Empowering rural youth: IFFCO MD talks about 'Digital IFFCO'
World renowned chemical engineer Dr. U S Awasthi needs no introduction. He has been the Managing Director (MD) of Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) since February 1993. Dr. Awasthi has about four decades of experience which is completely dedicated to the fertiliser industry and serves private, public and cooperative sectors of the industry in India.
In conversation with Dr. Awasthi, here is what he has to say about Digitalization of IFFCO:
Question: We are reading a lot about IFFCO and digital these days in the media. Can you share the details of the exemplary work that is being done?
Dr U S Awasthi: As you may be aware that this is our golden jubilee year. Through the year, we are meeting a lot of cooperative members across the breadth of the country. During these visits we realised that a lot of innovation that we see in urban cities do not reach them at all. They end up aspiring to be like us. For example, wanting to buy a smartphone. But compared to an urban adult, they don’t use a smartphone except for doing basic functions and entertainment.
I feel there is a tremendous opportunity there. Imagine if the rural youth uses digital effectively, they will be empowered and far more productive on and off the farmland.
We have undertaken various initiatives this year. We have brought the data of our cooperative societies online. Now our members can access all information online. We have also created a channel where these societies can interact with us and place orders online.
In addition, IFFCO Bazar lets you buy our products and services online. Farmers can also upload classified ads of their agri products to find right buyers and suppliers. All of this is available in multiple language and we are experimenting with technology so the farmer doesn’t have to type. He can just speak his requirement and the system will be able to translate it for them. Our initial results are 80 % accurate and I feel it is a good start. This will free the farmer from using the keyboard of their phones, which I feel is a big bottleneck right now and is holding back a lot of great ideas from reaching others
Question: But IFFCO is a fertiliser company, how come it is interested in digital and how does it benefit?
Dr U S Awasthi: Remember, we are a cooperative. IFFCO will grow when the farmer grows. And I feel today a farmer can do so many things using technology. In a small screen in your palm, a phone gives an extraordinary opportunity for the user to connect to the entire world. Imagine, if you have the internet, you can actually hear the speech of Nelsen Mandela right then, standing in your farmland. You are freed from the TV, the radio and the scheduled programs.
Similarly, we want our farmer brothers to engage with IFFCO not only for the two days when they have to buy fertilizers from us. We want them to benefit from us for the rest of the 363 days of the year as well. Digital allows us to take new innovations to everyone even in the last nook of the country.
Question: That’s the promise of internet, how does IFFCO come in this picture?
Dr U S Awasthi: Good question. You see, one can get a lot of information, entertainment content on owns on through the internet. And yet, there is no good starting point for a person from rural India. We have understood that the farmer is happier receiving information of use at a single point. They still are not able to use the keyboard that efficiently.
Through its various initiatives, IFFCO is trying to become the single destination fulfilling all content needs of these users. For example, IFFCOBAZAR is slowly emerging as a single go to destination for a lot of farmers. Apart from buying and selling, they can share knowledge and best practices of farming with other fellow farmers.
Question: How do you see the overall scenario of the agriculture & farming sector in India?
Dr U S Awasthi: It is the 50th year of IFFCO and my 50th year in this industry, I intend to travel across the country. I have decided to visit 125 locations, right from Andaman to Leh and from Arunachal to Kutch.
Question: And this must be mostly in rural areas.
Dr U S Awasthi: Yes, of course. With the presence of members all over the country, my idea is to meet them all. In IFFCO, we have a democratic process called 3-tier system. The 36000 cooperative societies elect 1000 representative general body members, these 1000 general body members elect the board.
The general body members are met only once a year for our general body meeting. For which we take care of their travel fare, stay and gifts etc. but I don't get to meet the remaining 36k members. The cooperative society members get our balance sheets, they are ones who actually do business with us, but they only meet our field officers. The directors also meet only the representative members, who come to vote as per the democratic system. Keeping in view the above points I initiated this task to meet & reach out to each & every life. Even in regions with no members at all e.g. Mizoram, I have tried to enroll some in rural areas.
Question: So when do you start?
