Book Review of Farming Futures by Emmanuel V Murray
In a modernising Indian economy, two areas that have lagged far behind are Agriculture & the Bureaucracy. Of the two, thankfully, Agriculture is seeing a lot more action toward change, driven by a number of professionals from domains outside of agriculture believing that there are opportunities to apply their knowledge & expertise to discover and develop solutions to long unsolved challenges in agriculture, with the possibility of these solutions being taken to scale.
Farming Futures is a topical treatise that captures the experience of 15 Social Enterprises in the Agri space, and presents a dispassionate narration of the travails and triumphs of each of them, as Case Studies that delve deep into the enterprises, beyond mere stating of facts and figures. None of the fifteen enterprises covered had a fairy tale experience with a ‘happily ever after’ ending, with ready to take and use formulas for success. As is the case in agriculture, travails far outnumber triumphs, but the never-give-up attitude of the entrepreneurs, and their vision which in a way, is a ‘higher calling’ than merely getting the business model right, is the highlight of most case studies.
As someone who has spent a lifetime in the Agri and Rural domain, across the spectrum from grassroots to policy, I can identify some lessons that emerge from a reading of the book:
First, the ability of an entrepreneur in this space to take his idea or technology to a scalable and sustainable business depends on the capacity of the entrepreneur to transform his personal dream into a shared vision that infects the rest of his team, and attracts talent that can take his vision forward, as the entrepreneur makes space and recognizes his need to shrink his role over time. No amount of passion, commitment or hard work can substitute this. The deification and super hero aura of an individual will only lead to limiting one’s ability to scale and sustainability.
Second, all the enterprises described in the book make impact that often does not show-up in their performance numbers or on their financial statements. The real worth of these enterprises is significantly understated on conventional measures. If only these externalities are valued and quantified, their true worth will get recognised.
Third, each of the enterprises covered in the book are unique, and hence, expecting a conventional bank to first understand them and thereafter fund them is in the realm of fantasy. There would be exception of ‘course of bankers who are ready to spend time, understand and customize the offering for the enterprise. But those will always be exceptions. That all these enterprises have weathered the storms and continue to survive, although with constrained growth is testimony to the fact that they were and are bankable. Development institutions like NABARD should take the lead in developing credit lines to meet such needs, either in partnership with banks, or offering back stopping arrangements. The benefits of such arrangements to the sector and the country far outweigh the cost.
Not all the ventures described in the book are invest-able enterprises from a Private Equity Investor perspective. Nonetheless, they are fund-able. Such enterprises may need to be supported by soft forms of support such as quasi equity, to leverage debt.
All the entrepreneurs featured in Farming Futures have competencies that command a good price in the market, but they made a conscious choice and devoted their life to build the enterprise, and not as a passing fad. That is a point to note for the millennials who have romantic notions of quick-fix tech solutions that can attract VC funds and give quick fast buck exits.
"Agriculture may not be the place for Unicorns"
The ultimate test of success of enterprises that have viable and relevant solutions is their adoption at scale. That this is not evidenced in a majority of the Cases in Farming Futures indicates the lack of coordination, collaboration, and the unwillingness of the mainstream institutions to recognize, acknowledge and work with these innovators.
Overall, Farming Futures is a good read for anybody interested in knowing more about happenings in the Agri Startup ecosystem, beyond the usual journalistic style writings that one often comes across in online publications. I would certainly recommend entrepreneurs planning to venture into Agri space to give a serious read, in preparation for the long and tough journey that awaits them, with the satisfaction that if they do well, they have the ability to impact very large numbers. Agri enterprise is not any and everybody’s game. It’s a lot of hard work.
About the Author -
Emmanuel V Murray
Senior Advisor at Caspian Impact Investment Adviser. An alumnus of IRMA, He has over 32 years experience in agriculture & rural credit and microfinance, including five years as head of operations of an NBFC with a portfolio of over INR 6 billion.