Responding to a crisis: Building a rural workforce to support smallholder farmers
When you speak to Jyoti Choudhary, Human Resources Director at Ergos Business Solutions, an Indian agri-tech business, about the company’s ‘Village Champions’ she will call them ‘my Village Champions’.
Her personal affinity to these employees is understandable. Over the past year, in the face of COVID-19 and lockdowns, Jyoti has hired and trained a whole new team equipped with the communication and technical skills needed to help the company reach farmers in remote locations.
Ergos provides smallholder farmers in Bihar, India with much-needed warehousing facilities to store their produce post-harvest. From there they can convert their grains into tradable digital assets which they can store, trade at the most beneficial time, and even use to secure credit from banks. All of this gives farmers a choice over when, how much and at what price they want to sell their product.
While larger agricultural businesses can afford the costs associated with using warehouses in cities, almost 86 per cent of farmers in India are small and marginal farmers for whom this option isn’t available. The issue became even more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic when logistics and trading supply chains were disrupted.
For farmers, the ability to trade their products in a way which maximises income is revolutionary. Without suitable storage, many smallholder farmers fall victim to produce loss and are vulnerable to exploitation from traders.
“We support farmers, especially with small and marginal businesses, to get real value for their produce, especially for the small and marginal farmers because they don’t have access to the bigger market where they can sell their grains at a fair price and get better value for their work,” explains Jyoti.
Over the past year, as markets have been impacted by the pandemic, the demand from farmers for Ergos’ services skyrocketed.
In response the company rapidly grew its workforce, aided by the availability of workers due to reverse migration from cities to rural areas at the onset of the pandemic. Many of these new employees joined as ‘Village Champions’ – Ergos’ representatives in rural communities who work to bring farmers on-board and support them in setting up with the company.
As young people many of the Village Champions found it hard to relate to Ergos’ core customer who are middle aged rural smallholder farmers.
“The main challenge we face is communicating with the farmers and demonstrating our business model to them,” says Gaurav Singh, an Ergos Village Champion.
“For example, most of the farmers do not have smartphones, so installing the app was not done with the farmers themselves, but we had to work with their younger family members who had smart phones to get them signed up. So, Ergos not only has to reach the customer, but the family of the customer, which goes beyond a typical sales communication and dialogue.”
This type of complex and often nuanced discussion requires expert communication. However, many of the workers brought in as Village Champions lacked some of the ‘soft skills’ required to communicate effectively with farmers to build trust and understanding about the business and its benefits.
Working with CDC teams and training provider The Change Academy, Ergos trained over 100 Village Champions through a specially devised programme to develop relation building skills with farmers, empowering the farmers to take ownership of the pricing for their goods.
The programme, titled Pratiman meaning ‘a model for change’, included presentation skills and empathetic communication skills, to help them connect with farmers in a way which met and alleviated farmers’ concerns. Due to the pandemic, much of this training was moved online as lockdowns prevented in-person sessions.
The company also launched an internal ‘train the trainers programme’, to enable the Village Champions to progress within the company or take their skills to other organisations to further their career.
It’s paid off. Not only is Ergos seeing the team grow in confidence and abilities when working in the field, but the feedback from farmers also suggests that the Village Champions are having a real impact within rural communities.
“Once the farmers start using the product they proactively come to our team and demand prices, so now they’ve become empowered,” adds Brajesh Kumar, another Village Champion
“We support farmers to get real value for their produce, especially for the small and marginal farmers because they don’t have access to the bigger market where they can sell their grains at a better price and get more value for their work,” explains Jyoti.
“So, it’s not just about the Village Champions being empowered to do business, they’re also empowering the farmers and other villagers which is an added benefit.”