Story Of Zizira - Why We Need To Open Markets For Farmers
Will the Story of our Experiences Help?
This story evolved as I sat down to record our experiences and learnings from Zizira. As I started to, I found it was time-consuming and even had doubts – whether or not it will be a good idea to continue with this exercise. But, after pondering over it, I believe this journal is a good thing to create, even though it will take a lot of time. It will give background info to anyone joining Zizira, but it can do more.
I think that someone might learn from this. We are sharing our mistakes and strategy, someone might benefit. Mostly it can be about our evolving strategy – like a case study about a startup. I think it will be interesting to talk about what we have been attempting – for example - Starting a new venture, starting a movement, selling, building a team and so much more.
Farmers in Meghalaya, usually depend on rain to grow rice, potatoes and cash crops like turmeric, ginger and chilies. In some forested, rainy areas, black pepper, long pepper and coffee grow. There are very few farmers growing oranges, cashews, plums, kiwi and similar fruits and nuts.
Zizira explorers, our team that goes on field visits, seems to discover new crops every month!
Northeast India is a region geographically and culturally separate from other parts of India. The region is remote and isolated. This 8-state area is connected to the main part of India by only a narrow strip of land and is surrounded by other countries – like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. These restrictive borders isolate the region and prevent trade, mixing of cultures and technological development.
The area has been slow to change and agricultural practices are very traditional compared to other regions of India. Until very recently farmers did not use fertilizer or pesticide. Few farmers use equipment. Even today many farmers grow enough for their own consumption, using traditional methods.
Some farmers use the slash and burn system and plant in new areas every few seasons. These non-technological farmers seem to be a big benefit for the region. Many people are looking to Northeast India as the place for organic food. There are agencies and government organisations helping farmers, but they don’t typically open markets. Farmers often give us the impression that the work of some of these entities helps, but they really need markets.
They want to sell and make money. This is where Zizira fits. Zizira can open markets. Zizira is creating a successful business to sell products to the big cities in India. The model is to create a sustainable, profitable business and at the same time benefit farmers. We believe that by opening markets we help them get the most for their crops.
Eventually, opening markets will help them discover the most profitable crops to grow and their land will be used to its fullest potential. Farmers sell the crops in local markets or to middlemen. Life is tough for many farmers. We are learning. Recently we learned that many of the woman farmers lose their land to middlemen. Apparently, these farmers borrow money to buy seeds and are not able to pay it back.
Since good information about crops, farming practices and markets is not readily available, Zizira teams go out on field trips to discover. They interview farmers take photos and learn. They seem to uncover something new on each trip.
Our Strategy Evolved
In my previous post, I had referred to the base of committed employees Chilibreeze has, from which a team was spawned to lead Zizira. Yet, even with a stable foundation, it takes time to learn. We assembled a team with little agriculture background.
They just figured things out. We developed a ‘learn as you go plan’. We were open to all business models. The idea was to learn fast and eliminate bad options. Over time, we decided on some general ideas, for example, high-value low volume.
Why Low Volume High Value
Because of the unique climate, rugged terrain and small farm sizes, we decide the best thing for farmers is high value - low volume. This means growing crops that are scarce and more valuable in the market. These crops may be hard for others to grow because they require extra care or they need a special cool growing climate. Over time, we believe that this strategy will release the underutilised potential of family farms in Meghalaya.
What this meant was we need to identify products that would be in line with this strategy – of low volume, high value. Our product needs to be unique and profitable. We do not want to compete on volume. This became our long-term plan. At this point, it was more or less a concept. We didn’t know what would grow and what would command a high price in the mark. Want to know the Product selection criteria I chalked out, as a first cut suggestion? Read my next post to find out.