“Why do I need to be eating a California apple?” asks Laxminarayan Srinivasaiah, co-founder of Jivabhumi, a new platform that connects local farmers to “conscious consumers” in Bengaluru.
Srinivasaiah and his two co-founders, left behind corporate stability earlier this year to fully commit to their growing business, which now feeds 600 Bengalureans. Their goal is twofold: to provide healthier, chemical-free, and locally-sourced food and to support farmers. Customers select the chemical-free local foods online, Jivabhumi works with local farmers and ships the food to local pick-up points.
For now, Jivabhumi is targeting the conscious consumers, or those already aware of the benefits of organic farming and who can afford such products. Over the next few years they hope to reach and become more accessible to different populations.
Visitors in a Jivabhumi farm. Pic: Jivabhumi Facebook page
“The holy grail is only when food is made affordable to all consumers,” says Sreenivasa Rao, another co-founder of Jivabhumi. “We don’t believe that organic food or naturally grown food should be available only to the elite customer. Unfortunately, that is the case today. Therefore, we are very consciously pricing our products... The idea of Jivabhumi really is how do you make it a win-win situation for both farmers as well as consumers.”
“Nobody wants to be transparent in this business”
Rao explained the supply chain in India is very complex; by eliminating any middlemen, being entirely transparent, and working directly with farmers, Jivabhumi is simplifying the process and hopefully, improving the lives of farmers. Depending on the product, those in Jivabhumi’s 1300 plus farmer network get 50 to 70 percent of the profits, a stark increase to the 25 to 27 percent they say farmers typically get.
According to the National Sample Survey Office, the average income per agricultural household In India from 2012 to 2013 was Rs 6,426.
“Nobody wants to be transparent in this business because unfortunately, the kind of profits that the retailers make is unbelievable, at the expense of beating the farmers down,” Rao says. “So nobody wants to be fair; that’s where we really want to create that difference.”
By eliminating the middlemen Jivabhumi is revealing the “real” price of food.
“The normal reaction for people is ‘why does organic cost so much,’” says Anil Nachig, co-founder of Jivabhumi. “So, if you ask the question, what is the real price of food, you will realise the subsidised food, the cheap food coming in, is coming at a certain cost.” The costs being environmental or social—”squeezing” the farmer. Neither of these, Nachig explains, are sustainable, or beneficial to the local economy or ecosystem.
“In the process of making food cheap and affordable to everyone, what are we doing?” Srinivasaiah says. “The farmer is being squeezed, right?”
The negative impacts of climate change, shrinking profits, and land, has led to a sharp decrease in the number of farmers in India over the last 20 years. The Hindu reported in 2013, that about 2,000 farmers were leaving the profession every day, and that there were seven million fewer farmers in the country in 2013, than in 2001.
“No one wants to do farming,” Srinivasaiah says. “Even if he has a farm, he is coming out of the farm and coming to Bangalore. He is fine to become a...security guard, he doesn’t want to do farming because you have to depend on rains and if the rain doesn’t come, how do you feed your family? Here if you become a security guard you have an income that you can look forward to at the end of the month.”
Farmer suicides have also risen. Karnataka alone saw over 1,000 farmer deaths by suicide from April 2015 to January 2016.
While the causes of the uptick in suicides are debated, the founders of Jivabhumi say if farmers are given a fair-trade, their standard of living will improve.
“How do we make lives of the farmer better?”Rao asks. “The reason why a lot of them are moving out of this profession is simply because it is not profitable for them anymore. The reason again for that is that there is no fair-trade in the entire supply chain.”
More startups look at agriculture
Organic Mandya, an organic farmer’s society in Karnataka, caters to farmers in the Mandya district. Bengalureans can buy their organic products online, or at their store in Mandya.
Like Jivabhumi, they cut out the middlemen and started selling farmers’ organic products a year and a half ago. Today, in addition to selling food, they offer organic tourism, in hopes the question “where does your food come from,” can actually be answered by a growing population.
Visitors and supporters of Organic Mandya can work in the farms connected with Organic Mandya. Pic: Organic Mandya FB page
Co-founder Bhaskara Kempaiah says there is definitely a growing demand for organic food. Take millets for example. Once less-popular, healthy alternatives to rice, millets are now in huge demand, according to both Kempaiah and Srinivasaiah of Jivabhumi.
“Health is getting more important as people see their relatives struggling with health,” Kempaiah says. He adds that organic farming can be more economical. Chemical-free farming eliminates the need to purchase the chemicals and pesticides usually used in farming. “10 to 15,000 rupees of input, if there is a disaster it's all lost,” he says. “With rain, they may end up losing all that money.”
It can, however, take three to five years for the soil previously doused in pesticides to replenish, according to Srinivasaiah. That means there may be a period where farmers are producing a smaller than normal crop. The hope is the increase in payment farmers get by selling chemical-free food facilitates their ability to produce a smaller crop.
Another entrepreneur, Subeesh S is working on an enterprise that will similarly support farmers. His concept, 'The Family Famer' also removes middlemen, ensures farmers get a better cut of the profits, and that the food is chemical-free.
Subeesh says if farmers have a direct and personal relationship with the consumer, the consumer will get a better product and the farmer a better deal.
“We all have a family doctor, whenever a problem comes he is the first consultant,” Subeesh says. “He…[knows] all the history of the patient, similarly we…[should have] a farmer, a family farmer.”
“Live to eat or eat to live?”
All of these companies exist in part because of their passion to improve the lives of farmers, but they also want to see a healthier population in Bengaluru.
‘Everything boils down to the food on your plate,” Sreenivasa Rao says. The question is...about the food choices you are making. Live to eat or eat to live?”