rural India works and made us realize the efforts which these aquafarmers are putting in. It is unfortunate that they have a minimal profit margin, due to lack of proper information, which forces them to sell their yield at a lower price,” he says.

Aqua Connect was set up in April 2017, and they started enrolling farmers from July 2017. It has changed the lives of more than 600 farmers by considerably increasing their profit margin and has become South Asia’s largest aquafarming community network which helps farmers to connect with hatcheries and exporters. On a typical day, their call centre handles about 40-50 calls from the farmers on farm inputs and harvest requests.

“Our field agents constantly remain in contact with the farmers throughout the culture offering all the necessary technical inputs required to produce high quantity and high-quality yields,” he adds.

Rajamanohar now plans to expand Aqua Connect to other states in India.

“We want to set up field agents in Gujarat and West Bengal to cater to the seed needs of the farmers from those areas, and also open stores which will act as a one-stop shop for all aquaculture requirements. By doing so, we can help farmers across states—for example, a farmer in West Bengal can buy seeds from hatcheries in Pondicherry, which is almost 1900 km away,” he says.

(Written by Anjana Swaminathan)

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