Doing something for the welfare of the society and doing business that yields profit are not mutually exclusive ideas, says MINIYA CHATTERJI LILARAMANI
In the past financial year alone, India exported USD 5.7 billion worth seafood. This is an industry flourishing along India’s long coastline and growing at a whopping 10-15% annually. Yet it is also one that is infested with middle men, market asymmetry, inaccessibility and non-transparency.
Traders and exporters of seafood in India have benefitted the most from the sales whereas the aqua farmers have barely gained. The latter have instead borne the pain of lack of transparency in the marketplace, lack of support from the banking and financial sectors, lack of access to cold storage chains, and access issues to export markets. Sadly, the government’s online fish exchange initiative has ended up as a white elephant that has yet to reach small and medium farmers who have limited access and understanding about technology.
While government agencies struggle to create a simple and workable solution on the ground, a privately driven Aqua farmers network is helping farmers find the right place and price to sell their harvest to have a reasonable profit margin. Shrimp aqua farmers make for 70% of India’s total seafood exports, and Aqua Connect - South Asia’s largest aqua farmers network — provides a free and fair market access to them.
I had first met Raja Manohar, the co-founder of Aqua Connect, while I was working for the World Economic Forum almost six years ago. At that time Raja had just been chosen as a Young Global Leader, which is a brilliant community of altruistic individuals less than age 40 who are all leaders in the field of their work. Reticent and extremely polite, Raja was always generous with offering technology related solutions to challenges faced by this community. And so I was hardly surprised when I recently heard about Raja’s latest venture.
Raja explains that his company Aqua Connect offers shrimp farmers technology driven as well as low-tech human-centred communication interventions. The Aqua connect app provides a cloud hosted solution architecture, whereas a toll-free number permits on-field research analysts to provide technical guidance to the farmers to improve their yield. In these ways farmers get advice on seed availability, technical queries, and market prices. Traditionally, farmers had to rely on middle men to sell their products to exporters, but Aqua Connect provides direct market access to the farmers so that they could command right price for their produce.
Raja tells me that in the span of a year, more than 3000 shrimp farmers in the coastal districts of Andhra and Tamilnadu are already working with Aqua Connect to communicate with export markets, and that the toll free number is in Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and English catering to farmers in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal.
This year I am teaching a course on creating sustainable businesses to aspiring entrepreneurs at two universities — one in Paris and the other in Ahmedabad. In both cases, the challenge is to nudge the students towards creating organisations that have social good placed in the crux of their business model, and convince them of the need and possibility of scaling up such businesses. The students also need to be provided with the right role models of those who have who have built successful businesses that have had social welfare at its core. Or else they will be wont to start the next online sushi shop.
Indeed one of the largest impediments to do responsible business is the belief that social entrepreneurship can not be scaled up. While small ventures are lauded for placing social good as a focal point of their business model, it is often felt that the social and environment footprint of large organisations can merely be ‘balanced out’ in lieu of their CSR activities. The genius (and indeed sustained benefit for most stakeholders), however, lies in creating a scaled up profitable organisation whose business model incentivises social good.
Aqua Connect’s business model ensures that every one wins. On one hand, Aqua Connect has helped shrimp farmers connect with the hatcheries to locate the availability of good quality seeds, which is a scientific and technology intervention that has helped farmers to improve their profit margin up to 12%. On the other hand, while the farmer has free access to Aqua Connect’s services, hatcheries pay a service fee to Aqua Connect of 2Paise per seed for their services. Post culture, Aqua Connect enables the aqua farmers to get conscious about the current price trends and find the right market place to sell, and the exporters pay a service fee to Aqua Connect of Rs 2 per kg for their services as well.
Creating market driven solutions to socio-economic issues is no easy task, yet it is important to ensure that the solution is sustainable. If there is no moral, personal, or financial incentive in driving social good then these initiatives easily shut down when resources derived from philanthropy dry up. This is why cases such as Aqua Connect are important to explain and showcase to the next generation of entrepreneurs in India and the world. They are craving for role models.
Miniya is the author of Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India, Penguin Random House (2018), and the CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, the world’s first sustainability incubator.
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