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During holiday breaks from the National Law University in Delhi, Harshit Kohli would return to his home in Bindki in Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district to help his father in their family business of farming machinery.

Each time, he noticed that farmers in the district grew the same crops year after year. By then, Kohli had developed enough farming knowledge to realize the farmland could offer more to the growers. But as the school work increased, Kohli became more focused on law.

After graduating in 2016, he joined the workforce as a corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Khaitan & Co. But he soon realized that he wanted a more impact-oriented role and longed for opportunities to help fight poverty among farmers.

So he registered himself for an urban farming workshop to learn about the benefits of growing organic fruits and vegetables. Once Kohli felt he had acquired adequate knowledge, he quit his job.

Over the next four months, Kohli interned with agribusinesses to understand the intricacies of farming. In February 2018, he established a social enterprise, Swayam Farmer Foundation (SFF).

“I’ve had an entrepreneurial streak during my days as a student, so I was never afraid about the financial aspects of the risk. The only consideration was about entering a market where I had almost no experience," Kohli, 27, says.

Talking about his research for SFF, he says, “I was heavily into reading and an important book that I discovered was Against the Grain by American political scientist, James C. Scott. Ever since humans started growing grain crops, they were dependent on the state for various services for which they were taxed. This reliance on the state and on one particular crop meant low incomes, yet they were doing the same thing over the years."

Besides, he adds, most were still using traditional methods of farming. “The culmination of all these factors means that 75% of the poorest in India are farmers."

The brand journey

Within nine months of establishing SFF, Kohli partnered with businesses such as Bayer, Kalash and Namdhari to provide technical support and subsidized seeds and fertilizers to run a pilot with 50 farmers. At the heart of the exercise was an effort to increase their profits by generating better yields via quality inputs, economical credit lending and a good understanding of current market trends.

“I called for a meeting where we informed them about new technologies, subsidies and benefits that they could avail of. The idea was not to get everyone to diversify their crops; more to create awareness on what the market was willing to pay for," Kohli says. The primary focus was on small farmers, with under two hectares, who were asked to look beyond just wheat and rice.

To train his team of field officers, Kohli consulted experts from agribusinesses and academia, as well as successful local farmers. They also prepared a list of crops and offered remedies to tackle fungal diseases and other issues.

Winning the farmers’ trust wasn’t easy, though. “The biggest resistance was when it came to trust, because they have small farms and their capacity to take risk is very low. So it’s a long process to get them to agree on a crop, repeatedly check on the progress and ensure that it’s successful. Only then will they believe you and ensure that more follow," Kohli says.

For SFF, Kohli raised the initial investment of 12.5 lakh through a partnership with a local distributor. Besides, each farmer paid a service fee of 1,500 per acre, while the bigger farmers paid a security deposit of 2,500 in case of default on any borrowed sum. By the end of the pilot, SFF found that incomes had increased four times and they had also recovered 95% of the loan amounts.

Kohli realized he was on the right track when the farmers returned next season. As part of the second cycle, SFF is currently working with 250 farmers from around Fatehpur district.

“We plan to work with NITI Aayog in other backward districts of Uttar Pradesh. The idea is to eventually create a franchise model, which will also empower micro entrepreneurs in other regions. They can avail of our training and benefit from our experience to reduce losses at the early stages," he says.

“It has been a very long iterative process of learning on the job—various risks to evaluate and questions to handle. But if I can put a system in place, we will be the price maker in the long run." Career Detour features people who quit their 9-to-5 jobs and made their passion work.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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