Social Enterprise for Rural Revitalization
When two old friends, Nikita Vardiparti F24 and Sushant Swami F24, reconnected at The Fletcher School’s MIB program, they didn’t need much convincing to set up a social entrepreneurial venture that would directly impact farmers back home. Both students from India cared about addressing agricultural problems but had never gotten an opportunity to try their hands in it.
Now, as winners of the 2023 Fletcher D-Prize Competition, which awards Fletcher students and alumni a cash prize up to $20,000 to address extreme poverty by distributing a proven intervention in the developing world, Vardiparti and Swami are launching their first agricultural venture—Raitagyana. Through this start-up, the duo plans to provide expert agricultural advice, training, and valuable inputs, such as high-quality seeds, to smallholder farmers, starting from a small town in Southwestern India. The Fletcher D-Prize seeds social entrepreneurs like Vardiparti and Swami who are solving for how to distribute an agricultural solution that improves crop yields for farmers who most need it. Offering seven challenge areas, the D-Prize asks participants to address questions of distribution, which remains a challenge in confronting poverty around the world.
Raitagyana, which means “knowledge for farmers” in Kannada, was born out of the team’s deep passion to help Indian farmers who live in extreme poverty. As farmers have been burdened with heavy debt and face unfavorable climate conditions, reports by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in India indicate that suicides by agricultural laborers have increased each year. Vardiparti and Swami agreed that India is at a critical juncture. Despite the country being an exporter of agricultural goods with surplus produce, around 10,500 farmers committed suicide in 2021 alone, at an alarming rate of 29 suicides per day, Swami said. While some farmers have accessed funding from the Indian government, a large population has remained underserved and unable to access these benefits. Vardiparti and Swami’s aim is to target them by providing “cost-effective agricultural inputs and specialized knowledge that would help improve their crop yields and quality of their produce.”
“Raitagyana is exactly the kind of venture Fletcher D-Prize exists to support,” said Will Snider, senior operations lead at D-Prize. “Nikita and Sushant know their market and have a clear plan to fight poverty by delivering quality seed, fertilizer, and training to help farmers grow more. And they aim to scale. We're honored to support these visionary leaders at the start of their entrepreneurial journey.”
Vardiparti, who hails from Bidar, a small town in Karnataka state where the pilot will be launched, said visiting farms was a norm throughout her childhood. Her father’s constant reminder to respect food and recognize the hardships of farmers “who toil day in and out” has been her biggest inspiration to start such a venture.
Similarly, Swami’s agricultural background and upbringing in Rajasthan, a state in northern India often faced with extreme weather conditions, played a key role in inspiring him to take up the initiative. Since his early days, he has been exposed to the harsh reality that farmers faced due to water scarcity. He immediately jumped into the partnership when he heard from Vardiparti, who had already shared the idea during the competition’s preliminary round. Since then, the team has been brainstorming how to launch and execute the pilot, which came with its own share of challenges, particularly in dealing with local farmers who have been accustomed to certain ways of working.
“Both of us are deeply passionate about doing something great for India,” said Vardiparti. “We have been dreaming of an opportunity to work towards the progress of our country. Coming to Fletcher and getting this opportunity is a dream come true for us.”
While both shared an entrepreneurial spirit, they pointed out that Fletcher offered them an opportunity to take that first step towards making their dreams a reality. Courses such as Innovation Models, Strategic Management, and Global Consulting, taught by Professor Bhaskar Chakravorti and Professor DP Singh, have been influential in shaping their minds and understanding how businesses and non-profit organizations work. Not only has Fletcher provided a platform to apply their knowledge and skills, but they have also received the support and encouragement they needed to pursue the social entrepreneurial path.
As a pilot, they will serve around 40 to 50 farmers over the next three to four months. They have also partnered with three local experts to help in sourcing the right inputs and providing specialized knowledge to farmers.
“The biggest adversity which we see in executing our plan is gaining the trust of the farmers,” said Swami. “Why would any underprivileged farmer let you jump in, give them some advice, and let us use their arable land? It is a huge compromise from their end. So, building trust with the local farmers is crucial.”
Vardiparti added that “convincing farmers, making sure they follow all the techniques and navigating weather conditions are some of the challenges.” While they plan to start out modestly in the near future, they have set their sights on reaching 5,000 farmers in the next few years, expanding their reach to the neighboring states, and eventually impacting around 100,000 over a five-year period. They plan to connect with more agencies in India and expect to achieve economies of scale by buying the required quantity of good quality seeds and fertilizers in a bulk. However, even if the input cost increases due to higher quality of seeds, the improved output could mitigate the extra cost and eventually boost farmers’ incomes, Swami explained.
Both agreed that Raitagyana is a stepping stone to fulfill their dreams to advance in a career in social entrepreneurship. For them, choosing to study business through the lens of international relations at Fletcher was a path to gain the right skills required to make meaningful contributions socially.
“I hope that this experience will give me the right channel to upgrade my skills and update my knowledge,” said Swami. “Through this competition, Fletcher has shown us the kind of potential we have in making an impact on the lives of people in extreme poverty, underprivileged and underserved.”
Read more about Fletcher’s MIB degree program.