Given her background, many would call Devi Murthy’s foray into agriculture, fortuitous. For an engineer with a management degree from IIM, whose family business is automotive parts manufacturing, the challenges and plight of farmers were far removed from her immediate environment. Had it not been for a fun project on a friend’s farm, Devi’s startup Kamal Kisan, specialising in affordable mechanised tools for small and marginal farmers, wouldn’t have seen the light of the day. But the genesis of her success lies in her ability to detect opportunity in challenges.
In 2012, when the hand-drawn mulch layer she made for a friend drew appreciation and requests for more such products, she saw an untapped market. As Devi strove to learn about agricultural practices, farm mechanisation, and entry barriers — making trips to the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering in Bhopal, the manufacturing hubs of agricultural tools in Rajkot, the sprawling agricultural expos in Coimbatore and Delhi, and to the fields in Belgaum and Tumkur — she realised there was a clear disconnect between the problems and solutions in the farm sector because the farmer’s needs weren’t paid heed to.
What firmed up her resolve to take the plunge was a visit to a farm tools manufacturer’s fabrication unit. “This rudimentary set-up with no quality consciousness and manufacturing plan was fleecing farmers. It struck me then that if I did not make efforts to drive a difference, I would be fooling myself,” says Devi.
In just six years since inception, the company has developed 10 products across hand tools, tractor implements and power-operated equipment. In the process, Devi has learnt the value of incorporating farmers’ inputs while designing the range of merchandise. Two of her best-sellers, the Seed drill cum Bed Layer-Combo and the Raised Bed Maker, which can also be used as an accessory for the mulch layer, were co-designed with farmers.
Her extensive interactions with farmers in the early days of the company were an eye-opener. “After being in the profession for generations, they are far more knowledgeable than we give them credit for. What they lack in formal education, they more than make up with their intimate understanding of soil and weather conditions, seeds and other aspects of agriculture,” she says.
Devi was also pleasantly surprised to find progressive women farmers. “Though women outnumber men in this profession, especially in manual labour, I wasn’t expecting to see a bunch of women at the helm taking active interest in technology. It goes on to show that if empowered, women can achieve a lot,” Devi says. It’s, perhaps, obvious that Kamal Kisan’s tools are women-friendly.
Another revelation was the dearth of agriculture labour. “Nearly 66% of India’s population lives in the villages, as per a World bank study, and you mostly see people working in the fields; so, it was a bit difficult to digest that labourers are in short supply,” she says.
Early on, people tried to dissuade her by saying that farmers won’t pay for the tools. Kamal Kisan’s success has proved them wrong. Six years on, Devi and her team travels the length and breadth of the country to remain in touch with the clients and receive feedback from the fields. “Of course, people are willing to pay. The question is, how do you position the value for them,” she says.
The ‘them’ — the small and marginal farmers — constitute 86.2% of Indian farming community, possessing 2 hectares or less, as per the 10th Agriculture Census 2015–16, as land holdings became more fragmented between 2010–11 and 2015–16. This overwhelming majority — numbering close to 126 million farmers — has limited access to technology and agricultural schemes and is largely dependent on manual labour. With the central government nearly doubling the minimum wage for farm labour in 2017, these farmers find it excruciatingly difficult to employ a few extra pairs of hands. Kamal Kisan’s cost-effective mechanised solutions not only reduce dependence on hired help significantly but also increases productivity, profitability, and sustainability. The farmers can hire these machines from the local owners to service their fields, thus saving on both time and labour costs. Kamal Kisan’s customers are the people who rent these machines.
Smart Platform-based Solutions
Even though her intentions were noble, and Devi did the spadework before committing herself wholeheartedly to set up Kamal Kisan, there were several hiccups at the start. The year 2014 was a bleak phase when a lot of money was invested in trying to come up with a radical paddy transplanter. Things started looking up in 2015 when the startup came up with a small vegetable planter that could be commercialised. The company hit the jackpot with the Raised Bed Maker by focussing on a platform-based approach. “There is a standardised base frame, or a platform, on which four different accessories can be attached to perform four different operations. In effect, the same frame can double as the bed maker or the mulch layer or the seed planter, as per requirement. This way, the customer doesn’t have to buy different machines; he just has to invest in accessories,” she says. While the existing platform can be fastened to tractors, the company is working on a platform for mini engines with varying attachments.
Devi wants to position Kamal Kisan in the agri market as the provider of smart platformised solutions. “This is our USP,” she says, adding that her company’s goal is to come up with as many unique attachments as possible that can be fixed to both tractors and mini trailers.
“It’s not easy to convince farmers to try out new devices. For generations, they have steadfastly adhered to certain methods while battling risks. One shouldn’t expect them to switch over overnight,” says Devi who believes in carrying her clients forward in this journey of progression.
Kamal Kisan has been on an expansion mode for quite some time now, increasing its footprint in North and South Karnataka through a robust dealer network. Since last year, the company has been getting a lot of organic traction from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “Post-Covid, we have also been focussing on B2B marketing for a larger reach by collaborating with marketplace players. For example, we have tied up with Coromandel Namma Grow More, one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals, to distribute our products through their 3,000-odd retail outlets across AP and Telangana,” she says.
Similar contracts have been signed by other channel partners in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.
The company is also building research partnerships with NGOs engaged in CSR activities to increase its portfolio of products.
Social Alpha’s Role
As part of its impact thesis, Social Alpha (SA) works towards sustainably increasing the incomes of small and marginal farmers. It focuses on the needs and problems of the farmers and empowers entrepreneurs and innovators who address these issues. “Kamal Kisan fits the SA mandate as the solutions are designed and developed keeping in mind the smallholder farmers with a strong focus on affordability, women-friendliness, and ease of use. These solutions have so far impacted more than 25,000 small and marginal farmers across India, making them prosperous, productive, and empowered,” says Kishore Athota, Portfolio Manager, SA.
Kamal Kisan came into the SA fold in 2017. “We got to know about the startup’s impressive work and offered seed investment to accelerate its business growth while supporting the product-development journey. It has recently secured the runners’ up position in the mechanisation category at a global event called the Giz Innovation Challenge, 2020,” says Kishore.
Awards and accolades aside, Kamal Kisan’s philosophy is simple. It wants to make agriculture more sustainable for farmers. And it has set out to do so by making the tiller’s efforts more productive and profitable through mechanisation. Coming from a family of automotive manufacturers, Devi is playing to her strengths. She doesn’t have deep pockets; neither does she have VC-backing to aggressively diversify. Right now, apart from the revenue, her ambitions are fuelled by an entrepreneurial madness and the resolve to add value to one of the most neglected sectors of India.