WorthWhile

In 2009, silicon valley introduced the world to what would go on to become an odd-phenomenon in the online gaming world – Farmville. Less than a decade later, India’s silicon valley upped the ante to give the city a real-life version of the game as Shameek Chakravarty began his sustainable agriculture start-up Farmizen.

The idea was simple. Everyone eats three meals a day, so they should know exactly what is going into making that food. What started as a balcony garden in his Bangalore apartment expanded to working directly with a farmer to grow fresh produce to understand that what’s better for the body is better for the planet.

I picked up gardening as a hobby. By growing my own food, I realised agriculture is not sustainable and is plagued with rampant pesticide use, which deteriorates soil health and lowers the nutritional value of the food we consume. I contacted a farmer who lived close by and gave him the supplies needed for growing food. I grew an abundant produce, which I gave away to friends and family, and then realised it should be scaled up. That is how Farmizen came to be.

Small farmers growing local food are the most sustainable way of caring for the planet. Growing multiple crops on a small plot instead of monoculture, i.e., a single crop on a large patch, yields better harvest in the long term and is fiscally prudent for the farmer. Farmizen enables farmers to sell multiple crops to customers looking to purchase healthy, traceable food from the source.

Small farms which already exist in India are the future of food and sustainable farming. The current system, with many intermediaries, had to be re-thought, along with changing consumption habits to a more seasonal and local diet. Lesser is the time taken for food to travel to you, the healthier it is for you and the planet. Farmizen helps farmers doing regenerative, mixed cropping agriculture so they can sell directly to consumers.

Nearly all the farmers have come onboard through inbound requests by existing customers. We have a 50-50 or a 70-30 revenue share with farmers, as we provide seeds, saplings, fertilisers and materials whereas the farmers inputs are their labour, water and electricity.

The way FMCG goods are recognised and command a higher-price given their brand value, we are encouraging farmers to create their own brands. When customers can recognise where their food is coming from, they will also want to reward the farmer for producing healthier food.

The decisive reason that makes customers choose Farmizen over their neighbourhood vendors is traceability along every step of the way. It’s important to build consumer awareness around how food is being produced. Authenticity with fair trade and locally produced food also appeals to consumers.

As for our profitability, we are breaking even and the margins, and profits generated are invested back into marketing.

While organic produce is usually more expensive, when you tally its nutritional benefits vs frequent visits to doctors for ailments arising from eating cheaper, inorganic food, makes the former more economical in the long run.

As Farmizen expands from its current niche market, the cost of organic food will automatically go down with larger economies of scale.. Farmers are growing single crops in scattered locations, which makes the last mile delivery a massive logistical cost. One of the goals of Farmizen is to reduce this cost so that farmers and customers can reap the benefits.

Our Community Buy and Tribe Group options are more popular with customers, as it enables more people in one area to prebook the produce they want to be delivered in the week through the app. This minimises transport costs translating into a nearly 20% reduction in the overall bill for consumers. As the model scales, we can reach a stage where organic food is maybe just 20% more expensive than inorganic food

On a mini farm, consumers commit to taking 100% of the harvest grown so there’s zero wastage.

In the community model, wastage is reduced as we don’t maintain an inventory of produce to then find buyers for it. Orders are accepted before the harvest so the farmer harvests only that specific amount. In an event that a small quantity is wasted, it stays on the farm and gets converted into compost. We are conscious of excess produce not leaving the farms since it can end up in landfills and make for a wasted resource.

We are inspired by zero-budget natural farming, which nearly 40-50 lakh farmers in the country practice. Our aim is to reduce external inputs as far as possible by undertaking regenerative farming, with mulching of dry leaves and waste fodder to which microbes are added for naturally replenishing soil fertility.

India does not allow GMO seeds in farming, except for cotton. We use a mix of desi and hybrid seeds for our produce. We would like to use just desi seeds, but there is not enough supply for commercial production at the moment. Hybrids are slightly farmer-unfriendly as they always need to purchase the first generation seeds for production and not the seeds that their harvest gives.

We encourage farmers to make value-added products like coconut sugar, sun-dried tomatoes, so that if there is excess produce, it does not go to waste, and they also generate an additional income. Our focus is on fruit and vegetable farmers however, some of them also grow staples that are sold on the platform.

Since grains can be stored for longer periods as compared to fresh produce, which requires immediate consumption, we work with farmers on the latter. Pesticide contamination is also higher in fresh produce, which is why it needs to be grown organically.

We have a few poultry farms selling eggs and desi cow farmers selling milk, but are not expanding into meat right now.

Consumers’ own health and getting safe food is their primary motivation to use Farmizen. If they ask, “Is this food good for me?” and get that assurance, then the aspect of helping the farmers and the planet comes in as their secondary, feel-good motivation.

We want to expand healthy food to tier-2, tier-3 cities and villages as it shouldn’t be just urban areas that should have access to healthy food. We are looking to scale Farmizen to make it a platform from the point-solution it is currently.

We see Farmizen becoming a platform for other sustainable farming entrepreneurs in India. Anyone should be able to start a farm-to-home business. We can give them access to the technology, procurement and farmer networks, while they bring their farmers onboard. They can focus on building farmer relationships while we handle customer service, marketing, and dealing with consumers while also helping farmers learn sustainable practices.

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