Friday, September 12, 2014

My Summer Work: Business Incubation Curriculum for Agriculture Technologies

When I accepted the offer to work with Land O’Lakes International Development Division, as a summer Enterprise Consultant, I could’ve never imagined the impact I would have on a group of farmers turned agriculture technology entrepreneurs, and more importantly, the impact that these inventors would have on me.

Land O’Lakes is a recipient of an award from the US Agency for International Development, USAID, to implement Innovations in Gender Equality (IGE) to Promote Household Food Security. This is a two-year (Sep 2012-Sep 2014) program that aims to develop local capacity for building and sustaining women’s empowerment in Tanzania’s agriculture and food security arenas.

IGE, in conjunction with the Coalition for the Advancement of Women in Agriculture in Tanzania (CAWAT) facilitated a series of competitions entitled ‘Women’s Agricultural Innovations Awards’ (WAIA). These competitions were designed to target locally designed innovative technologies that address the needs of farmers, with an emphasis on the needs of women farmers in Tanzania. As a result, 21 women-friendly agricultural technologies were selected as sub awardees of these competitions.

The task was to travel to Tanzania for the summer to design a business incubation curriculum for the sub awardees. I have worked with start-ups in the past through previous employment and my current experience on the Social Venture Fund, a student-led impact investment fund at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. However, I have never worked with companies that are pre-revenue, and as early as the blueprinting phase of business development.

Before traveling to Africa, as a true MBA student, I did my due diligence. I talked to successful entrepreneurs, business incubators, and researched key authorities of agriculture development in the region including Feed the Future and ANDE. It was the initial consultations with different sub awardees that directed my work the most.  Below are some of the main insights that I gathered while conducting my research:
  •   Many of the business development resources, from funding applications to mentorship opportunities were geared toward English speaking participants, which excludes a large segment of the Tanzanian population that only speak Swahili.
  • All sub awardees that I came in contact with expressed a desire to gain access to financial resources. Many lacked the collateral needed to qualify for traditional loans and were looking for ways to raise, maintain, and save enough capital to run their business
  • None of the sub awardees that I came in contact with viewed business as a 2-way conversation with customers. They were creating amazing products, but not consulting their customers to provide valuable feedback to make their technologies even better.

The curriculum I compiled provides a general framework for starting a business including: Business Model Overview, Customer Discovery, Marketing, Finance and Partnerships. There are 17 sessions that make-up 5 days of training in total. I split the pilot trainings up into two workshops in Morogoro, Tanzania during the months of June and July 2014. Even though the trainings are based off of highly credible frameworks such as the Lean Start-up methodology, the curriculum has been modified to relate to gender-specific, agriculture technologies in developing nations. Some of the highlights of this training include:

  • Rural Technology examples to relate to participants
  • SWOT Analysis specific to Agricultural Technology Landscape
  • Gender Specific questions & reference
  • Speaker series session featured representation from a self-made local female entrepreneur & micro-finance consultant
  • English & Swahili translated materials
  • Market externalities specific to agriculture technology sector in developing nations to highlight reasons that farmers may not adapt technologies

Below are a few pictures from the pilot training this summer.
Teaching the sub awardees about the business model canvas 

Participants calculating the cost of their technology taking into consideration all factors including: labor, raw materials, equipment, overhead. One participant previously calculated costs to be 30% less than the actual value.
Handing a certificate of completion to one of the participants at the conclusion of the training

As far as next steps, – The Land O’Lakes IDD Technical Team plans to submit a proposal to ANDE’s 6th RFP for the Capacity Development Fund, supported by the Lemelson Foundation and Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women. The goal of the Capacity Development Fund is to increase the productivity and effectiveness of ANDE members, as well as to encourage increased collaboration between organizations, while creating tools and insights that can help the SGB sector as a whole. Selected proposals are eligible for a grant up to 18months and $50,000.
If selected, Land O’Lakes plans to produce a guidebook and best practice report on accelerating enterprises – specifically, technology/invention-based enterprises in the agriculture sector in emerging markets. The business curriculum would be included in the guidebook, with potential to influence the broader ANDE community and industry as a whole.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tạm biệt Vietnam!

I turned 28 in the mountains of Northwestern Vietnam on the back of a Russian Minsk; a motorcycle older than me and wonderfully appropriate for the undulating roads that connect Hanoi and my homestay for the night in Mai Chau. My guide had done well to steer us away from the stresses of the country’s congested (and dangerous) highways. We took back roads that I would not have found on a map, and even stopped for tea at his childhood home in a village normally closed to foreigners. The trip was a birthday gift to myself, and as I would be leaving Vietnam in just about a week it doubled as a chance to reflect on my time in the country.

