In conversation with Simeen, Co-founder at Gramhal on empowering farmers with technology and data
Meet Simeen Kaleem, Co-founder and COO - Gramhal, an Agtech non-profit on a mission to increase farm profitability for 10 million farmers by 2025. Founded in 2019, Gramhal has consistently exhibited the DNA of speed, scale, and innovation by making quick pivots to now reach lakhs of farmers in a short period of 3 years. Read more to deep dive into Simeen’s inspirational personal and professional journey.
Simeen, tell us about your early life and the motivation behind pursuing an entrepreneurial life.
My roots lie in rural Uttar Pradesh where my father was in a transferable job. He is a first-generation learner who deeply believes in the power of education. My formative years taught me that I could do anything with the right education. I changed 8 schools, moved from one location to another, and unknowingly gained the confidence and skills needed for entrepreneurship. I became comfortable with uncertainty and learned that I could interact with anyone and make friends anywhere.
However, in all honesty, I had never thought of becoming an entrepreneur. My family is a typical small middle-class family that had aspirations for me to become a doctor or an engineer. I had never even seen an entrepreneur. I pursued science at Delhi University and wanted to pursue a Ph.D. to teach.
A key turning point in my life came in 2011 when I did a volunteering activity that was beyond my sciences course and was exposed to diverse people and ideas. This sparked immense interest in me in the world beyond. Therefore, in 2012 I joined the Young India Fellowship (YIF) to explore other areas of studies through their liberal arts program with a scholarship.
A substantial credit for evolving my worldview belongs to YIF, where Professors such as Mihir Shah taught complex subjects like political economy of India's development with great practicality and simplicity. These classes evolved my worldly framework and also helped me chart my future career. I realized that since I have one life, I want to do work that helps others, even one step at a time.
In 2013, I joined the MA Social Work course at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), where the academic and fieldwork helped me explore the development sector in depth. At TISS, things began making sense.
After graduating from TISS, like any conventional person, I took up jobs spanning policy, behaviour change, etc, and also served as the Country Manager for the University of Chicago in India. After spending about 5 ½ years in the sector, I started questioning my impact as an individual. I was sure I wanted to make a mark but was not sure in what domain or industry, and capacity I should work.
In 2015, Vikas, a classmate at TISS, proposed growing organic produce over the weekends in his ancestral village in Haryana. We worked hard over 1 year, had great produce, found market linkages, and were about to harvest the produce when rains destroyed the entire crop. We didn’t even make 1 kg of produce. That’s when the problem clicked. Although my roots lay in agriculture and I had heard these things happening, I had never personally experienced or understood the problem. This was my first brush; an apprenticeship with the plight of the farmers.
I continued working at my job, but the problem and its pain remained inside me. I kept thinking that I have a secure job and income, but what about the 70% of the population that is reliant on agriculture for daily living..?
What was the point at which you took the plunge and founded Gramhal? How did your product evolve over the years?
Through the first-hand experience of farming in 2015, I learned some of the problems faced in agriculture, but I still didn’t have any solutions - only a few hypotheses. I also didn’t have the confidence to gather resources and it felt like a distant dream.
3 years later in 2017, Vikas went to the Harvard Kennedy School to pursue a Master in Public Policy. This was the first time we came across an encouraging ecosystem with a great number of accessible resources. This changed our attitude, and together we founded Gramhal. We pitched at the Harvard Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and received our first seed grant of $25,000 which changed our lives forever.
In 2019 I quit my full-time job at the University of Chicago and moved to Central India, which is one of the most agriculturally distressed parts of India, believing that if I can work with the most vulnerable then I can impact the rest of the country.
Gramhal’s Product Development Journey
“Our first hypothesis was that a warehousing model can address stress selling, leading to an increase in farmer income. The farmers can store their produce at the warehouse and receive daily price information to sell produce at peak prices and hence increase their income.”
However, this model didn’t work. Although 500 farmers regularly visited the warehouse, only the affluent farmers stored their produce there. We provided a 60% line of credit but the farmers needed immediate money in full by selling their produce. They did not want to incur the costs of renting and preferred to keep the produce at home.
We realized that although there was some impact and it was fantastic to be able to help 10-100-1000 farmers, but the scale could not be achieved through this model – The key reason is that warehouses are difficult to find and the ones available have a very high cost in rural areas.
TISS as well as The/Nudge Incubator and Accelerator programs had inspired us to think at scale. We wanted to be bold and audacious. We were obsessed with solving the problem at scale, and it was hard to imagine this model scaling. We also realized that we were not creating value for a majority of farmers, especially those that were most vulnerable.
The/Nudge Incubator also inspired us to work at speed, and I personally wanted to make the maximum impact in the remaining decades left in my life.
First Pivot – We realized that although only a few farmers stored their produce at the warehouse, many visited it regularly. They brought their produce samples in a bag and asked for quality and price information. On further investigation, we found that they were negotiating with their existing buyers (who were typically all-weather friends who supported them in bad times) using the pricing provided by us.
This was an aha! moment; a simpler solution that increased the price of the produce without requiring to build an expensive parallel ecosystem. The absence of quality labs at the village/block level made it hard for the farmers to determine the quality (and hence the price) of their produce.
Therefore, “our second hypothesis was that access to information on quality and price will enable farmers to negotiate for a better price.”
