A few weeks ago, 22-year-old Dhananjay KC was worried that thousands of kg of grapes grown at his family’s farmland would go waste. The crop was ready but its sale had become nearly impossible due to the nationwide lockdown imposed to control the spread of coronavirus.

Like many farmers across India, he reached out to online crop markets and groups to sell their produce directly to consumers. “I found [out] about an online platform, Harvesting Farmer Network [or HFN] that was helping farmers in selling their crops and getting a good price for it. I contacted them, posted details of the crop and soon, we sold nearly half of our crop to a buyer in Bengaluru,” Dhananjay told Mongabay-India.

Dhananjay and his family live in Gudihalli, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He is a mechanical engineering student at an institute in the city and was visiting his family when the lockdown was announced on March 24. Since then, it has been extended twice, up till May 17.

Better prices

HFN’s Twitter post a month ago, which shared information about his crop, has garnered more than 600 retweets and 1,000 likes. “We got many calls and soon found a good deal,” said Dhananjay. “We sold the entire produce of grapes – about 20-25 tonnes – to a buyer in Bengaluru through HFN and the rest to some local nearby dealers. The best part is that the price we got from the buyer in Bengaluru is much better than the usual non-lockdown price.”

He explained that he sold one kg of grapes for about Rs 25 and after deducting all expenses, including taxes and transport, they were able to make a profit of Rs 8-9 per kg. “This is certainly a better return than what we usually get. For instance, last year, this margin was only about Rs 4-5 per kg. This can certainly be a viable model for farmers like us,” he said.

Dhananjay is among many farmers around the country left in the lurch by authorities to fend for themselves during the lockdown. Many of them, however, had decided not to give up. The HFN, for instance, emerged during the lockdown as one such online network for farmers to avoid exploitation by middlemen and earn better money for their crops.

The network, on which about 2,000 farmers have posted details of their crops so far, was developed by 41-year-old Ruchit Garg, a Silicon Valley professional who returned to India a few months ago after working with major firms there. “During the lockdown, we all saw what the farmers were facing. I thought why can’t farmers and consumers be mobilised and directly connected. On April 12, the HFN’s Twitter handle posted six tweets with farmers looking to sell their crops and from there, it just took off.

“The phones have not stopped ringing since then,” Garg said. “We are working round the clock and we are not complaining about it. In less than a month, we have listed 1.5 million kg of crops on our social media platforms and as per our initial estimates, we have already facilitated the selling of about 250,000 kg. With farmers sharing their experience with their peers, the network is growing rapidly,” Garg told Mongabay-India.

Prior to launching its Twitter handle in April, HFN had an interface where farmers only connected with each other. It is now spread across 22 states and has a reach of about one million farmers.

Explaining the supply chain process, he said that a farmer’s crop goes through at least five to six layers of middlemen before it reaches the final consumer and at every layer, the price increases without proportionate value addition.

Asked about the initiative’s economic model, HFN founder Ruchit Garg said that “in the future, as we put a lot of pieces of buying directly from farmer puzzle together, we will be able to deliver fresh local produce to consumers at a very affordable price while providing farmers with a lion share of income. To build, sustain and grow such a platform, we plan to charge a very nominal fee per transaction, but only for transactions we handhold.”

“If a consumer is buying a fruit or vegetable for about Rs 100 per kg, then the share of the farmer in probably less than Rs 15, while most go to the layers of the middlemen,” he said. “The system has not changed for ages. Not all middlemen are bad but our idea is to increase the share of farmers and find a way around the traditional nexus and supply chain route. It is also important as farmers need to be independent – like in the case of lockdown, they had nowhere to go after mandis [local markets] were closed during the lockdown. The plan is to define the whole process in such a way that if a farm product is being sold at Rs 100 per kilogram then Rs 70-75 should reach the farmer.”

