For an average urban consumer, scores of apps for doorstep food and grocery delivery services fight for screen space on his or her smartphone. But, even in 2019, thousands of villagers in India have to walk miles to access the basic minimum.
Similarly, most of the grocery products found in the modular kitchens of Tier-1 cities are mass-produced by large-scale corporate firms, allowing little profit for the farmer toiling hard in sun and rain.
While most choose to be oblivious towards the struggles of the village farmers and their families, one man from Andhra Pradesh was iron-willed to be an extra pillar of support.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
While working in England as a software engineer, Lova Raju Katari from Rajahmundry used to reflect upon a piece of news his father had read out to him in childhood – how a farmer family perished to death unable to bear their debt burden. “As a child, it struck me how the family desperately wanted to provide a decent education to their son but failed. From that day, I always thought of doing something for such farmer families which cannot support their children’s education,” shares Lova Raju, in a heartfelt conversation with Efforts For Good.
He is the founder of Village Dukaan – which delivers products from farmers’ homes to city inhabitants, without the involvement of any middleman, thus ensuring that a substantial profit goes to the farmers.
Farmer Suicides Deeply Affected Lova Raju
During 2011-12, a large number of farmer suicides became a terrifying reality in India, especially in Lova Raju’s home state Andhra Pradesh. At that time, Lova Raju was at the prime of his career in England. However, this news unsettled him deeply. Previously, he had tried to launch an initiative for educating underprivileged children in Rajahmundry and adjoining villages. But, to his disappointment, he failed to find any student who was truly keen on pursuing his education.
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“So, I thought if I can somehow help the families earn a decent income, they would automatically ensure that their children avail proper schooling,” shares Lova Raju. So, in 2012, Lova Raju returned to India and started exploring the villages, trying to get a first-hand idea about the farmers’ plight.
Understanding The Deep-Rooted Distress Of Indian Farmers
“I would not directly go and talk to them. Rather I would be on my way and observe their daily lives from a distance. I found that the landless farmers were the most distressed. The landowners lease off their plots to these farmers and collect a major portion of the produce after the harvest. As a result, the farmers were left with little to run their families,” he recalls.
Lova Raju spent around three years in surveying and reflecting upon the condition of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh. He brainstormed day and night to figure out a feasible way to help them. “That’s how Village Dukaan came into being,” he narrates.
The story behind Village Dukaan’s name will give readers an idea of how passionate Lova Raju is about his initiative.
He shares, “The first name was Village Shoppers. But, it lacked the emotional connection that I wanted to foster with the people. So, I zeroed in on ‘Village Dukaan’. There have been days when I would practise saying the name out loud in my room, for hours at a stretch. After a point, I would feel a deep connection with the name. That’s when I knew it was perfect.”
Eliminating The Middleman From The Product Chain
Lova Raju’s main target was to eliminate the middleman from the marketing chain, thus channelising the major portion of the profit to the farmers. At first, he got recruited a student to work for him on weekends.
Sagar was a student of 11th standard back then, who wanted to fund his own education through the weekend job. He would cycle around villages, going door to door and identifying grains, groceries and homemade food products which can feature on the e-shelves of Village Dukaan. As per Lova Raju’s instruction, he would also pitch the idea of the shop to the uninitiated farmers.
At the same time, he roped in potential customers from Rajahmundry who expressed their eagerness to be a part of this ‘desi’ doorstep delivery services.
Gathering all the information from Sagar, Lova Raju would write down all the details on the four walls of his bedroom in London, spending hours on connecting the dots to a beautiful future.
Nobody Believed In Lova Raju’s Idea
“They said my idea was a sure shot failure. They brushed off my appeals and advised me to stall my initiative before I run into losses,” Lova Raju speaks about the investors who, one after another, turned down his business idea.
He thus started fundraising – approaching his friends in India as well as in the UK. Some of these friends were the same ones who had once helped him to buy his first ticket to London.
Despite Lova Raju’s honest confession that it would take him years to repay them, his well-wishers chipped in graciously.
The Days Of Struggle
In June 2016, Lova Raju sent his wife back to his hometown to start the on-ground work on his behalf, while he worked on developing the Village Dukaan website.
“At that time, I would wake up at 4 AM to start working, then head to the office at 8 AM, and resumed the website work late at night. For two long years, I knew no holidays, vacations or even weekends,” he remembers.
The work before the final launch was slow, painstaking and unquestionably hard. So much so that his friends started losing faith in him. The stress, the sleepless nights and the hard work led Lova Raju to suffer from a prolonged phase of severe illness. He continued his work even from bed. Finally, all his efforts came round when Village Dukaan was officially launched in May 2018.