Resting along the way.
That night I sat cross-legged on the floor not at my homestay but at the home of a neighbor who had invited my guide and I for dinner. The power had gone out, as it often does, so the room danced with flickering candlelight. We drank rice wine poured from used plastic containers and I tried my best to navigate the traditional toasting protocols that dictate who drinks when. It was great fun. The food spread out before us was delicious and included a local delicacy that I only tried reluctantly – dog meat. I pretended that it was my birthday celebration, and my unexpected hosts made it a memorable one.

Beautiful Mai Chau from above.
The hospitality I found in Mai Chau I found everywhere I went in Vietnam. It was in the markets and the alleys of busy Hanoi, the beaches of Da Nang, and the terraced rice fields of Sa Pa. Vietnamese people are deeply friendly and welcoming, which isn’t the common perception at home. The question that I have most often received about my summer has been whether or not I felt any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war. The answer is decidedly no, despite the fact that two blocks from my homestay rests a downed American bomber in a lake, memorialized by an adjacent war museum. As far as I can tell from the friendships that I made and the conversations that I had, Vietnam is somewhat remarkably a pro American country. What this says about the U.S. Military’s misadventures in certain parts of the world is a topic for a braver blogger.

Vietnam’s friendliness was not new to me – I had been to the country twice previously. What was new to me, though, was the type of work that I would be doing: I had never worked for a non-profit before. I’ve spent my career in the private sector, and business school was my chance to gain exposure to the other side. My experience at SNV in Hanoi was an overwhelmingly positive one. My colleagues were all passionate about their work and the effort they put in to managing the Vietnamese Business Challenge Fund. The painstaking process they went through in selecting investments yielded a portfolio with significant potential. The portfolio companies are all positioned for both profitability and positive social impact.

Experimental rice production at a seed company.
It was visiting these companies that I most enjoyed about my work. Each was unique, and each was led by entrepreneurs passionate about making a difference in Vietnam. The funding they receive from the VBCF is critical to the viability of their business plans, which made the work I was contributing over the summer feel important.

I am so lucky to have had this experience, and I know that I will carry these lessons with me throughout the rest of my career!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Somebody Almost Walked Off with All of My Stuff

Balaka, Malawi
Kwitanda, Malawi

Don’t worry. I didn’t get robbed. The title of this post is a nod to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.  In it, the Lady in Green tells us “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…what I got to do/ I gotta get my stuff to do it to/ why don’t ya find yr own things/ & leave this package of me for my destiny”. Lady in Green calls this stuff “the anonymous ripped off treasure of the year”, her “memories”, “calloused feet”, “laugh”, “chewed up fingernails” and “poems in the pot”. Lady in Green’s stuff isn’t just stuff. It’s a euphemism for identity.

While journaling one morning, I looked down at my watch to confirm the date. August 11, 2014. Time is moving quicker than it did ten weeks ago.

I examined the sports watch/heart rate monitor I bought for $20 over six years ago. Though retrieving it from my Junk Draw of Doom (you know you have one too), this plastic and rubber watch has been incredibly handy throughout my time in Malawi. Why don’t I wear this watch more often, I genuinely thought to myself. Oh yes, I remembered, because I have a super fancy, super shiny designer watch waiting for me at home.

Nowadays, fancy watches are no longer used for telling time. Fancy watches are used to signify status. Fancy watches signify wealth. Fancy watches signify importance, as in, “I’m super important and can wear a fortune on my wrist to remind me that I have to be somewhere at a certain time because I’m so important”. Fancy watches tell people that not only are you important, but your time itself is important. Your time is expensive. Fancy watch wearers don’t wait 5 hours at an antenatal care clinic after walking over an hour on a dirt road just to see the one nurse in the village. The one nurse who, one this particular day, neglected to tell the clinician she was staying home even though she lives next door. No, fancy watch wearers don’t wait. Fancy watch wearers have appointments.

Fancy watch wearers don’t queue at a borehole to collect water for their homes. They have faucets (that don’t get shut off like they do in Detroit).
Borehole to collect water
Fancy watch wearers don’t walk. They have cars. Really fancy watch wearers have drivers.
Women leaving the ANC clinic. I am unsure if they received treatment.
Fancy watch wearers don’t carry their own medical records on a flimsy paper card titled, “Health Passport”. They have doctors with offices that keep their records for them.
Woman waiting and holding her Health Passport.
My fancy watch is not just a watch. It’s evidence of opportunity. Of possibility.
Let me be clear. This is NOT a reflection on the burden and/or privilege of First World materialism. This reflection is about stuff. Real stuff. Real stuff like status. Real stuff like access. Real stuff like privilege. Real stuff like choice. Real stuff like survival.

