Long ago during one winter, when Muktadir Rumel went over to his hometown in Faridpur, he had steaming brown rice with a bhorta made out of freshly plucked coriander leaves. He and his cousin had plucked the leaves straight from the farm right behind their ancestral home.
The freshness of the condiment was unparalleled, Rumel remembers. He always wished he could have it once more, but his busy life in the city kept him from that. City dwellers like Rumel often crave fresh vegetables but very rarely have access to them. Add the rising prices of vegetables to that and most people just simply give up.
Syed Fahim Ahmed, founder of DeshiFarmer, is one city dweller who saw an opportunity here. He gave this opportunity a form and a name: a startup and "DeshiFarmer", respectively. His opportune moment, however, has a backstory.
"Being born and raised in a rural area of Bangladesh, I have seen the struggles of farmers closely. I started looking for a solution as I grew up. I've found that farmers are at the behest of syndicates," said Fahim.
His research uncovered there was no demand forecast carried out by farmers. The supply chain was also fragmented.
"The only way out was to use technology and a farmer-friendly supply chain," he said.
Vegetables have a short shelf-life, so formaldehyde is usually used to keep them from going bad. Also, they change multiple hands during transportation, adding to the cost incrementally. By the time a vegetable reaches the end customer, its quality drops and price shoots up.
This is where DeshiFarmer enters the scene. While studying pharmaceuticals at North South University, Fahim was already tossing around startup ideas in his mind, eventually settling on DeshiFarmer.
The startup creates a linkage between farmers and the market. Fahim and his team provide farmers with the information to reap the best produce. From there, DeshiFarmer takes their produce and sells to retailers, mega shops and bazaars in the cities. The startup's privately owned vans transport the produce back and forth whereas, before that, farmers had to travel far to sell their goods for a paltry sum. Working with DeshiFarmer, they now earn a reasonable markup on their produce.
B2R business model now; soon-to-be B2C
DeshiFarmer's current model connects farmers and retailers. Their B2C (Business-to-Customers) model is already in the works, though it still operates on a small scale.
The main attraction of their model is that it cuts out the middleman. The business is only conducted between the farmer and DeshiFarmer, thus increasing the end-product price. This also ensures that the vegetables travel a relatively short distance to reach retailers/customers. As a result of the time saved, there is no need to use formaldehyde to preserve the vegetables.
The startup also focuses exclusively on farming-related data. For instance - Rumel shares an anecdote - recently, tonnes of domestically grown onions went unsold and were subsequently thrown away. Onion growing farmers had zero clue about the demand for their produce. The lack of data and research clearly leaves farmers handicapped.
DeshiFarmer helps farmers by providing information they can use to minimise the time between planting different crop types, and optimise growth. Farmers learn how to adapt to the changing weather and which crops to cultivate to suit the seasons.
DeshiFarmer collects the vegetables from farmers at designated collection points. The closest collection point for Dhaka is located in Birulia, Savar. Farmers gather at this point with a fixed amount of vegetables.
30-35 farmers in the area are directly benefited by this. All they have to do is collect from the farms, practically adjacent to the collection point, bring the produce to the centre, sell them for a relatively higher markup than before, and walk back home before the sun is down.
A glaring benefit of this set-up is that farmers, who were initially hesitant to team up with DeshiFarmer, see other farmers in neighbouring areas reap benefits. Subsequently, they sign up for DeshiFarmer as well.
Other businesses, such as general stores and dairy farms, have also popped up around the collection point, as a direct impact of DeshiFarmer's business model.
DeshiFarmer also does market forecasting and then draws up a plan about how much to tell the farmers to produce, to reduce waste due to over or under production.
The farmers are often anxious about how to care for their crops. DeshiFarmer weighs in here as well. They instruct farmers on how to keep their crops organic and also tell them the optimum time to reap their harvest.
Some of their fields have as much as four harvests a year!
Third time's a charm
Fahim's journey with DeshiFarmer was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. Even before he graduated from university, he started on this idea with two others. The first attempt was a failure, and so was the second.
"In both instances, our personal issues came between us and we had to shut down. Then when our co-founder and investor Sumaiyah Mousinin came on board, things looked up.
"Our CTO Shakil and data scientist Rawshan Mamun too tagged along after her. At that stage, we couldn't afford them with a salary, but they still came believing in our vision and worked pro bono," said Fahim.
DeshiFarmer has been operational since 2019, a year after Fahim graduated. Against many odds, their startup is now past the feasibility study stage and is sustaining small growth and turning a profit.
DeshiFarmer's vision for the future is big. They want to connect all the farmers and retailers in the country. That is huge but the bigger the stake, the bigger the reward. Furthermore, they want to extend their advisory support for farmers. They also aim to provide farmers with crop insurance, soil tests, etc.
"Every bit of help a farmer needs to give us his best produce, we try to include it in our vision," said Fahim.
The very next step of the process is getting straight to the customers . For now, they are operating in the B2R model, but soon they are looking to enter a B2C model – hopefully by the end of this year.
Being discovered by the UNDP
"Even before DeshiFarmer, entrepreneurship always excited me and I wanted to create employment," Fahim shared.
"We participated in the Youth Co:Lab programme, funded by UNDP and our startup got selected as one of the Top-10 startups. Our journey with UNDP began from there onwards," he added.
Even though DeshiFarmer started out by helping the farmers create market linkage, their vision lies in providing farmers with an all-round service and linking their product to vegetable lovers who would not be able to source such good quality produce. They help farmers eliminate dependency on a lot of back channels that hold them back from turning a profit.
Farmers can essentially earn a higher income while also ensuring a high quality of their produce through DeshiFarmer.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the SDGs through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Springboard Programme of Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh is a platform for young social entrepreneurs to contribute towards achieving the SDGs through tailored mentorship and wide-ranging national and global networking opportunities.