Old Economy, New Businesses: #RuralWork in India

Judging by the comments and enthusiasm that my post on #RuralLiving drew, it seems to me that the idea of living in India’s villages is romantic enough for many people. Therein lies the irony – it is romantic, but is it achievable? After all, one can’t subsist on clean air and water (seeing as India is not turning socialist anytime soon). However, therein also lies the opportunity. Let me elaborate.

 

On the one hand, it may be true that today every other graduate of the hallowed IITs/ IIMs/ Ivy League or such other institutions is not a jobseeker but a (wannabe) job-creator and going down the entrepreneurship route. On the other hand, one in five 30-something yuppies, wants to turn farmer in the second innings of her/his career.

 

Not too long ago, becoming a farmer was the final resort for the lowest of the low offspring of a farmer and even (s)he would have considered at least one other avenue before signing up for it. The lure of city-life, with its bright lights, shopping options, a service culture (unheard of in the villages), and above all, a much higher income, was something every child who was born towards the end of the Cold War period yearned for.

 

And yet, for the same reasons that #RuralLiving is a massive innovation opportunity, it is also a tremendous business opportunity. It is possible to make money in our villages too, and not simply through the so-called (real estate) “development” projects (perhaps the last thing rural India needs at the moment, but that discussion could be the subject of another post). Expectedly, the two key sectors to focus on are agriculture and services.

 

India continues to be known as an agrarian economy but agriculture is rapidly losing its place as rampant labour-drain from villages forces people to look to other sources of livelihood. After all, how can you till the soil if there’s nobody to till it? Yet, if ever there was a time for agriculture to own its moment in the sun, it is now, what with question of food security looming over our heads in the near future. Of course, the challenges for agriculture in India have changed and so the strategy and methods for agriculture must change too. It needs to be accorded the same level of importance as any other science.

 

What agriculture in India misses is more than simply labour – it lacks a sound systematic knowledge base, appropriate technologies, a focus on scalability, a focus on financials, models to rationalise producer-to-consumer hops, and models to allow non-farmers to participate in the process, to name just a few challenges. But these gaps are precisely where new businesses can flower. Hosachiguru is one such catalyst in the agriculture paradigm that is now being defined.

 

Scalability or the lack of it has been pointed out too often as the chief culprit in the non-story that Indian agriculture has become. But one look at Desai Fruits & Vegetables will tell you how focus, perseverance and horticultural technology can work wonders and still leave the space open for several more F&V kings. Encouragingly, corporates like Mahindra have taken the leap in the dairy sector. But with agriculture being so vast, there are many such opportunities not just in horticulture and dairy, but also in floriculture, pisciculture, cattle rearing, etc.

 

Let’s look at the services sector then. Most people seem to believe either that people in rural areas don’t need services or that a service provider will not thrive there. But, consider this. Over half of the upper income households in India live in rural areas. A higher proportion of rural households are D-I-N-K than urban households. The demand-pull for automobile ownership (passenger vehicles) is expected to be equal for rural and urban areas in this decade. Rural incomes and rural discretionary spending have been rising at a faster clip than urban incomes and similar urban spending.

 

Yet, the rural population is forced to take this discretionary surplus to the cities because there simply aren’t enough avenues, not even essential services, in the rural areas to spend on. A vehicle owner in a rural area must travel at least 50 km, to the nearest service workshop, to get his/ her car serviced or repaired. She must visit the next city to get a salon treatment. He must plan his next city trip such that he can make a visit to the laundry to drop off his ‘dry-clean only’ wardrobe items. She must do justice to her aggregated shopping list for clothes, shoes and beauty essentials when she visits the sole cinema theatre in the city to catch the latest Bollywood release, which will run only for a week at the theatre. Even routine maintenance and repair activities requiring the skills of a plumber, electrician or carpenter require dialing into a city directory for summoning required help.

 

These simple enough routine activities for an urbanite require significant planning, long-distance commuting and an enormous amount of time for the upper income ruralite. Admittedly, it would take an innovative business model, novel channel marketing tactics, and a long-term horizon to make services economically sustainable in the rural areas. But surely the reward should be worth the risk once a solution to the aggregation and scalability challenges is achieved.

 

More power to our villages!

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