Hi Adarsh! Thanks for speaking with us - We are excited to learn about your work in agriculture and rural livelihoods.
1. Let's get started by learning about your work with the Agriculture Global Practice of the World Bank?
I assist with developing and managing projects on agriculture and rural livelihoods, with a focus on inclusion of poor and marginalized communities. The World Bank is a great place to work - unique in the opportunities it offers to development professionals to work at scale. My work involves developing interventions in the agricultural sector and providing technical advice to state counterparts on managing and implementing these projects.
2. How did you become interested in working on agribusiness with farmers and rural artisans?
I started working in the development sector by accident. I had come back from Georgetown University and was working as a management trainee at a telecom company. On a break, I happened to visit a development organization called URMUL (a milk, cooperative like AMUL based in Rajasthan). They offered me a job managing a development project and I accepted, because the work seemed really interesting. I worked there for about two and a half years and my interest in connecting rural producers to mainstream markets began then. The economy was growing rapidly and there was an increasing realization in the development sector that there were various gaps, such as lack of access to skills training and credit.
Living and working in a rural village in Rajasthan helped me to understand that the poor were active economic agents.
3. Previously, you founded Livelihoods Equity Connect, an advisory group that structured investments in the Indian agricultural sector. What was your vision with the organization and why did you eventually decide to close it?
LEC was my second start-up. I had helped, with support from key people in the field to set up an initiative (www.aiacaonline.org
) connecting craftspeople to mainstream markets, which is still going strong. After working on that for six years, I wanted to replicate some of the key lessons from there in connecting farmers to mainstream markets. We worked on setting up a number of investments in agricultural producer companies and in agri-processing companies. But the constantly changing regulatory framework and the high cost of providing on-going services to the producer companies made it difficult for us to make the venture commercially viable. I closed it after four years because it did not achieve the scale that I wanted it to grow to.
4. Tell us your most important learnings from that experience?
Using purely commercial funding to address developmental problems is difficult to pull off. There are various gaps that need donor funding to address before it is possible to graft fully commercially viable models for addressing development problems.
Microfinance is a good example. It took about two decades of donor funding to build an ecosystem and models which allowed private investments in the sector to grow rapidly. I also learnt that to work at scale it is important to have partnerships or links with larger established organizations.
5. What are your thoughts on the role that the government and the private sector can play to connect small farmers to the mainstream?
Both the government and the private sector have a huge role to play in agricultural transformation in India. We are in the midst of rapid economic and demographic change which is reflected in the agricultural sector as well. One big change is that food demand, as per capita income and urbanization, rises, is shifting away from basic cereals such as rice and wheat, and a higher demand for dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and meat.
A lot of private sector investment is needed to build the supply chains for these perishable commodities. Government’s role is key in developing an enabling policy environment and also in providing targeted assistance to small farmers to be able to make the shift to higher value agricultural production. There is also a lot of opportunity in terms of agricultural trade. India has had one of the fastest export growth rates of agriculture in the world in the last decade.
The opportunity is to promote private investment into places that are already linked to domestic and export markets. Government intervention will be key to enable smaller farmers to access new technology and growing practices that improve yields; and to make enabling investments such as roads and aggregation centers that enhances competitiveness of agricultural clusters and regions.
6. How pivotal are small loans and greater financial literacy to helping the poor in rural communities rise out of poverty?
Small loans are critical to help the poor rise out of poverty. Credit matters in two ways. Firstly, due to mismatches with income streams. Say from agriculture where you get an income when you sell your crop once or twice a year. The poor borrow at high interest rates from local money lenders for regular consumption and emergency expenditures. This contributes to trapping them into a perpetual cycle of debt repayments and poverty. Secondly, the poor do not have adequate savings to buy productive assets that could enhance their income.
For example, if they were able to buy a cow for 18,000 rupees, they could get a substantial return on that asset and add to their income from selling milk. Giving them access to a small loan that enables them to buy a cow or similar asset, therefore has a significant impact.
7. You pursued your Bachelor’s from Georgetown University and a Master’s from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Tell us some of your most important learnings from these experiences?
I greatly value the exposure to a broad set of the liberal arts during my undergraduate program before I studied economics for the next 4 years of undergraduate, and after a work break, graduate school. Graduate school was a more transformative experience for me, probably because I was older and I felt I learnt as much from the kind of work experience that my fellow students came with as I did from the academic program. I also think having a clear idea of the kind of work that I wanted to do really helped me to focus and get a lot out of grad school, both in terms of the choice of academic courses and the kind of research and work opportunities that I pursued.