M&M's Krish-e has redefined the art of bonding with farmers

by Murali Gopalan 18 May 2022


Its definitions are diverse ranging from a digital tool that helps farmers increase their yield right up to farming as a service business. However, from Ramesh Ramachandran’s point of view, Krish-e means a lot more.

“It is a brand that was born with a purpose. So, we are not sort of floating around trying to attach ourselves to some cause — we were born with the purpose and when all these entities came together, we defined what Krish-e stands for as a service, to improve farmers’ income per acre. So we single-mindedly focused ourselves on that and that is where the brand exists,” says Mahindra & Mahindra's Senior Vice-President Strategy & Farming-as-a Service.

And what then are all these entities whose fusion led to Krish-e? Ramachandran (pictured above) rewinds a bit to explain this in greater detail. He admits that “agriculture was fascinating” as a subject when he first took charge at M&M seven years ago after a long stint overseas. He realised that there was a “huge opportunity” for improvement in the farm sector where the company could participate by way of bringing in more creative operating models and technologies. 

“The first few years in Mahindra, before Krish-e actually began, were interesting because it was about making the farm equipment sector much more alive to these possibilities. When I came in 2015, it was not all that switched on to new technology,” recalls Ramachandran. 

It was clear to him that making technology the central theme for the smaller landholder was the way forward. It was also a different ballgame in India compared to a large, wealthy farmer in the US whose incomes would possibly increase by barely five percent leveraging new technologies. On the contrary, deploying them in India would mean improving farmers’ income by 50 percent which clearly meant the opportunities were immense. 

“Slowly but surely, the company has embraced it more and more and now it is the language of our day-to-day life,” says Ramachandran who used to head the precision farming business before Krish-e came into being. When precision farming pooled into Krish-e, he had the opportunity to start demonstrating internally what some of these technologies could do for farmers.

The key was to be a differentiator and bring these to them in a way that was affordable, simple and small. “Our machines are smaller, land sizes are smaller and our farmers need much simpler and more affordable solutions,” he adds. As part of the precision farming team, M&M invested in two AgTech companies in Canada and Switzerland as well as an Indian IoT firm.

“We spent a lot of time working on these technologies and making them fit for purpose in a way that ticked the boxes of affordability and simplicity. And that kind of folded into Krish-e about a couple of years ago. This is how Krish-e was born as a more stable kind of concept because it had different legs to it,” elaborates Ramachandran. 

M&M’s erstwhile Samriddhi channel also folded into Krish-e and with it came in some very talented people on the ground who had the passion as well as the capability to make a difference to farmers’ lives. Along with them came the retail fraternity of largely Mahindra tractor dealers which also folded into Krish-e. 

“Other entities like Trringo, our rental play launched a few years ago and pivoted many times, had its final pivot into Krish-e. The last was an app called my MyAgriGuru which also got folded into Krish-e. Krish-e really was sort of created with many starting points,” he says.

An interesting aside is here how the name came into being. There was a lot of brainstorming which included roping in advertising agencies, running a competition open to employees, business school students “and so on and so forth”. Of all the names that came to the table, Krish-e struck a chord because the whole idea “is the technology piece which is central to what we do”.

Given the fact that the Centre had also popularised the letter ‘e’ in rural initiatives like E-Kisan and E-Seva, the M&M team felt that it had become symbolic of technology in the last mile and would, therefore, work. “I think the creative angle to it was the ‘e’ with a hyphen and because it is so squarely linked to farming, it is not abstract. You do not want to get too clever when you are working with Indian farmers and this was a good balance,” narrates Ramachandran.

While this was the genesis of the Krish-e brand, the more important task on hand was to define its objectives. “There are two things that it does fundamentally: it offers value-added services around advisory and around rental. It has a physical as well as a digital face and all this is powered by innovations around technology,” he says. 

To elaborate, when it comes to the advisory space, M&M has a “very large” programme involving demonstration plots — “we call them Takneek plots” — that is now into its third year of existence. Currently, there are about 3500 live plots “because we keep changing by season”. These are essentially single-acre plots on the farmer’s land where the company seeks collaboration with him across the crop cycle. 

Be it sugarcane, potato, paddy or wheat, there are a certain set of interventions which are a combination of agronomy and mechanisation. This could involve tips like washing seeds with a chemical before they are planted which is akin to inoculating the seed. 

“Another example could be in creating row distances between crops. Most farmers tend to overpopulate their field thinking that they do not want to leave one square inch unplanted but actually it is retrograde. If you get the right distance, you get a better yield,” explains Ramachandran.

When it comes to mechanisation interventions, a paddy farmer would be better off using a rice transplanter or, likewise, a baler to do baling because “that will give a new revenue stream”. These interventions are therefore critical and in any new area, “we know exactly what to tell that farmer and exactly what to facilitate across the crop cycle in order to achieve a good outcome”. 

It is here that Ramachandran is visibly pleased with the results achieved thus far over the last 2-3 years on these demo plots. The average income per acre has increased at different levels depending on the crop and the region. “This is giving us a lot of heart. We are out there on the field, this is a free service for farmers and our engagement with them is very simple. Help us improve your income per acre, just work with us and let us hold your hand,” he continues. 

