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Helping Smallholder Farmers Modernize through Technology

Prajwal M. had been interested in startups from his college days. He had always loved science competitions and wanted to build something. When the National Innovation Foundation posted a competition looking for solutions to three different problems, one of which was focused around solutions to rice paddy transportation, he was immediately intrigued. Prajwal had grown up in Karnataka, surrounded by paddy fields, and had seen his grandparents work in the fields. During his college days, he had also frequently hiked around Mysore and interacted with farmers, so he knew that although machinery of the type that could help transplant paddy seedlings was available in the market, mostly from Japanese manufacturers, it wouldn’t work in the Indian context – the land was too fragmented and farmers too poor to purchase it.

Prajwal realized that if he could come up with a seedling machine, it could be very helpful. “At that time I only thought of it as a project, not as a company,” he says. Prajwal eventually completed both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in physics, and was introduced to an organization called the Founder Foundation. Through their program, he had the opportunity to meet real-life entrepreneurs and hear about their experiences. “The lead program really sparked my interest in entrepreneurship – understanding how, if I did some society-oriented project, it could help both me and society, and make a real impact. Hearing and seeing the live examples of entrepreneurs who build companies and their experience I got really excited to build it.”

Founders Prajwal M. and Shivanand S.

Founders Prajwal M. and Shivanand S.

The National Innovation Foundation project took place in 2012. Based on the traction Prajwal received from that, he and his co-founder, Shivanand S., spent 2014 – 2018 doing trials whenever they had free time. “We used to work after college, renting a workshop from another place. We would work from 5 – 9pm after classes and do experiments when the seasons were right. Agriculture depends on the season and we needed real conditions from farmers for the results to be accurate.” Some classmates didn’t understand Prajwal’s fascination with what he was trying to build. “People ask – you have a masters in physics and now build machines for farmers?” he laughs. “But there are lots of physics involved in building machines.” In 2018, his team was beginning to build traction and incorporated with the help of Deshpande Startups.

It was not an easy decision for Prajwal to pursue his venture full-time. Although the idea of starting a company was exciting when he was a student, making a commitment to the project was a big leap.“Once you complete your education, you need to get some job, and you don’t know what will happen – entrepreneurship is an unconventional career path in India. Most parents say no. Luckily for me I had done the process right from high school, and my parents know that I will finish what I start. I had that kind of attitude – understanding that if we don’t reach our goals, either we are not good enough to do the project or the project itself is not valuable for end users.”

The number of agricultural laborers in India has been on the decline, and a labor scarcity during the transplanting process in paddy fields ends up affecting crop yields. Having a machine that can accelerate this process can save time and money and increase farmer productivity.

There have been a lot of ups and downs in the process, but the opportunity to help end users is what continues to drive Prajwal and his team. “When I started this project,” Prajwal recalls, “I realized that many people had done this before me. Many people have dropped out because they get other missions. But the constant motivation for this project for me was when we built the first prototype back in college in 2016. There was an article published about us in local newspapers, and we got calls from hundreds of farmers inquiring about the machine. Ever since then, the same farmers will call and ask us how the machine is going, how things are going. Whenever I start to think to think that this will take too long, maybe it’s too hard to crack a solution, these farmers will call me and ask about the project, and I know I want to see this through.”

Farmers Feedback and Testing of Electric Weeder

Farmer Feedback and Testing of Electric Weeder

Given the seasonality of farming, it is often key that certain processes happen on a strict timeline. The number of agricultural laborers in India has been on the decline, and a labor scarcity during the transplanting process in paddy fields ends up affecting crop yields. Having a machine that can accelerate this process can save time and money, and increase farmer productivity. Prajwal and his team are currently focused on understanding their potential customers, and developing innovative business ideas to reach more farmers. Not all farmers will buy the machines outright, and so they are looking into options to work with organizations that rent these types of machines out to farmers.

Manush Labs has been a valuable resource for Oscillo at this stage in the company’s life. The accelerator offers interactive sessions with incubators, VCs, and other startups in addition to individual mentorship. “We are not from a business background and need to know how to maintain a business. How to properly channelize, and understand legal and other compliances,” Prajwal says. The program has also helped Oscillo understand how to approach farmers and frame the company to both end-customers and potential funders. Prajwal thinks of the accelerator as a mini-degree in how to build a business. “In school or college you never get this opportunity to see how people are building companies. You are constantly thinking about exams, but companies are focused on solving real life problems.” Manush Labs focuses its curriculum on the various aspects of building a business that are just as key as building a working prototype, but which aren’t typically taught in a formal school setting.

It was not an easy decision for Prajwal to pursue his venture full-time. Although the idea of starting a company was exciting when he was a student, making a commitment to the project was a big leap.

Prajwal shares his advice for the qualities that are most important for entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurs should believe in their ideas. Even though sometimes they will have doubts. Often, you think you will succeed, and it’s not going to happen. Sometimes you think it’s the end of it, but it’s actually a new beginning. People around you should be second – people around you are the most important. They will build or break the startup. Choosing the people around you is so important. There are lots of ups and downs and it takes perseverance and good people around you with the same motivation to build a product and build a company.”

Erika Desmond is an impact and social enterprise consultant passionate about social and environmental sustainability. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Hamilton College and an MBA in Finance from MIT Sloan.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Magazine's Content Partners.

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