Dr U S Awasthi: I have already completed 69 locations, tomorrow morning I will be doing the 70th. I am practically traveling through the week with just one day break, when I work out of Delhi office.
Most of the time I am traveling by car, sometimes I do travel by air too far off locations (e.g. Arunachal). I am yet to cover 56 locations, everywhere in our country there are different pockets with expertise in different agriculture practices, and the idea is to cover entire geography of India, meet all kind of farmers, and understand each ecological strata and places of agriculture needs.
Question: You have already completed 69 locations, what is the message you want to convey, what actually you are getting back from these visits.
Dr U S Awasthi: First of all in this process I take all my JV’s our insurance company, communication company, organic company, our new initiative IFFCO Bazar, as a moving exhibition to each location, which people are not aware of.
Through small health checkup initiatives we are creating awareness amongst farmers about basic conditions such as BP, sugar, eye care etc, in this way we are building bonds by coming closer to their lives.
Also I have a 4-hour completely structured program, there is no deviation, every program starts at 10 am and ends at 2 pm, there are no politicians invited.
Question: What are the major elements of the program?
Dr U S Awasthi: From a minimum 500 to maximum 3000 people, I meet everyone personally during the exhibition. Post this interaction we have a presentation to address the general gathering, a senior cooperative personnel chairs the dias. Our JV partners & our marketing executives speak about the products, advice about what all can be done in agriculture, how farmers can increase their income, how they can improve their lifestyle etc. I get a total of 25 minutes to speak to them my heart, why l am here, why I met them, what I think they should do, how they can increase their income, and I also introduce the IFFCO Cooperative Digital Platform.
Question: In one line can you summarize what message you convey to them?
Dr U S Awasthi: I am connecting all of them, in one massive cooperative market which is India through a digital platform. Today we can join and empower them by technology. This has been made possible by Narendra Modi’s initiative of Digital India and mobile penetration for 97% Indians. We get their telephone number registered here to add them as a member of IDCP, and then we give them access to the platform, iffcobazar.in. They get complete information in their language. We have this running in 12 languages providing instant information in field of agriculture etc.
Question: Is it first of its kind in India?
Dr U S Awasthi: In the field of cooperatives. Yes! I don't know about Alibaba in China etc., but eCommerce must be selling products for urban market, but for no one has done it for rural until now.
Another program we have got is IFFCO Yuva, for skill development and training. When I do this, I am surprised to see how India has changed. The burning desire in young boys and girls, they want jobs, they want to show that they can do something good. You can feel the vibrations in them.
Question: Was this not there earlier in youth?
Dr U S Awasthi: No, earlier village girls were timid, they did not even dare to come out of their home. I have seen. I have my self-lived in a village. I have seen the change. Till 5th I stayed in a village, in schools we used slates, with no roads, in village called Sathni. I had to walk through a canal to reach the railway station. I have seen my mother who would use a dhoti and chaadar “parda system”, women could not even cross the “deodi” or the gate of the house, but today we have a changed India. In that changed India our cooperatives have stopped thinking the old way and have embraced the modern India.
Question: Do you feel India has changed because of PM Narendra Modi?
Dr U S Awasthi: I think everyone has contributed, but Narendra Modi has strived to bring major changes through digital India. He has brought a certain dynamism. We couldn't have reached here without the government’s support & contribution. Everyone has contributed, all leaders have contributed. But there is a perceptible change, and this is not only for 3 years; this is from 10 - 15 years from now. I am a person who likes to be in touch with people/farmers. It’s not only this year, this year I have done it extensively. Otherwise I always strive to meet farmers, live with them, know them. I feel very happy that way, I don't like sitting in this office. With digital, I can do everything from my phone, even while traveling. So, I have seen big change, perceptible change. When I personally go to meet you can’t imagine woman of south who can’t understand my language, hold my hand wanting to understand. Seeing this as an opportunity l want to travel across the country and meet everybody.
Question: Since you are doing digital work and skill development, almost following the footpath of PM Narendra Modi, how many people are getting benefitted by these two programs?
Dr U S Awasthi: I don’t account, but I only focus on the response. Even if I can change the life of 10 people, I think I have done my job.