We designed a portable quality inspection kit that does a quality check and provides price information for 10 crops – grains (maize, paddy), oil seeds, and lentils (masoor daal, tur daal, peas, soybean). The price was determined by fetching prices from the big industries that were located nearby and making adjustments to transportation costs and profits made by other players.
There are standard parameters to measure quality that differ with crops - moisture, presence of foreign material, fungus, etc., are a few measures. We trained the existing quality inspectors to do this. Over time, we introduced microentrepreneurs – youth who were teaching/had previously taught in the communities and had the trust of the people. This was crucial as the quality inspection process is intimate.
Although this worked, we found that with this price information, 50% of farmers were able to negotiate for a better price, but 50% were not able to make any gains.
On further investigation, we found that the ones not able to negotiate didn’t have the language to negotiate. They lay at the intersection of marginalization and were socio-economically vulnerable small farmers.
Second pivot - Therefore, our 2nd pivot happened. It was not a complete pivot but an extension of the first pivot and centered around the information. We made informational videos on accessing the quality of our own crops with the intention for the farmers to build their own vocabulary. We also shared price, weather, and scheme information with the farmers.
We found that the quality and source of price information were two crucial aspects for farmers to negotiate prices. We were gathering the price information from the industries which could vary drastically across the same geography depending on whom we are asking... This led to our third hypothesis and pivot.
“Our third hypothesis was that if farmers know the price and price trends of mandi by crops, then at the farmgate level they can better negotiate and realize better income.”
Third Pivot – The final model was established at the end of 2021 and focused on improving the source of information for farmers to better negotiate the prices. We also improved the delivery method of this information.
Now we began obtaining the price information from the big data provided by the government which is not readily accessible to the farmers. Essentially, we began packaging and making more accessible the information created by the government ecosystem.
The minimum, maximum, and model prices from the mandis were directly provided to the farmers, who adjusted them for transport and buyer fee to estimate the selling price.
We built a chatbot to provide information on quality, weather, and government schemes to the farmers.
This model is currently working in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, and we intend to open it pan-India.
What is the state of Gramhal’s work today and what are your scale ambitions going forward?
We believe in a lean and high-performing team and are a small 9-member team.
In the past 12 months, 2.5 Lakh farmers in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan have joined hands with us organically, and 12K-15K farmers use our chatbot daily. This gives us the confidence that this information is important and our work is relevant.
The cost/farmer/year is Rs. 100. This includes 24-hr communication, multimedia, and additional features.
For every Rs. 1 that we spend, we generate Rs. 10 in value for the farmer.
Our big hairy audacious vision is to reach 10 million farmers by 2025.
We were able to achieve the market fit, impact fit, and scale fit over the past few years. Now we wish to take the model to scale through partnerships.
We aim to partner with the government to realize our vision. We want people without smartphones to access this information, and we wish to design for access across vulnerabilities.
We are targeting to raise Rs. 8 crores in FY 23.
What will it take to achieve scale?
We see the government as a doer at scale and don’t intend to create parallel channels. Therefore, we need more positive conversations with governments for them to see the value added by our work. This would require increased advocacy with the government.
We would also need rigorous evidence of our solution working at scale.
We are trying to identify the payer at scale, and are exploring a co-sharing model with the government where the government would manage the operational costs.
How did The/Nudge support you in your entrepreneurial journey?
The/Nudge Institute has been one of the biggest support systems that has believed in us since Gramhal’s inception. The/Nudge Institute has been a co-founder and has shared its boundaryless ecosystem which has been available for things small and big – branding, technology, fundraising, internal conflicts, emotional conflicts, and all SOS.
The most crucial support pillars were The/Nudge CSI partners – Dr. KP Krishnan (IAS’83, IEPF Chair Professor, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER)) in year 1, SK Jain (Co-founder and former Managing Director for Westbridge Capital) in year 2, and Dr. Sekhar Bonu (IAS’87, Senior Fellow, NITI Aayog) in year 3 – all of whom were perfectly timed. The partners helped us understand and implement frameworks of user growth, build the importance of data and decisions, focus on users and engagement, and work with the government.
Various donor and partnership introductions have also come through alumni and peers.
Please share a few key reflections on the trials and tribulations of being a founder and the ways to build resilience.
I’ll share with the other founders my 3 biggest reflections:
- Humbleness is key for an entrepreneur to solve problems at scale. An entrepreneur looking to scale falls every day and without a learning orientation, one cannot succeed.
- It is crucial for an entrepreneur to be married to the problem (not the solution) and persevere. If a solution is not working out, persevere until you realize you are wrong, and pivot to find a better solution.
- Entrepreneurs often undermine building an ecosystem of support. In our case, The/Nudge Incubator, Accelerator, and various mentors reinforced their belief in us, helping us believe in ourselves. We were also supported by other incubators and accelerators such as Mulago, Echoing Green, and Fast Forward. Our near and dear ones were of great help during the tough times. Looking back, this support system has been the key to keeping us grounded and achieving success.
Would you like to share anything else with your fellow entrepreneurs?
You have the right to ping anyone at The/Nudge! Exercise this right to form deep friendships with other incubator and accelerator peers and alumni. In our experience, there has never been a point where the network has not responded. It also means that you give back to the network and support each other because that is the only way for us to realize the dream of building resilient livelihoods for the most vulnerable at scale.