Direct contact

The Union home ministry’s guidelines about activities allowed under lockdown, which coincided with harvest season, were not clear about agricultural activities. Subsequently, after several reports highlighted problems faced by farmers, the government granted relaxation in the nationwide lockdown for the sector. It permitted activities related to the procurement of agriculture products, work in mandis, farming operations, and intrastate and interstate movement of machinery.

Going by numerous testimonials shared by Garg, the initiative benefitted not just farmers but also some bulk-buyers. Ashish Kumar, who lives in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh and runs a food business for students in Delhi, started dealing with farmers directly. His food outlets were shut down as students had returned home.

“Like many others, I was just reading and sharing things online when I saw a tweet from the HFN about a farmer in Mansa [Punjab] who was trying to find a buyer for 5,000 kg of capsicum at just Rs 7 per kg. I contacted him and tried finding buyers. It was not economically viable for the farmer to sell in a small quantity and transport. I am still trying,” said Kumar.

Kumar also saw a post about a farmer in Karnataka who was looking to sell papayas. “I contacted a friend in Patna who was willing to buy them. I got them talking and they soon cracked a favourable deal for both of them. The farmer sold 18,000 kg of papaya. In this case, the time was of value as it is a perishable item.”

In another case, Kumar ensured delivery of bananas, directly from a farmer in Andhra Pradesh, to his friend in Delhi who works with an online fruit and vegetable delivery service.

When asked why he is doing this if he is not earning any profit from these deals, Kumar said it is about the experience. “I am in the restaurant business. It makes sense for me to have better supply chain options. Also, we all talk about supporting farmers, so such a model can be a win-win situation for everyone,” Kumar said.

Ruchit Garg, founder of the Harvesting Farmers Network. Credit: Ruchit Garg/Mongabay

In addition to the HFN, Garg said there are several such small or big platforms and they all are witnessing a lot of traction both from buyers and sellers. Social media, Twitter in particular, has been important for facilitating many of these transactions. For instance, one Deshraj Choudhary posted a tweet seeking a buyer for 600,000 eggs for Rs 3 per egg in Jaipur, while in another case, a buyer is looking to buy 5,000 pieces of green coconut every week. In one case, an individual posted for selling 40 sheep.

HFN also highlighted some basic rules and suggestions for those engaging through the platform like calling a local farmer only as they won’t be able to deliver if they are far off, buying in bulk to make it economically viable and to be fair to each other. Asked how they ascertain if someone’s post is genuine, Garg said, “if we feel suspicious, we ask the farmers to post proper pictures of his fields. Based on the learning of the past one month, connecting farmers with customers, we will be implementing more processes in place so that only genuine farmers and serious buyers get connected and do business in a trustworthy fashion.”

The HFN is also looking to serve all kinds of customers. For example, it is soon launching a section for “no-pesticide leafy vegetables” to attract people who are looking for “healthy and local vegetables directly from farmers.”

Papayas from a farmer in Karnataka were sold to a buyer in Patna. Credit: Ashish Kumar/Mongabay

Some hurdles

However, not everyone is lucky as social media is abuzz with pictures and videos of farmers destroying their crops due to the absence of buyers and market support in the lockdown. Vinay Ketkar, a 60-year-old Maharashtra-based mango grower, used the messaging platform Whatsapp to connect to customers in Mumbai and sold about 30,000-40,000 Alphonso mangoes

“Our farms are in Ratnagiri region, the coastal area of Maharashtra, and many farmers from my village and four to five other adjacent villages sold our mangoes to customers in Mumbai. But transportation of our produce to major cities is the biggest hurdle. Once a driver visits the cities to deliver and returns, he is not allowed to re-enter and asked to go for two weeks of quarantine. In such a scenario, it becomes nearly impossible for farmers to sell all the full produce,” Ketkar told Mongabay-India.

HFN’s Garg echoed similar views. “There are many issues that need to be addressed but I hope people this direct contact with farmers is maintained to ensure it is a win for everyone.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.