Question: In skill development program what kind of skill development are you doing?
Dr U S Awasthi: The platform is called IFFCO YUVA. We ask them to take an online test. After the test, it tells you what skills match your aptitude. They have designed theoretical program, followed by practical training, all online.
I feel any movement when it starts it starts small and then catches up.
Question: Since we are talking about last 50 years and your experiences, what has been the major achievement of IFFCO in India?
Dr U S Awasthi: When we started in ‘67, there was no concept of cooperative society in the industry. Cooperative act was formed in 1904 and Bombay Cooperative societies act was the first one. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “We want the entire country to become cooperative oriented. We want the backbone of entire nation to be cooperative. I want bad cooperative, I want good cooperative but I want cooperatives, they should become the backbone of economy.” That time a big importance was given to cooperatives, but small scope of thinking led to the formation of small societies like housing, consumer. In 1963-64, Cooperative Team of USA visited India and started working on a project, to promote industrial fertilizer cooperative which can work to provide agri inputs to the farmers and work through the farmers. Report came in 1967 that they employed ACDI as a project manager in India. They gave a million-dollar grant for starting this society and invited government of India as a support system to the cooperative. 3rd Nov 1967 IFFCO was born. In the first meet it was said that government of India had 98% share and a few cooperatives (57) had 2% share. It was formed with the objective that all the government shares will be returned and IFFCO will become a true cooperative. In those times it was impossible to sell cooperative shares and think that cooperatives can run an industrial enterprise. So it was always that what IFFCO is. People invested money with no surety, but every year the dividend got converted into equity. In 2002 Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Atal Bihari Bajpayee, that cooperatives need to be given autonomy. So we were registered under multi-state cooperative society, doing business in different states. Every state cooperate law is different. We have 29 states as partners and 29 different styles of accounting. Then we integrated everything into our accounting software. Then it was decided to amend the act and in 2002 August it was finally passed. Now we had an opportunity to return the government equity and became an independent cooperative with 100% ownership by cooperative society and farmers in July 2004. What we are allowed is 20% maximum dividend this is the 16th year when we will be giving 20% dividend. Our system is such that by 21st, our accounts get audited we have 5 auditors and within 60 days we hold our AGM and distribute the dividend the same day. Our systems are completely open and transparent.
Question: If I compare India with Israel or China, India looks far behind in terms of agriculture sector, what is the reason?
Dr U S Awasthi: Israel has very small holding and is very scientifically managed. Anyone can emulate Israel but cannot live with it. They have very strong feeling of nationalism for their own protection.
Let’s compare China & India
China & India have same amount of agriculture land, irrigated land & we have same river sharing as they have. The only difference being single vs. multi party rule. I will give only one example and you will feel proud as an Indian, I’ll show you NASA pictures taken on 14th April, you can sense how prosperous India is, it’s a photo taken in the night you can see how India is lit vs. China, this is the sign of our prosperity.
Their production is higher than us, their agriculture is modernized & advanced e.g. GM crop, seed development etc. Massive modernization is happening there e.g. specially grown food for the western countries.
I believe we need to advance research work, we have to concentrate, we have to treat industry like industry, and we need to focus on blocks on villages for agriculture development. Agriculture extension we saw 25 years back it's the same, an agriculture extension can do nothing sitting in the capital, we need to go and see what is happening in the block. Everyone is just trying to manage, no one to ask or do their job, you have to have proper governance. India needs better Governance in Agriculture and Governance means strictly abiding to work that we have been appointed for.
Question: Has Cashless economy come as loss to them?
Dr U S Awasthi: We told everyone that this will all be for positive. All communities all religions will come together as common and grow. When I asked will you form a cooperative society and work them all said yes (ref Muslim community and women).
Probably time has come when we will do something and achieve what we have to achieve.
Question: IFFCO TOKIO is an insurance plan, how are the farmers getting benefited by it?
Dr U S Awasthi: When we launched the plan we told them that we will not launch any product if it is not for the benefit of farmers or rural population. Tokyo is a good company, and its motto is “good company is more important than to be a good business man”. So we made them our partners.
