Govinda Singh, a young farmer of Balka village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district, is worried that his marigold plants are wilting. He is not sure what is happening. In desperation, he rushes to Ram Kumar, who runs Ram Kumar Keetnashak Dukhan (pesticide shop) at Saraya Takia, a few kilometres away, and shows him one of his plants. Kumar immediately tells him that the crop has been infected by root rot disease and suggests a remedy.

Kumar is able to explain the problem without referring to any material, thanks to the training he, as a micro-entrepreneur or local channel partner, got from DeHaat, the Gurugram-based seed-to-market firm which means ‘rural’. He knows solutions thanks to agronomists’ suggestions in the DeHaat app.

Within reach

A little away at Maithana Jagatpur village, 18-year-old Kushal Sharma helps his fellow Basmati paddy farmers with farm solutions by looking up the DeHaat app, while 46-year-old Hukam Singh calls the start-up’s call centre seeking solutions.

“Reaching our company is easy for farmers and can be through many ways — personal visit to the nearest micro-entrepreneur, or via the app or calling our call centres,” says Pramod Murari, Lead - Agronomist and Extension - DeHaat.

This is how DeHaat, founded in 2012, has won over 1.3 million farmers with almost all of them dealing with the firm in any given quarter, from seed to market literally. But the travel has been testing and challenging.

“When we started, farmers were not even ready to share their mobile number,” says Shashank Kumar, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder, DeHaat.

Three verticals

DeHaat has learnt the art of putting the digital world to best use by helping farmers buy seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides directly through its app; get loans; buy crop insurance, and sell their produce at the best price. The Gurugram-based firm functions through three verticals. The first provides agricultural inputs, the second advises farmers, and the third markets agricultural produce. Kumar says the firm provides end-to-end solutions and ways to access the company for all their needs.

First to build full stack

Some of the top agribusiness and export firms use DeHaat to actively buy farm produce. It has warehouses and a tie-up with a private firm for transport right up to the farmers’ doorstep.

“We have been able to bridge farmers’ needs through institutional relationships. We have 100-120 input suppliers on our platform to sell 2,100 products. We also have 900 buyers purchasing some 35 crops from us,” says Shyam Sundar Singh, Director and Co-Founder of DeHaat.

Providing insights on the company’s success, Kumar says, “We are the first company to build a full stack for farmers, piloting digital adoption in rural areas since 2012-13.”

“We began digitalisation by shifting to technology first internally. Then, we extended it to the value chain and finally to farmers. The rapid growth of smartphone usage has helped us to a great extent,” says Sundar Singh.

How the system works

DeHaat centres are fully digitalised with artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics.

Its system works like this: If a farmer needs some input, including seeds, he can use the app to place the order or dial the call centre. The local channel partner accepts the placed order and gets it ready for delivery, usually within hours. The farmer can either get it personally from the local partner or have it delivered.

A farmer buying seeds automatically gets free insurance covering the crop lifecycle. He can get paid insurance to ensure he gets compensation if there is deficient or excess rainfall.

“DeHaat has tied up with IBM and India Meteorological Department for providing localised weather data,” says Murari.

Winning growers’ trust

“Agri inputs can be got on credit, too. Farmers can get crop insurance through our app or local partners. They also have the opportunity to sell their crop to us and we, in turn, give it to buyers,” says Sundar Singh.

More importantly, when the crop faces problems, farmers can take a photo of it and upload it on the app. DeHaat agronomists will offer a solution with a team of the company sometimes visiting the farm if required to provide relief. The solutions offered on the app can also be archived for farmers to look up in future.

“On the other hand, while selling their produce, farmers face no risks as they get prices equal to, or more than, the market price,” says CEO Kumar.

Covering 10% of Indian villages

The company, which shifted to Gurugram three years ago from Patna to build its technology team, has 9,000 micro-entrepreneurs on the ground across 110 districts to provide services to farmers in 60,000 villages. “That’s 10 per cent of total Indian villages,” says Sundar Singh.