I visited Kwitanda last month. This small impoverished village near Balaka has stuff. It has electricity poles and cables…that aren’t connected to any homes. It has a motorbike ambulance…that doesn’t work. It has health centers… that are understaffed. It has pharmacies… that are out of stock of antimalarials.
Inoperable Motorcycle Ambulance
Kwitanda has real stuff, too. Real stuff like lack of infrastructure. Real stuff like scapegoating. Real stuff like indifference. Real stuff like classism. Real stuff like poverty.

These things, this stuff, isn’t just stuff. They’re powerful indicators of health status, educational attainment, and life expectancy. Like your zip code in the States, this stuff determines your future. To make it, you need the right stuff.

So what should we do?

It’s hard work getting people the stuff that they need instead of the stuff that gets our names on organizations and buildings. Hand soap is not sexy. National ID system? Takes too long. Waste management infrastructure? Next! An emergency response system that doesn’t require you to drive to the station to pick up the police so they can attend to your emergency (that is, if you have a car)? Well, that’s just a mouthful. Tablet computers? Yes please!

I believe VillageReach, my host organization, has found that critical balance. One of our projects, Chipitala Cha Pa Foni (Health Center by Phone), is an mHealth solution for providing women and mothers with important maternal, newborn and child health information. The project offers two services: a toll free hotline offering health information, advice and referrals and a Tips & Reminders service that sends voice or SMS messages to registered pregnant women, women of childbearing age and guardians of children under one year of age. The Kwitanda Community Health Project, the other Balaka based project, entails a multipronged approach to improving health outcomes in the Kwitanda village through health education in water and sanitation, child health, reproductive health, nutrition, and so much more.

VillageReach implements “innovative” public health solutions in last mile communities. “Innovative” is often code for eHealth, mHealth or multidisciplinary approaches. VillageReach does this. But most critically, VillageReach also shows that sometimes the most innovative solution is to simply give people what they need. Sometimes you need a fully staffed hotline that provides critical health information to callers. And then sometimes you just need a razor to cut your umbilical cord. Sometimes you need a text messaging system to encourage expectant mothers to deliver at a health facility instead of at home. And then other times you just need lid on your toilet.

At this point in the summer, I am preparing to present on my organizational assessment at VillageReach’s Seattle headquarters. No organization is perfect, but the folks at VillageReach are a hardworking group. As the organization grows, I feel confident that VillageReach will also continue to grow their capacity to provide the right stuff that will truly make a measureable impact on improving health outcomes throughout Malawi.

I want to thank WDI and VillageReach for an amazing summer (or winter according to Malawi’s seasons). What I wanted out of my internship is exactly what I got— an incredible opportunity to stretch myself both professionally and personally, increase my knowledge about public health and health-related systems and challenge my assumptions about, well, pretty much everything.

This marks the end of WDI posting for this summer. To continue following my musings about international travel, as well as read some unpublished posts about my time in Malawi, subscribe to my blog For Colored Girls Who Travel ,“Like” my Facebook page, For Colored Girls Who Travel, or email me at

Zikomo! Thanks again for reading my posts!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Great thanks to WDI, Krishi Star, fellow interns, and lastly Bandra for the wonderful memories...!!

Krishi Star Retreat to Chopra Farmhouse

Figure 1: Trip to Chopra farmhouse
The team spent a weekend retreat at the Chopra Farmhouse, farmhouse belonging to the company Director Agastya’s family, located close to Vangani. Our journey there took us by paddy field plots and farmers were seen tending young paddy shoots. The peak of monsoon season now is perfect growing this Khariff crop. We started with sessions identifying our personal values and how that corresponded to company values and Krishi Star’s value to customers. I shared with the team, important takeaways for me this summer. Other activities included are: visit to nearby farms, team building sessions, river swim, cooking dinner with Krishi’s tomatoes, and a night of singing together by the garden with fireflies. It was a weekend of great learning, team building, and lots of fun times.

Next Steps and New product

One of my next tasks is to determine whether Krishi Star should focus in single- or multi-crop in its product portfolio strategy. From my research on major agri players in India such as Pepsico, Hindustan Unilever, and Jain Irrigations, many serve the role as an Input supplier, supplying farmers with quality seeds, irrigation technology, pesticides and fertilizers and engage in contract farming. Some even collaborated with local Indian banks to provide loans to farmers. This alternate chain created new hope and channel for farmers to sell their produce. While we have seen this progressive option via contract farming, it is most relevant to processor actors with huge marketing capabilities and a stable and big market to sell to. For Krishi Star, the important takeaway from this exercise is realizing the importance of establishing appropriate backward linkages and determining target market need. Understanding limitation of production and financial capabilities is another important factor in determining next step strategies.

My final task is to evaluate product feasibility of the processed onion products. Four main types includes: Dehydrated onions, Onion powder, Preserved/Pickled onions, and Onion Paste. Dehydrated onion is the most mature category of all, with India exporting 118 crore (12% of all onion exports) of dried onion annually. The US is a major producer of dehydrated onion and in India, Jain Irrigations dominates. As mentioned in my earlier post, price hikes haunted onion prices lately due to shortage in domestic onion supply. In 2011, India imported onions from Pakistan and in 2013 from Egypt. This pose a potential for processed onion.

