In Conversation with Ajay Kumar Tannirkulam, Founder, Magasool
After completing his Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from the University of Michigan, Ajay Kumar Tannirkulam (also an IIT Bombay alum) came back to India to manage a socio-economic study of more than 5000 rural households in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. During his tenure, he got close to the farmers. Ajay also found out that even though 60% of Indians are working in agriculture, their contribution to the GDP had fallen by 30% in the last 40 years.
During the course of the study, his former colleague, (now co-founder) Jayaram Venkatesan and Ajay observed that the farmers were practicing 40 years old agricultural techniques. The duo made a determined decision to make farming smart and sustainable to the farmers. Thus, Magasoolwas born in 2012. His love for the Indian soil and Indian culture is clearly visible in the name of his venture as Magasool, in Tamil, means ‘yield’.
Organic Facts caught up with Ajay Kumar Tannirkulam and talked to him about how he raised the agricultural yield of the farmers in Tamil Nadu.
OF: We know that the drive to improve the lives of small and marginal farmers in Tamil Nadu gave birth to Magasool. Could you throw some light on the means by which you plan to achieve this?
AKT: From decreasing productivity levels, ever-increasing input costs, to poor price realization of their produce, there are many ills that bother a small farmer in a developing country like India. Magasool addresses these issues by providing hands-on agricultural support and extension services that are personalized and adapted to prevailing farming conditions in each region. Our vision is to partner with universities, non-government institutions, and industry and government bodies to provide 10000 farmers of Tamil Nadu direct support and services to realize higher productivity, lowered drudgery and enhanced nutrition; and to impact over 1.5 million farmers in India through policy work.
Our current set of programs, developed in close partnership with local farmer groups and universities and carefully tested in local conditions, are broadly divided into:
- Modern sowing techniques
- Soil health improvement techniques
- Technical training and consulting services
Our support system consists of regional coordinators who continuously engage with farmers to solve their problems. We build a trust-based relationship, offer our services for nominal rates, and personally work with each farmer to make sure that they benefit from our services.
OF: Changing the agricultural space is a challenging task in itself. However, what major issues did you face in terms of existing schemes and working individually with farmers?
AKT: The Indian government, agricultural universities, and NGOs have introduced several schemes. However, there are two major problems with such schemes,
- Their recommendations are not tested on agricultural land under local conditions
- They do not provide proactive support and extension systems to ensure good reach and uptake
To help the small farmer effectively adopt scientific practices, it is necessary to continuously work with the farmers, build trust, and help them overcome their risk-aversion by introducing them to role models. Being city dwellers, the farmers were skeptical about our motives and the intent to work for long term. However, with time and effort, we eventually managed to overcome this roadblock and build the strong foundation of trust.
OF: Could you tell us something about raising funds for your venture? And, what are your plans for future funding?
As mentioned, Magasool is a not-for-profit initiative. The founders do not draw any salary or stipend. All our capital expenses are funded through generous donations from friends and family operated under Magasool Trust and Magasool Agro Foundation.
Our work is entirely constrained by our ability to raise grants. Thus, since last year we have also started tapping the CSR network. Our operations expenses are covered from highly subsidized fees charged to the farmers for the work we do. We started with 12 farmers in 2012 and have currently outreached to about 1200 farmers and farm workers. Since, our reach is quite limited, in the short term we are hoping to increase funding through CSR. In the long-term, we want to provide processing and marketing facilities for the farmers on a profit share basis. The profits can partly subsidize the farm services.
OF: What would you consider as the epitome of achievement for your company?
Making agriculture profitable for farmers, farm workers and sustainable for the environment would be the epitome of achievement for us. We would like to partner with the government to modernize the extension system and make it personalized. Also, agriculture uses almost 80% of the fresh water and a lot of electricity. We want to see the environmental footprint of agriculture reduced. We have started pushing the government for water conservation efforts too.
OF: As a changemaker, what are you most proud of your contribution to the agriculture and nutrition space?
Albeit at a very tiny scale, we are most proud of demonstrating the sustainability of a farmer services system that is highly localized and caters to individual farmer and farm worker needs. Some of our early farm-worker employees have become agro-entrepreneurs in their own right which is very encouraging.