Kumar adds, “We now geo-tag farmers’ land to provide them customised solutions for weather, biotic and abiotic stress,” he says. “We have even begun experiments with drones in three-four districts including Bulandshahr, Hapur (Uttar Pradesh), and Motihari and Sasaram (Bihar),” says Amrendra Singh.

Drone service

Mukesh Agarwal, a DeHaat micro-entrepreneur in Bulandshahr, says “drone sprays have been done in Bulandshahr on paddy areas which are difficult to manage manually, and sugarcane, in view of the height of the crop. Farmers are charged ₹350 per acre,” he says. But the local partner has to get an order to spray at least 25 acres. “Including the mapping of the field (termed geo-fencing), the drone takes 20 minutes to spray an acre,” Murari says.

No template to follow

“In reaching this place, we had no template to follow. There were no customised data on farmers though various universities have done phenomenal research,” says Kumar.

The biggest hurdle DeHaat faced was the mindset among various people — from their own family members to the farmers; this is a view shared by all the founders, including Amrendra Singh, who is also a DeHaat director.

All its co-founders, including Adarsh Srivatsav who sits in Bengaluru, came with IIT and management backgrounds. More importantly, they were from agriculturist families and “we wanted to do something at the farmer’s doorstep,” says Sundar Singh. “Changing the mindset of our family members who wondered why we needed to do this was our first task,” says Kumar.

Living in villages

“We did it all on our own. We just took our bags and began to live in villages to understand the farmers. We met farmers and tried to understand their problems and solve them,” says Amrendra Singh.

DeHaat, which began its journey with a group of farmers in Bihar’s Vaishali district after having functioned as a not-for-profit company in 2011, has been able to revolutionise digital transformation, says Sundar Singh.

“One of the aspects of our business was to base our business model on opting for micro-entrepreneurs or local channel partners,” he says. Focus on technology also helped greatly.

“The rapid growth of smartphones, setting up of dedicated call centres for farmers, and ensuring no farmers travels beyond eight km to meet their needs through local channel partners have all helped,” says Amrendra Singh.

Path of growth

“Ours is a unique farmer-first model. This has resulted in two types of gains for farmers. One is measurable in terms of low input costs, higher production and better price. Farmers are 100 per cent assured that they get the right product at the right time,” says Kumar.

The company has grown organically, starting from Bihar and then expanding to Jharkhand, Odisha, eastern and other parts of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. “We will start in Andhra Pradesh shortly and in Assam in 3-4 months,” says Sundar Singh.

DeHaat has also entered the fruits and vegetable sector by launching its own brand Farmplus to sell to customers directly. “We even bring these produce from Pune to Bengaluru,” says Amrendra Singh. “We have now begun catering to the European and Gulf markets by getting bananas, grapes and baby-corn for our buyers,” he says. The company has also got into cattlefeed.

DeHaat complies with local mandi regulations while procuring produce from farmers by getting the mandatory mandi license, says Amrendra Singh.

Farmers’ responses

Channel partner Ram Kumar, who has been with DeHaat for three years, says his shop caters to at least 500 farmers in his area and they save 5-10 per cent on crop inputs. “Any order we place online, we get it within two days. Our grievances on pest attacks and crop diseases are addressed immiediately,” says Gaurav Kumar, a 35-year-old farmer growing sugarcane and Basmati paddy in Maithana Jagatpur. He also benefits from the geo-tag, getting alerts on risks to his crops.

Hari Om Shankar, a 61-year-old farmer who has worked in CISF, says the crop solutions offered by DeHaat are like expert diagnosis. On helping farmers switch crops, CEO Kumar says, “Initially, we work with farmers for 2-3 years around their existing crops. Then we encourage them to shift to corn or mint or sweet corn or herbs or lemon grass and offer extension services,” he says.

“We have promoted new mint varieties as part of our intervention strategy among farmers,” says Sundar Singh.

The DeHaat founders are glad that they have been able to make people change their view on agriculture, particularly in accepting the sector as a promising career.