Bandra and memorable Hindu festival

Figure 2: Human pyramids

Leaving Mumbai and especially Bandra forced me to leave behind great sentimental memories that I would not have gotten had I not become a WDI fellow. Sad to leave behind people I have met in my neighborhood: the Frozen food shop Auntie, Gary from Pedro foods, and not forgetting Fruit seller Mama, whom I often buy bananas from. Despite living for a short time, I have witnessed few celebrations: India independence day, Hindu festival Krishna Janmashtami in Maharashtra. During the Hindu festival, locals form human pyramids to fetch a pot filled with goodies hung about 20-40ft high on local streets. It’s a competition and the team that fetched the pot gets awarded with real cash. 

WDI, Krishi Star and fellow interns...

Figure 3: Myself as WDI fellow undertaking my mission in India

I would like to extend my greatest thanks to the William Davidson Institute and Krishi Star (Bryan, Agastya, David) for a wonderful summer internship. Thanks also to other interns from Kellogg (Jason and Greg), IIT Mumbai (Aniket), Albert, and Remma for making work fun and enjoyable and for the  great times. One of the greatest takeaway is to be able to work in a team of people from various backgrounds held together by our common goal to empower farmers and end poverty. Will certainly miss the long and endless team meetings and not forgetting the Krishi Star post-it notes jokes!!!

Figure 4: Bandra station

Figure 5: Krishi Star team

Figure 6: Krishi Star team

Note to future interns #4:
1. If you are using Apple, you will want to know Maple, the local Indian authorized reseller and service center in case of computer breakdown. There is one service center in Santa Cruz.  My MacBook air wouldn't turn on and was checked in the service center. Although it took almost 2 weeks to repair, my laptop came back impeccable.
2. Cant stressed enough to bring mosquito repellent. Thanks to prior WDI fellow Rosser Ben Chen for donating his repellent to me! Those came in real handy!!! Go Blue!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The size of your pocketbook determines the length of your life ....

“In India, the size of your pocketbook determines the length of your life” – Nephrologist interviewed in Delhi

Jenny Simonson
I know this observation, spoken over a coffee in a New Delhi hospital, likely holds true in many parts of the world, but the disparity in healthcare in India is shocking. I spent my summer as an intern with Baxter Healthcare’s Business Model Innovation group, traveling to India and Indonesia to map the current renal care market. I met with physicians, administrators and dialysis patients to understand how renal care is currently delivered to people with kidney failure – a disease that is growing with the rise in diabetes and hypertension in both countries.

India: What really shocked me were the differences when visiting public and private hospitals. The first hospital I went to in Delhi was a large public institution, and the desperation was palpable. I consider myself fairly well traveled and have seen incredible desperate situations in Central America – particularly in Juarez, Mexico. However, I was almost paralyzed when walking into this public hospital – the dirt, the lines, and the heat scared me. The nephrologist I met with sees up to 100 patients a day; the need is extreme.

In the very same day I traveled to a brand new private hospital in the area where I met with a nephrologist who acknowledged the quote above. Patients waited in chairs in air-conditioned rooms – not on the sidewalks in 117-degree heat as I saw earlier.  The nephrologist in the private hospital understood that his patients could afford a higher quality of care, while the majority in India does not. Current estimates indicate that only about 10% of Indian renal failure patients actually receive treatment.

During my time on the ground, I noticed that India is a country of entrepreneurs. I met with a group of local young college and PhD graduates and all worked at a start up companies The country does not have the same level of government involvement as other large emerging markets, like China. The government institutions really lacked the basic necessities to treat patients most in need. One doctor at a large public hospital in Hyderabad just wanted more hospital beds and a proper way to bring patients into the hospital from stretchers. Standalone clinics, like DaVita clinics in the United States, are growing quite rapidly. These clinics recognize the need to make healthcare more accessible and affordable.

Indonesia: In many ways, Indonesia feels like a completely different world than India. The government just passed universal health coverage in January 2014, so theoretically all citizens will be able to receive care for free or a very low fee (around $1-4/month). However, the infrastructure is not ready to meet the needs of the entire population. Dialysis centers are full in many hospitals, and the only way to get an appointment is to wait until a current patient passes away. I spoke with one patient who cannot get dialysis treatment at his local hospital, so he travels 2 hours each way to a hospital with space. This trip is too costly for him to do the prescribed three times per week, so he only goes in for treatment once a week. His healthcare costs are covered, but he still doesn’t receive optimal treatment.