The first insurance we launched was “Sankat Haran Bima”. I decided we will not issue a policy, the receipt of the product bought (eg.1bag of fertilizer) will be the policy, and IFFCO will pay the premium, with 4 lakh rupee coverage. My people were worried about the approval of the product. At that time the chairman of IRDA was Mr Rangaswamy, he was a very farmer friendly man and a good friend, and he understood my idea and approved it. At the request of the team, we decided to put a claim of 1lakh rupee against 25 bags of fertilizers. And thereon the process started, we have disbursed 101 Crore rupees to 164000 farmers till date. They have all been benefitted without giving a rupee and the claim directly goes into their account.
Question: Is Tokyo not in losses because of this?
Dr U S Awasthi: No, the premium was so good that there were no losses. With 37 paisa a bag as the premium per year, we sell around 26 crore bags each year. When farmers buy the product they put their name, nominee name and address account details on the receipt and the money directly reaches to their account, when they claim.
When I met the PM first time, he enquired about “Sankat Haran” and asked if it has increased the sales. I promptly replied this scheme was not to increase sales but (as mentioned above) it’s a vision for farmers. The PM also got the scheme of Rs 12 per year which offers a cover of Rs 2 lakhs, in contrast to our insurance where one has to pay not a single penny.
Question: What are your future plans?
Dr U S Awasthi: Inorganic fertilizers have reached a plateau, there is no further need of chemical fertilizers. Now the time has come that world will switch over to different kind of crop pattern, different kind of nutrition management, which I believe is Organic, Nanos, and Bios. Hence we will now concentrate more on organic fertilizers which is the future.
All over the world u have different kind of agriculture, agro products, different soil, different weather. With climate change agriculture has to also changed and with the current system we can’t sustain our agriculture growth, hence the need to change e.g. Bringing organic fertilizers, organic nutrition management, Nano agriculture etc.
The present need for agriculture is based on particle, Nano molecules, and tissue culture.
Earlier one corn/maize grew from one seed and now from tissue culture we can grow 6-9 at a time. Where sugarcane grew from cuttings now they can easily be grow from tissue and that too many in number. These practices reduce cost and increase the crop production. This is what Nano farming will do and this is the future.
I know everything will change in the next 5 -10 years, world is moving fast, but we are not, China, US, France and Japan are moving fast, to feed the population to take care of their land. People will not go and live in villages they want to live in cities. 75% will live in cities and only 25% in village, with this kind of distribution we need modern technology.
I am also working on newer products, fibers, carbon fibers etc. The steel that we find will not be there in future, hydrocarbon energy, oil energy will not be there in future, big solar stations will produce energy. Buildings will be film based, they will generate their own power. Technology will change very fast.
Question: Are all these your ideas or does IFFCO has its own R&D unit?
Dr U S Awasthi: We have our own R&D, and more than ever I am going to concentrate on this change, I will not waste my time on something that will die in next 5-10 years. Get ready for newer things, this is where IT people, microbiologist will play a role. I am seeing a new kind of country that India is going to be.
Question: For all this are you expecting form or wanting to suggest something to the existing government?
Dr U S Awasthi: No, why do we have to always look at the government, we should look within the country, as empowered citizens we must do something, why do we expect government to do everything.
Question: But government has the power to make the policies?
Dr U S Awasthi: Yes it does, let them make the policies. Today internet has left the government behind, it has gone ahead. Aptly put by former PM Tony Blair in his Biography “Today government cannot drive people, government is running behind people, people are ahead of the government.” New things are discovered every day, it’s exploding, things are becoming obsolete every day, knowledge is becoming obsolete, and it’s becoming difficult to keep up the pace.
When I joined work in 1993 no one knew computers. Today photocopiers and typewriters are getting replaced with latest technology.
In 1967 When I joined Shriram Fertilizers as a young engineer in Kota, the flow sheet used to be as big as this room. We spent hours looking for minor details like safety valve, pipe lines etc. Today we login to computer and get all the data handy at a click.
Communication was communication, we couldn't think of anything, who knew about hand held phones, we used to listen to Akash Vani, and now it is in our hands, technology is changing at jet speed.