Four years ago, two brothers caught amid the disaster and misery of Chennai floods, found the real purpose of their lives.
Vijayakumar Mani, an HR professional and his brother Vasanth Kumar Mani who worked in marketing, left their high-paying jobs to pursue a passion that had the potential to change hundreds of lives sustainably.
“The seed to dedicate ourselves for a cause larger than us was always there. The floods just acted as a catalyst, showing us the real misery of people residing in remote parts of the State where facilities and help hardly reaches. During the floods, the help coming from the State and the country mostly reached the central points and not the interior parts due to lack of knowledge and access. Same was the case with farming. That inspired us to become the bridge,” said Vijayakumar.
Hence, in 2016, the duo established ‘I Support Farming,’ which enables the rural farmers to procure necessary capital from urban investors for farming. The initiative eliminates farmer exploitation at the hands of moneylenders, landlords and middlemen.
Owing to their efforts, today, more than 200 farmers in Tamil Nadu have experienced a 20-30 per cent revenue increment, in addition to flowing profits for the investors.
How it all began
Despite the corporate jobs, the brothers were farmers at heart. Every week for the past 15 years, the duo travel 180 km from Chennai to Cuddalore to cultivate crops on a 7-acre land.
“I am an engineering graduate while my brother is an agriculture graduate. His deep interest in farming soon inspired me to join in. The entire process of tilling the land, planting seeds, nourishing the seedlings to watching them grow, is a truly meditative and satisfying experience. But, while our land flourished over the years and we managed to grow crops in 3 cycles a year- two paddy cycles and one for black gram, we noticed that it was not the case with other farmers in the village,” said Vijayakumar.
Devoid of the knowledge of utilising advanced technology and sustainable farming techniques, these farmers would often be caught in the vicious cycle of bad weather and pests, pushing them to manage only a single or no cycle, at all, in a year.
“Upon inquiring, we realised that most farmers didn’t have the necessary capital to afford to farm. For instance, to cultivate paddy, they would need to spend Rs 25,000 per acre over three months. Most of the time, they would get the money from the moneylenders at high-interest rates. But, after the harvest, post deducting all dues, the profits would amount to nothing more than Rs 10,000. This is the reason why many farmers are now quitting farming to become daily wage labourers for Rs 300 a day, which fetches them a steady monthly income,” he explained.
He added that Cuddalore being a flood-prone area had caused immense suffering to its farmers whose paddy fields submerged in the water. Contrary to these farmers who failed to adapt to new farming practices, Vijayakumar adopted Samba Sub, a variety of paddy, introduced by Tamil Nadu Agriculture Department, able to withstand flood water for almost two weeks.
Meanwhile, after the Chennai floods ravaged the State and citizen groups emerged to help, the duo realised that there was no dearth of people wanting to help, only if a proper platform was provided.
“And so we incorporated this realisation into our organisation in 2016, connecting people and institutions from the city to the farmers,” Vijayakumar added.
The First Step
One of the first and the most difficult challenges was to convince the farmers, says 36-year-old Vijayakumar.
“Despite knowing many of them for so long, it was difficult at first to convince them. The general fear among the farmers was of exploitation, so we had to move slowly to build trust. We paid the lease amount in advance, promising them a 60 per cent rise in profits, and eventually managed to get two farmers on board.”
The work thus began with the two farmers tilling six acres of land.
On the investment front as well, they both reached out to family and friends explaining them the mechanism.“The investors, instead of giving the money to the farmers, provided all the equipment, machinery, high-quality seeds, training etc., to them through us, to improve the yield. After this, we began with paddy crop that yielded 100 per cent profits and was a successful run, whereby the first produce was sold directly to the highest bidder,” he explained.
Additionally, a field team is appointed to make regular visits to the farm to provide valuable assistance to the farmers. “Each person is provided with a tablet device to record the development and upload it on the server. Once that is done, another team in Chennai begins to monitor all the inputs and take required steps or provide advice,” he added.
Eventually, over the years, the team grew from two to 250 farmers working on over 700 acres of farmland.
“It was more like a domino effect. Every time we were able to convince one farmer, we would ask him to spread the word among the others to join the organisation and thus increase the community strength,” he said
With a farmers-first approach, the organisation extended a hand of support by providing insurance covers in case of calamities or other natural deterrents like pest attacks.
In such cases, the profits earned from the sale would first go to the farmers and then flow to the investors and the organisation.
The mechanism created to encourage farmers has since then seen great success with the profits of farmers increasing by 20 to 30 per cent, and an annual turnover of Rs 3.2 crore for the organisation.
In order to increase the benefits further, they plan to expand to other States as well, especially Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. An expansion towards opening an animal farm is also underway.
Today, after substantial success, the duo believes that their true reward lies in the fact that more former farmers are returning to their lands.“We were successful in bringing back hope in their lives, and that is the greatest profit of all!” he concluded proudly!
We need more such individuals to put their best foot forward to change and better the social scenario of India!
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)