The challenges in each country are different, but innovative solutions will be required to resolve the challenges in each. Through my primary research, I unveiled a window of opportunity for Baxter to bring new ideas and models to expand care and ultimately treat more people in need. Innovative business models will be critical to improving the current healthcare conditions, and I leave this summer feeling so blessed for the opportunity to use my business skills to help address these issues.

Stories of Change in Rural India – It’s Happening!

I would like to share stories of three rural households that we (I and my teammates at Simpa Networks) visited in summer and how our solar solution made a visible impact in their daily lives.

Ameena Begum (The smart, outspoken family leader)
Customer #1: Ameena Begum (seated on chair) and her kids
Ameena’s husband is a milkman. They are daily wage earners with a small, but steady flow of income along with a small farmland that provides seasonal income from food crops. They have 4 young kids who are enrolled in the village school. Their house has two rooms (brick walls and roof) and an open space split into dining room, kitchen and washroom.

Ameena is a smart outspoken woman who is actively involved with a women empowerment NGO and is the decision-maker in house. She is an informal woman leader in village and is capable of rallying other households if she believes in a cause. For lighting needs, they used kerosene oil lamp at night during dinner. Kids were not able to study at all after dark. Also, they didn't use any fan. Their monthly energy bill was ~4$/month.
When we visited the family, they took keen interest in our solar solution. We explained them the benefits of clean energy and cost economics. They instantly agreed for installation. After couple weeks, we visited them again to understand how they were benefiting from it. Ameena shared that her kids are now able to study at night. She also uses one light as a night bulb. Her kids use fan entire day (10-12 hours), which is a no-brainer given the sweltering 110 F summer heat in UP. Additionally, Ameena is a big supporter of solar energy and actively spreads the word about it in the village. She actually helped us get 3 more customers in her village. Also, she helped us understand psyche of people in her village. She narrated how people in her village are afraid of government instalment schemes (solar energy solutions available on monthly payable instalments that user gets to own after 5-7 years) as they have had incidents of ‘sarkaari log’ (meaning government folks) taking away their belongings and livestock for non-payment of instalments.

Ameena and her kids understanding usage of solar lighting system from our technician
Girija Shankar (Young family bread earner)

Girija Shankar is a young farmer-cum-daily wage earner who supports 6 members, including his parents and family. He is in his early 20’s and has a small 1-acre farm. To boost earnings, he visits Lucknow city once every month for daily wage labor and stays there for 1-2 weeks (Note: Poor people like him stay under bridges or slums in cities to save rental costs and take home maximum earnings). He is the decision maker in house, but is also influenced by Village Pradhan who lives next door to his hut. His house has two rooms, one made of brick and another with thatched roof. His younger brother and uncle live next door in separate houses.
Customer #2: Girija Shankar
Their energy needs were fulfilled by kerosene oil lamp, similar to most poor farmers like him. They use lamp during supper and spend ~4$/month on energy. His story of using solar energy is bit unique. He saw his neighbours (the village Pradhan) use our solar lights and fan for a month, was very impressed by it and came running to us when we visited the village next time. In fact, he was in such dire need for a better energy solution that he started working more hours to afford our solar lighting and fan system. Once installed, his family’s happiness knew no bounds. Now, his parents use a night lamp at night and his wife and son enjoy the fan breeze in daytime (7-8 hours fan use). They also requested for an EVD-DVD player to watch religious CDs and listen to songs.

Girija Shankar's house (two rooms in the enclosure)
Front entrance to his house
Just for comparison, in summers, the temperature inside one of the rooms in his house (see left pic) can go as high as 116 F. We visited his house in July and started sweating in 30 seconds!! Once he got solar powered fan with our system, his wife and son (who usually stay indoors) were overjoyed and greeted us with black plums (‘jaamun’ in Hindi) on our next visit.

RamLakhen (Respected farmer in village)
RamLakhen is a farmer with 4+ acres of land possession. He lives with his wife and 6 kids (5 sons and a daughter). In his mid-30’s, RamLakhen is not much of a speaker and lives simple life. However, his wife is very smart and outspoken home-maker who leads discussions in family and plays an important role in every decision. They have good relations with villagers and everyone in their village respects the family.
Customer # 3: RamLakhen’s wife with kids
Before using solar, they were using kerosene lamp and a portable lead-acid battery that supported mini-led lights. They were already looking for a solar solution when they met us. Hearing the success story of our product from nearby villagers and live demonstration, they agreed for installation. They have a very progressive mindset as they thought of solar energy to help their kids study at night and avoid toxic fumes from kerosene oil. They also wanted to let their neighbors benefit from solar light. However, we couldn't do it as our light wires weren't long enough to go from point A to B in their large house.

They found an ingenious solution to the problem themselves. By erecting a 25 feet pole inside their house, they fixed the solar light at its top and put a plastic cover (supported by a slipper!) to protect it from rain. The pic below demonstrates their ‘jugaad’ solution.