Where a machine is required, it is quickly organised on a pay-per-use/pay-per-hour type basis. The whole facilitation process is done on the ground with M&M’s personnel constantly present in the form of territory, sales and farm centre managers to carry out the task. 

The company is also creating a network of last-mile service providers who are called agripreneurs. “Right now, we are training farmers directly and what we would like to do is to train local folk who are knowledgeable. If we want to actually spread across the country and work with a vision, every single farmer should benefit from this. We then need a model where we are able to co-opt the local population as well,” explains Ramachandran. 

While all this is part of the physical advisory piece, the digital portion is an app which has evolved several times in the last couple of years and is today really simplified. All the farmer needs to do is download the app, put in simple details like “what crop do you want advice on, what is your sowing date and one or two other data points”. 

Once this is done, he can then choose the type of advice he wants. If it is on a fertiliser, for instance, the app will tell him much and when to put it. The objective is to make it really simple so that the farmer is handheld through the crop season. “It is like an agronomist in your pocket. Instead of having someone handhold you physically, this app will handhold you digitally,” he says. 

Other interesting features have been added like a digital diary for all expenses. “If you go into rural India, you find that most farmers probably have no clue about what actually is their profitability. Some will have some kind of a small diary that they note some stuff in,” explains Ramachandran. With the digital diary, the record is retained forever and details on expenses and earnings become easier to retrieve. 

The other core service is the rental space which essentially comprises equipment offered at most Krish-e centres. There are about 100 of them right now and these are tractor dealerships which double up as Krish-e outlets. 

These house specialised implements like rice transplanters, balers, laser land levellers etc which are intended to help the farmer increase his income per acre. Renting these equipment is better than buying them since the objective is to assure more yield at minimal costs. Likewise, as part of the effort to help farmers, an app called Krish-e Nidaan allows him to take a photograph which instantly throws up the identity of a pest or disease and then tells him how he can tackle it. 

There is an IoT solution for rental entrepreneurs who help out with tractors and implements like cultivators, ploughs, and rotavators. “We onboard them because we want to work through them to deliver the last mile service. And we also give these entrepreneurs a new source of revenue. Today, if they are earning from renting out a plough, we will get them to rent out a laser land leveller and get a new revenue stream,” says Ramachandran. 

The IoT-based solution for them lies in installing it on the tractor and then downloading an app to track the movement of both the machines and drivers — “for rental entrepreneurs, life goes in following up” — which in turn helps them manage their business more efficiently. 

“This app makes things very scientific and transparent. It is the shortest source of truth on how many acres of work were done, when it was done and at what time. It is like an ERP solution for a rental entrepreneur,” he explains. 

Eventually, Krish-e strives to offer services at affordable price points with technology as the key driver. Another example is in smart harvesting based on satellite technologies where a web interface has been created for sugarcane mills and farmers can see their own catchment area. 

In the process, they can then decide when to harvest which field in order to extract the most sugar from sugarcane stock. “There is a right day to harvest it because the content of sugar keeps increasing over time. After some time, it starts decreasing and you need to be able to time it correctly, to extract the most sugar from a sugarcane,” says Ramachandran.

There is no question that sugarcane mills have a way of doing this but it is very manual and quite basic. On the other hand, a layer of remote sensing technology and satellite imagery-based analytics can help make a better harvesting decision. “You do not need people floating around and cutting samples from the field and testing it in the lab. We will automate this and help make a better call so that yield improves,” he adds. 

According to Ramachandran, all this reflects the changing face of agriculture and why Krish-e becomes an integral part of this transition. As an equipment company and “that too the largest in the country”,  it is important for M&M to keep thinking of “how do we make our brand and ourselves different and differentiated”. 

After all, competition for tractors in India is increasing by the day going by the growing number of brands, competitors and their high technology prowess. “So we have to keep working hard on many fronts and at differentiating ourselves. And Krish-e is a very strong differentiator because you are building a very deep relationship with farmers,” says Ramachandran.

M&M is looking at Krish-e as an investment to build a stronger brand and better customer connect. It is generating demand for equipment and inputs which means that it is potentially a robust standalone business model whose gross merchandise value in the last two years would be in the range of Rs 160 crore. 

“We are also finding it quite easy to sign up farmers because I think there is something changing in India. There is a spirit of ‘we want to experiment, we want to do this’. The more we succeed, the more data points we have which makes signing up the next farmer a little easier,” he says.

The Krish-e initiative has also thrown up some interesting feedback on behavioural patterns across India’s vast and diverse landscape. States like Punjab and Maharashtra have shown higher adoption of technology keeping in line with their knowledge levels. This is in contrast to Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh where adoption is slower. 

In some states, people will be “more hungry to talk about” new technology like laser land levellers and try it out on their farms while this is a harder decision in other regions. The South is closer to more modern type farmers, especially in Telangana where there is more action going on from a technology perspective, “not just in agriculture but generally in the last few years with many startups”. The Northeast has shown that there is a lot of women empowerment. 

“We don't feel we can change the world overnight but we feel we have to sort of head in that direction. So, if a farmer is already growing a certain crop, a conversation with them is to let us help them grow it better with a lower cost footprint and more yield,” signs off Ramachandran.

The feature was published in Autocar Professional's  May 15, 2022 issue.

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Mahindra plans to pull out all the stops on farm mechanisation this fiscal

 


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