“If you’re climbing the ladder of life, you go rung by rung, one step at a time. Don’t look too far up, set your goals high but take one step at a time. Sometimes you don’t think you’re progressing until you step back and see how high you’ve really gone.”
You do not need to be an MBA to sell vegetables. But with 30-year-old Kaushlendra Kumar from IIM, Ahmedabad, choosing to do it, the socio-economic status of some 3000 poor farmers and 500 street vendors in Bihar has gone up. Kumar has also brought respectability to vegetable farming and selling through his innovations. In a country where a degree worth of 7-figure salary is utilized otherwise and probably for the better, I truly feel an overwhelming sense of pride in sharing his success story.
“The farmers know how to do farming but did not know the technique to enhance production and didn’t have a market,” said Kaushlendra, who has established the brand ‘Samriddhi’ and helps in organizing and professionalizing the vegetable growers and sellers through his organization, Kaushalya Foundation. As for vegetable vendors, they lead a hard life as most of them are migrants from villages. About 60 percent of them are women. They endure harassment from police and municipal bodies.
Hailing from a remote village in Nalanda in Bihar, Kaushalendra’s initial education was in a rural government school before he moved to Navodaya Vidyalaya to complete his high school. Then, he cleared CAT to enter IIM, Ahmedabad, after graduating from Patna Science College. At IIM he won a gold medal and topped in agribusiness in 2007. He was particularly moved by the mass migration and poverty of vegetable growers in 1987 when a devastating flood ravaged the only railway track connecting their village to Patna’s wholesale vegetable market. The son of a farmer, who mostly studied under street lamps, always had an aim to revolutionise the lives of farmers.
“I spent my life in Patna without having any money in my pocket for several days. That was the period when everybody laughed at me and used to make fun of me”, recounted Kaushlendra, “Moreover, I had been deemed as a failure. At one point, I was making commitments without knowing how to fulfil them. But I always knew that in the end everything would fall in place.” And that is the belief that has carried Kaushlendra to the heights of the entrepreneur world.
“Kaushlendra has built a strong social capital and this shows how hardworking and honest he is to this social enterprise”, said P K Sinha, Professor of Marketing and Chairperson of Retailing at IIM-Ahmedabad and Kaushlendra’s mentor. But, despite the educational loan that he had taken to complete his IIM degree, he preferred not to attend the placement drive when multinationals queued to recruit the crème de la crème of the business school. And believe it or not, Kaushalendra opted not to go for those astounding pay packages because he wanted to sell vegetables. Can you believe it that with his scholarship money of Rs. 25,000, he set out to transform the very mundane of all daily activities – buying and selling vegetables! His first day sales was Rs 22, which has now touched Rs 5 crore in just three and a half years of its operation. None of this would have been possible if Kaushlendra had adopted the safe path: the run of the mill, ‘nine to five ‘job.
The Kaushalya Foundation launched project Samriddhii in Patna in February 2008. They also created a public private partnership with Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA), Patna. However, in order to get such a large project off the ground the Foundation required quite a large sum of money. Thankfully, they managed to acquire a soft loan from the Friends of Women World Banking (FWWB), Ahmedabad. They received a second boost when Punjab National Bank (PNB) agreed to sanctioned Rs. 50 lakh for their project.
The biggest influence in Kaushlendra’s life has been his mother who has continually encouraged and supported him even in his darkest hour. “She has taught me that success is the by-product of struggle with patience and successful people write history”, he explained. But above all, his mother instilled within him the confidence to take on any challenge. She made sacrifices for her family and school children of their village. Today she is a primary school teacher in his village and Kaushlendra wants to do her proud.
With an eye on winning friends, Kaushalendra sells his vegetables with display tags that mention names of their areas of cultivation and the farmers who have grown them, apart from the price .He also knows the importance of walking the extra mile in business. So, he makes free home deliveries of vegetables, a cash memo which no other vegetable seller does. Cleanliness of vegetables is another critical area, as he knows that housewives not only want to buy fresh vegetables but are increasingly getting aware about healthy eating.
On the supply side, Kaushalendra has avoided middlemen by directly taking vegetables from chosen farmers and sharing profit with him. Today, he keeps visiting farmers across Bihar to train them in methods of farming and branding vegetables. Every week, he holds farmer’s meetings at some nondescript village and returns home with new business partners.
At present, his cooperative is generating Rs.3 lakh revenue every month. This leaves him with enough money to pay Rs.5700 as monthly installment against the education loan he had taken for his MBA at Ahmedabad. Kaushlendra is also trying to change the social mindset of the young and educated in Bihar, who will do anything but work in agriculture sector.
The vegetable supply chain venture was so novel that the faculty at his alma mater and friends helped him design a light vegetable cart that could be pushed or attached to a cycle as well the technology that would enable him to increase the shelf-life of the vegetables through the summer heat. Initially, he even pushed his own cart to gauge public response and study the demands and gaps in his knowledge and marketing. And soon enough, Kaushalendra was nicknamed the IIM sabziwala.
When a group of 25 to 30 farmers in a village come together, a vegetable collection centre is set up in the village or its vicinity. These Samriddhii kendras are managed by the farmers themselves So far, eight collection centres have been set up in Patna and Nalanda districts. The farmers have an assured market in the collection centres. They are informed about the purchase price of all vegetables the previous night and if the price does not suit them, they can defer the sale or take their crop to the traditional mandi. However, selling to the Samriddhii kendras saves farmers the cost of transportation, weighing and packaging charges and the commission that mandis charge. The income of farmers, who have joined Samriddhii’s vegetable supply chain, has gone up from 0.25 to 1.50 times.
Kaushalendra’s strategy differs from that of retail giants like Reliance Fresh. “Retail giants undermine vendors. Farmers also suffer losses because the companies buy the best quality vegetables and they have to sell the rest at a throwaway price,” he said. Samridhi buys the entire produce from farmers at a fixed rate. To have an edge in the cut-throat market, Samridhi offers quality assurance for which it has roped in wives of farmers and vendors. After the produce is brought to collection centres, the women segregate vegetables according to quality and weigh and pack them. The best quality vegetables go to carts and the low-grade ones are supplied to hotels. As a result of this, women, who were confined to their homes, are now involved in sorting, grading and packaging of vegetables at the processing centres. They earn anything from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 each per month.
The recognition and rewards are their sustenance. In 2012 the organisation received the Sankalp award from Aavishkar and Intelecap, social sector investors. In 2010, the Willgro Award was given in Chennai. But he is looking ahead instead of recounting his achievements, when he says, “No business is small, as long as it delivers a big mission .The excitement has just begun.”