Their own light tower!                                  Close-up view (notice the light protected by slipper/plastic)

Their family now doesn't use the soot-colored kerosene lamp anymore. In his wife’s own words, “Ab humne mitti ka tel istemaal karna chhod diya hai” meaning “Now we have stopped using kerosene oil for good after using your solar powered lights”.

These are among the many success stories that I saw through my journey with Simpa. To sum it up, I am now personally responsible for getting 200+ people out of using dirty kerosene oil. They have now more time to devote to their work and earn more money, their children get to study in daytime/night and their neighbors benefit too from bright lights. There is a significant environmental benefit as well. Collectively, these people have saved 1 ton of CO2 emissions in the last 3 months by quitting dirty kerosene and opting for clean energy.

These people have been living their entire life in sheer darkness. Yet, they took a bold step away from herd mentality to think about their own and family’s future by adopting clean energy. The hard fact is, the villages in which these people live are not known yet to government or local authorities. In web reports and government databases, their villages either don’t exist or are considered electrified. Moreover, we found hundreds of households like Ameena, Girija Shankar and RamLakhen who live in off-grid villages.
There could be many reasons why these villages are not reported – poor accessibility, political ignorance by state or weaker sense of community. Nevertheless, the message is clear. There are millions in India who need a better way than toxic kerosene to light up their homes. New government at the helm has recognized their needs and has announced a mission to electrify entire country by 2019. Social enterprises like Simpa, with their innovative business model and passionate entrepreneurs, are working tirelessly in rural areas to complete this mission.

Post and photos by Rahul Tapariya.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Empowering farmers to improve their livelihood

Krishi Star’s mission is "to empower farmers to improve their livelihood". It seems like a daunting task to solve this huge problem and seems too easy to fall into trap, raise the white flag and call it quits. The persistence and courage of Krishi Star to shoulder this responsibility is one that I admired most working in this company and this is clear from the passionate work and dedication from its founders and directors.

To alleviate poor farmers out of poverty, I first tried to understand what role and position farmer holds in the value chain. One of my first tasks is to map out the value chain analysis for the vegetable market in India. Getting credible data and information is a challenging hindrance, as I needed to cross-checked multiple resources to ensure the credibility of the information obtained. Primary research conducted by fellow team members revealed themes: contract farming and hoarding at mandis, which spurred my interest to learn more. By understanding the roles taken by various multinational and local agri companies, I was able to map out my analysis of the vegetable value chain in India.

 Vegetable Value Chain Analysis
Figure 1: Vegetable Value Chain Analysis in India

Figure 1 summarized my findings. Seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides are crucial inputs to farmers by an Input supplier. Farmers then provides labor inputs, plough the land, tender to the vegetables over a duration of time, and doing whatever necessary to ensure good harvesting and healthy produce outputs. Upon harvesting, traditionally, farmers then sell produce to small village traders, who then aggregate, sort, grade, package, and transport to the designate Mandi. Mandis are auction houses that facilitate vegetable trade for a designated geographic area. It is where sale activities and price negotiations of produce takes place. Commission agents, large traders, and wholesalers are primary actors in every Mandi. From here, produce are then sold to wholesalers, retailers, and food processors before reaching the final consumer. As can be seen from the diagram, a certain produce goes through a long chain of actors before reaching the final consumer. Farmers have option to sell directly to retail consumers for a higher margin, but this only exists in small percentage in localized market. A more progressive option is via contract farming,  where farmers can directly sell to food processing companies at an agreeable price and quantity without going through any middle men. In contract farming, farmers are given a guarantee of produce purchase at a certain agreed price. However this alternate guaranteed option is not widespread and still remains a progressive option. And here is to why this is the case.
What is Mandi and who governs it?
So just who are the Mandis and who governs it? My analysis took a dive into the controversies clouding Mandi government off late. Mandis are created to prevent produce being sold at throwaway prices at the farm gate to intermediaries. Every state is divided into market areas, which are declared as Mandis. Mandis are governed by the Agricultural Product Market Committee (APMC) and <the government mandated all produce to be sold there>. Some notable problems are:
  • APMC committee are too bureaucratic and auctions are not entirely fair
  • There are no minimum support prices for fruits and vegetables
  • Farmers payment were often delayed
  • Market cess money collected from sale transactions were not used for its purpose to improve infrastructure-sorting, grading and storage
  • Hoarding by large traders and agents, who buy from farmers at low prices and stored in large hoarding houses
In 2003, the Agricultural Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act was established by the government to address problems above. It contained provision for direct marketing, contract farming, and setting up of marketing in private and cooperative sectors. States are encouraged to adopt the Act into State rules governing its respective Mandis. The new rule also called upon public-private partnership to develop post-harvest handling, cold storage, and packing facilities. It also held the APMC committee liable for paying farmers on the same day, publishing data on arrivals, promoting transparency in pricing systems, and promoting public-private partnerships. Although the government has taken the first step to give farmers more options, state Mandis are slow to integrate the new system. Some states went as far as repealing the new rule. The following news is an example of protests and resistance from traders at Azadpur Mandi in New Delhi.
Who takes the most money? Produce price fluctuation
Figure 2: Headlines of Tomato price-hike
Farmers put in their laborious work to use to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables, but are they getting enough returns for the hard work? With the traditional long value chain involving layers of middlemen, farmers earnings are squeezed. There are no shortfall of farmers committing suicide reports because they could not earn enough to pay back their loans. Some lost their lands, their only source of cultivation to money lenders. To further exacerbate the situation, produce price is unpredictable. Just this summer, tomato prices skyrocketed to RS100 per kg due to weather reasons and shortfall. Tomato is not the only crop affected by price fluctuations. Although India is a net exporter of onion, it has to import from Pakistan in 2011 and from both China and Egypt in 2013 due to domestic shortages. Price-hike to Rs60-70 per kg (As comparison, local market in Mumbai sells for Rs20-30 per kg) have also forced government to imposed minimum export price on export of onions to discourage overseas shipments.
My research has opened my eyes to the difficult issue the company is working to address. As daunting as the task can be, the progress that Krishi Star is making this summer assured me that the company may someday live up to its dreams to become the "Amul of Vegetables" in India.
Note to future interns #3:
  1. Be prepared to be flexible with your work plan as the environment in startup can be unpredictable and work can be re-allocated very quickly.
  2. Monsoon season is excellent time for mosquitoes to breed, so always have a mosquito repellent handy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Woman. Black. Strong. Sick.