We started with 30 products. Within two months the number increased to 700. In six months, Village Dukaan expanded beyond expectations and Lova Raju had to recruit a team of full-timers, starting with his first employee – Sagar. Aside from Rajahmundry, Village Dukaan is now delivering to Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru as well.
Village Dukaan’s Secret To Success
Village Dukaan maintains a very unique and transparent way of operations. Their eight delivery personnel deliver rice, pulses, grains, honey as well as homemade food products like pickles, sweets, jams, jellies, chutneys etc.
Traditional delicacies from Andhra kitchens and lost recipes from grandmother’s cookbooks are the speciality of Village Dukaan. Sustainable packaging in traditional clay pots or leaf packages is another striking characteristic for Village Dukaan.
Explaining their working mechanism, Lova Raju cited the example of a paddy farmer they recently welcomed to the network. He quoted to sell his 2019 winter harvest of rice at Rs 1400 for 70 kgs. Village Dukaan offered him Rs 1700 for the same quantity. With the extra Rs 300, the farmer has been instructed to mill the husked paddy grains into the rice. The rice is available for pre-order now on their website.
The most interesting feature about Village Dukaan is that Lova Raju publicly shares both positive and negative feedback of a product. For him, quality is the utmost priority.
“I didn’t start this enterprise to make money or impress others. I am accountable for my products to the customers. So, if a product is below-the-par, I have to convey the same to the producer/farmer. That way, they will also learn to practice honest business,” his words express his unflinching integrity.
In the male-dominated field of agriculture in India, a woman changed the way everyone perceives the profession. Fighting all odds and stereotypes, she not only became self-reliant but also empowered more than 360 women to do and be so. Rajkumari Devi of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, popularly known as ‘Kisan Chachi’ (Farmer Aunt) and ‘Cycle Chachi’ (Cycle Aunt), was one among the 21 women awardees of 2019 Padma Awards. Efforts For Good presents her incredible story.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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At the age of 12, Rajkumari Devi became a bride and set foot into a farming family in a small village in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where tobacco was predominantly grown and sold, reports The Hindu Business Line. Troubles soon ensued for her in the family, as she failed to bear any children. Years later, when she became the mother of two girls and a boy, it led to the division of property by her father-in-law for whom Rajkumari’s daughters were an undesirable burden.
With some land in hand and three kids to feed and tend to, Rajkumari Devi jumped in to assist her husband in the tobacco farm. She toiled hard on the farm while her husband was away to sell tobacco. This exposure helped her learn the nitty-gritty of farming. As a mother, she donned the role of a farmer to provide a better future for her kids against all opposition from her in-laws and husband. They dissuaded her as they were concerned about the societal restraints, as no woman before had ever become a farmer in their village. Rajkumari found a solution for herself. She decided to work after sunset when no one can see her, states Business Standard.
There is no end to learning
Even with familiar problems after her marriage, a determined Rajkumari Devi strived to complete her schooling. Through education, she realised the harmful effects of cultivating and using tobacco. She was successful in persuading her husband to allow her to grow fruits and vegetables in their land. The first crop of potatoes turned a disaster due to annual flooding which made her learn to grow different plants in low-lying areas. This marked the beginning of her successful farming career which inspired many, including her husband who thereafter encouraged her in every step.
Seeing the way farming had changed her own life, Rajkumari Devi was keen to share her knowledge and experience with other women, urging them to come out and help their families to be financially well. However, working on the farm and managing household chores left Rajkumari little time to do so. This is when she learnt to ride a bicycle to travel from village to village, convincing the womenfolk to join her in farming. The practice earned her the name ‘Cycle Chachi’. She was forty years old at that time.
Though she initially faced disapproval from the community, her zeal persisted, and her success silenced all criticism. Soon, she came to be hailed as everyone’s beloved ‘Kisan Chachi’.
Her efforts have been instrumental in forming Self Help Groups (SHGs) and empowering women to be independent through farming. She was conferred Kisan Shri Award by Bihar government, was lauded personally by the Chief Ministers of Bihar and Gujarat.
Decisions determine destiny
Learning that farmers earn less on their raw produce, Kisan Chachi has turned entrepreneur. She deduced that by selling a kilogram of potatoes, farmers earn only 10 rupees whereas a packet of potato chips would fetch them 20-30 rupees. A businessperson would make at least 40-50 rupees on the same. She thus decided to procure the raw material from the women farmers of the SHGs and employed other women to assist her in converting the produce to jams, pickles and processed foods. Her indigenous products became widely known in the metropolitan cities for their quality, thus putting the small town of Muzaffarpur on the national map. She is now an advocate for farming and women empowerment.
Kisan Chachi is an exemplary personality who showed how grit and sincere work can change the destiny of a person and the people around. Her Padma Shri award does justice to her incredible contribution and achievements. She continues to empower individuals and the society proving why simplicity, yearning, learning and hard work are the keys to success.