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'Information is critical in farm sector'

Amit Mehra
Amit Mehra
The Economic Times
It's grown from a one page idea in 2006 to a pioneering business that operates in 13 states of India. Reuters Market Lite (RML) tapped into the world of farmers in rural India, where nearly 60% of the working population make their living from agriculture and millions do not have timely and affordable access to relevant decision-critical information. It made the seemingly impossible possible by successfully selling a highly personalised information service over mobile phones to the farming community, spawning dozens of 'me-too's but managing nonetheless to hold its own amidst them. Enough, in fact, for it to run up a huge tab of awards and recognitions worldwide. ET spoke to the man who dared to hitch his wagon to the bullock and make a fulltime business of it and made it case study at the London Business School, founder and hands-on MD of RML, Amit Mehra.

He is perhaps the only CEO who's genuinely not afraid of competition, three years into the business of configuring the bottom of the pyramid and doing it at a granular level. "The numbers are huge and the ecosystem is raw. I believe the more competition there is, the more market building there is likely to be. Ultimately, it will expand the market. When we first went countrywide, 6-7 % said they were happy with our services. Now, 70% of our customers want to extend RML services. Ours is an unique business model that is consumer-focused and innovative in process and content," says Mehra.

Inspired by a Reuters collegue to set up RML in late 2007, Mehra, with an SRCC , Delhi School of Economics and London Business School background, found himself trading in his shiny shoes for chappals and spending many hot mid-afternoons in rural interiors of Maharashtra convincing farmers through door-to-door visits why they should subscribe to RML's services.

When RML went into virgin rural countryside in the aftermath of that drought-struck summer in 2007, it had no benchmarks for creating the personalised farmer information service they envisioned. "One farmer in this Maharashtra village even told us the information we sold was available on Google. We had to bring a computer and convince him that ours was a reliable and specialised service. RML sources its localised weather and humidity forecast and claims these are 75% accurate. An IMRB research study showed that 60% of RML subscriber farmers made noticeable profit.

"Initially, we partnered telcos. But later, we decided that providing the best possible personalised service to farmers would be our USP." Mehra ardently believes it's important to look at farming information service as another key agri-input that can spur growth and income in the sector. The irony is, he maintains, despite being the producer, the farmer is directed largely by others who tell him what, where, when and how much to buy or sell or store, including the government, trader and others, leaving him with only 20-25% of the price of their produce compared to 40-50 % in the developed world.

As in the financial market, access to relevant information empowers farmers to decide for themselves when to sell, store, buy, etc, at the right price. He believes that information-driven growth is the path to financial inclusiveness.

"By and large, we've observed that there are one to two progressive farmers in a village and hudreds of others take their cue from them. There is revenue leakage on a noticeable scale now. Naturally, more players will mean large-scale penetration for delivering timely micro information in the farmer's hands and the category will get established. I'd rather get five million customers from a 50-million market than four million out of a 10-million market," Mehta says. Once RML shares its business in highly personalised rural information successfully with five to six players, it could expand to the equally big and fast-growing non-farm rural sector and other varieties of services, he feels.

The sky's literally the limit now, Mehta feels, for growth. The uncertainty and unpredictability would be minimised in the farm sector, besides promoting inclusive growth. But the reach and relevance of the mobile phone is ample indication that optimsing the use of relevant information for boosting income and production is only possible with better farm technology and irrigation.
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