Me and Nunga taking a rest.
Barely an hour into the hike, each step up the steep incline on Mount Mulanje reminded me of the weight of my backpack. Midway up the rocks, the guide, my friend and the porter who carried her pack and I all rested. On this small landing sat three small girls who waited and played with each other’s hair as the woman accompanying them spread out torn cloth to gather the firewood she collected. She climbs up here every week. Not long after we arrived, three young women fiercely and confidently stomped down that same steep incline barefooted. They were carrying large piles of firewood on their heads. Their bodies dripped with sweat and their faces were not pleased. They looked hot, pissed and ready to be done.
Gathering firewood on the mountain.
I turned to the guide and asked why these women collected the firewood given that the terrain was so severe.

“Collecting firewood is seen as a woman’s job. It doesn’t matter if they have to climb the mountain. In fact, sometimes they have to go even further up than this to find dry enough wood.”

Something doesn’t seem right about this picture. The hike I did last weekend for fun is what these women have to do every week, sometimes more, just to support their families. Here I am, with my backpack, sunscreen and bottles of water lamenting about the steepness of a hike I made the choice to do. I couldn’t help but wonder whether those pissed off looking women were pissed off looking at me.

Women coming down the mountain with firewood.
“People don’t understand that women have rights,” commented my workmate who invited me over for supper at her home last night. I asked her what the jobs were assigned to men; she informed me that their only task was to construct the house.

“That’s usually a one time thing, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes. One time. And when the man and woman leave the field, the man walks free while the woman carries the wood on her head, the tools in her hands and a baby on her back. When she comes home, she must start preparing the food and the man just sits.”

Our conversation continued on about gender roles in the villages and the challenges in changing cultural mindsets. We discussed the state of women’s rights in Malawi, the level of resistance to change and the impact that Joyce Banda, the recently unseated first female president had on it all. Sadly, because of President Banda’s involvement with the political scandal, Cashgate, my workmate stated firmly that women’s issues have been set back, not forward. The number of women in Parliament after President Banda’s term has decreased.
Mercy, Esnath and Ms. Anakoma, the three women who run the lodge where I’ve been living for the past 6 weeks, have become my surrogate aunts. They criticize my hair, give me unsolicited marriage advice and make fun of my cooking. You know, what aunts are supposed to do. They also ask if I had a good day, make sure I’m eating enough (which according to them I never do), have a warm bucket of water for bathing and advise me to stay away from Malawian men. They look after me. Because of them, Balaka has become a second home.

Ms. Anakoma aka "The Big Boss"
Esnath and Ms. Anakoma found me under the tree last Sunday morning and joined me on the ground. They opened up about their health issues. Recently, Ms. Anakoma has been in the hospital. First, she contracted malaria and now is suffering from a respiratory illness and flared arthritis in her back. Esnath also recently returned from the hospital. She’s had an unknown pain in both of her sides for two weeks. The prescription she showed me was just a generic painkiller. When I asked her what they said was wrong with her, she said they didn’t know.

A few weeks ago, I told them about my upcoming trip to Zambia. “I need a holiday,” I exclaimed. They laughed and asked me a very poignant question—what about us? Neither of them had taken a holiday for well over 5 years. They work at the lodge 7 days a week from 5am-7pm. Ms. Anakoma is always on call as she also lives on the property. She takes care of her granddaughters, two bright-eyed three-year old twin girls, by herself. When she’s not doing work at her house, she’s across the property managing the lodge.

Esnath doesn’t live on the property, but she’s also always on call. She manages the money, books the reservations, helps distribute meals, and checks in all the guests. She has two sons, ages 11 and 14. She leaves them in the morning sleeping and comes home at night to them sleeping. She never sees them. I told her that made me sad for her, particularly since she’s been spending so much time with me. She said that her kids are used to not seeing their mom, but the look on her face let me know that she too felt great sadness about the situation. She was recently advised at the hospital to drink 4 liters of water per day. When I asked her yesterday how much water she drank, she said barely 1 liter. I pointed at the kitchen sink and gave Esnath my stern aunty look, a look I’ve been perfecting since I was 13 years old (I have 7 nieces and nephews). She immediately grabbed a cup of water, ran it under the faucet and began to drink. “Jude”, as she always endearing calls me, “I am failing to drink enough water”.

Mercy, the cook, is about my age. She single-handedly cooks for every guest at the lodge for every single meal with the dullest knives in history. Some days, it’s just me for breakfast (very peaceful and roomy). Other days, like today, the small dining area is filled with over 40 people. Right after she prepares breakfast, she begins cooking lunch; right after lunch she prepares dinner. Everything is deliciously and laboriously made from scratch so cooking takes ALL DAY. Sometimes she cooks on the stove in the kitchen at the same time she’s cooking on firewood outside. She does this all herself.

It’s no wonder the health of these women is failing.

A few days before our chat under the tree, I was cooking with them in the kitchen, my normal evening routine. On this night, they were having a go at me about not being married and whether I would be able to take care of their sons (which they’ve volunteered “to give me”). When I told them that I wouldn’t be cooking for their sons every day, bowing before I serve them food and allowing them to eat first, they joked on about how American women are lazy and can’t work when they’re pregnant. I laughed with them even though clouding the joke was the rising maternal mortality rates that plague Malawian women (and US women as well) and their own personal health struggles.

It doesn’t matter if you work at a lodge or live in the village; there is an unbalanced and unfair burden put on women in Malawi. Though I prefer to stay away from sweeping generalizations, I would also state that this burden is carried by women of color around the globe. Black women, well, we’re a special case. There’s an assumption that we’re strong and resilient. Not only can we handle the burden, we welcome it.

Herein lies the danger of the “strong black woman” trope. It is a weapon of illness disguised in positivity. “Strong” is not a compliment. It’s a stereotype that allows others to assign black women an unfair load. It justifies the abuse and neglect of black women and creates no room for them to be vulnerable and need help. It’s a stereotype that destroys. Check your newspapers. Check your offices. Check your classrooms. The strong black woman virus is everywhere.

I’ve been a victim of this stereotype countless times. But like the women at the lodge, I am a perpetrator of it as well. The myth of the “strong black woman” is killing us, and at the same time it’s precisely what we cling to for survival.

So what next? Well, that’s the part they don’t teach us in school. Health issues for women of color still remain on the margins. Did you know that a black woman in the United States is four times more likely to die from childbearing than a white woman? Maybe. This is what we call “health disparities,” a platitudinous field of study with which I have no interest. It’s a survey of statistical facts comparing one group to another, telling us information we already know. We already know the barriers to racial health equity; the list hasn’t changed for decades.

But do you know why a black woman continues to die more frequently from childbearing- the deep rooted historical structural factors, cultural articulations, political propagandizing and economic reinforcements that lead to this burden of disease. I’m not talking about the Social Ecological Model, the overused and misunderstood theory that posits that behavior influences and is influenced by interrelated factors, from intrapersonal characteristics to public policy. Though the framework has potential to unleash real change into changing the structural mechanisms that create the disproportionate disease burden put on marginalized people, I’ve only witnessed it fool people into believing they understand something that they don’t. Knowledge is power. The appearance of knowledge is dangerous.

What they do teach us in school is to look for these strong black women (you’ll find this directive coded as “soliciting community champions”). They tell us to find the person in the community who is already overinvolved, overworked and overburdened and ask them to support our own projects and research agendas. But what they don’t teach us is to dig deep into the complexity of marginalized groups. Complexity cannot fit on a PowerPoint slide. Integrated analyses cannot be graded on a rubric. Nuance is not a budget line.

I return to Michigan in less than a month and, for better or for worse, the stories of these women will not fade from my consciousness. As I reenter life in the States and become bombarded with racial and gender prejudice once again, my own “strong black woman” struggles will added to the mix.