When I think of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), which is an apex development financial institution in India managing Rs 3,50,000 crores ($50 billion) of assets, I am reminded of a story that I heard when I was a six-year-old, called An Elephant and four blind men. In this story, one man touches the leg of the elephant and believes that an elephant is like a large tree. The second man touches its trunk to conclude that the elephant is a rope. The third man, by touching its stomach, argues that the elephant is a huge pumpkin that can feed the village. The last man touches the ear and concludes that an elephant is bread. Finally, a seeing person comes along and tells them that each of them was right, but that their knowledge was incomplete because they did not know the full picture. This story is a perfect fit. NABARD is that elephant and agri-entrepreneurs are those four people, wrestling to understand that giant.
What are the concerns?
Firstly, NABARD is still quite heavily bureaucratic like the government for a startup to deal with, despite its reputation as an honest organisation.
Secondly, while there are a lot of schemes, there is generally a gap in knowing what suits whom. NABARD’s access to farmer collectives and financial institutions is generally not available for startups easily.
Thirdly, NABARD has rich data on farmers, rural India, and agriculture, which could potentially help startups take data-driven decisions. But today, this information is not available in such a manner.
How to change this?
Startup desk: NABARD should have dedicated startup support desks, with young professionals leading them, to bridge the gap between agri-entrepreneurs/startups and NABARD.
Solutions, not schemes: Conversation should not start with marketing the schemes of NABARD, but by understanding the startup holistically, including its plans, growth strategies, and challenges. Then a suitable suggestion can be given.
Value beyond subsidies: NABARD could add a lot of non-monetary benefits to startups like introducing farmer collectives supported by NABARD, connection with a food processor that NABARD subsidised, or creating financing products with its subsidiaries.
Democratising data: The data that NABARD sits on is humongous. It could possibly help startups in their journeys to make data-backed decisions and thereby improve their chance of succeeding. NABARD could possibly create a mechanism for making such data available, with some checks and measures.
Impact measurement metrics: NABARD can possibly include livelihoods impacted through startups it supported as one of the key measures of its success. This is a great way to multiply its impact on the agri-startup ecosystem.
Technical solutions work only when the attitude, mindset, and culture of people working in NABARD changes. Four points that can be considered in this regard include:
Cultural shift: There should be a shift in the culture to be more startup-friendly, which is a more long-term solution. This can happen with NABARD inviting startups to participate in its events, invite idea exchange, and create more positive buzz about startups.
Align incentives: There should be recognition, motivation, and incentives for NABARD officials who become the change-agents to bring out NABARD Version 2.0. NABARD should recognise that this is a step which can multiply the depth and breadth of its impact, without much of financial investment.
Making the process easy: The leadership team of NABARD should make the process of helping startups easy for its staff. This will reduce the mental barriers in transitions. This can happen with the help of systems-thinking workshops involving different stakeholders. Everyone should make an assessment about where the system can possibly break because of points of friction, and suitable solutions should be worked around those.
Power of listening: Historically, governments and government organisations like NABARD have been speakers. They should switch roles and become great listeners. By understanding what startups want, meaningful solutions can sprout from its fertile soil.
I came to know about the strength of the NABARD ecosystem when we experienced the same in our work with smallholder farmers at CosmosGreen and Kheyti. But it was because of a few officials who were exceptionally committed to creating this vibrant pro-farmer startup-friendly ecosystem. But how can this be the norm, rather than an exception?
Let’s come back to the metaphor of NABARD as the elephant. How can they better inform and work with startups?
- Give direction to the rider on how to get to the destination using technical solutions.
- Motivate the elephant emotionally and rationally for it to act using adaptive solutions.
- Make the path easy for change to happen.
We need to prioritise this because once the elephant walks on a path, that road will be changed forever. The path it walks on will be the best road for millions of small farmers, who fight against all odds every day merely to exist. Its thoughts will change the forest called the agriculture sector forever. But who will be the wise person to help startups discover this elephant? NABARD’s leadership team? NITI Aayog? Startup India? Who? This question needs a definitive answer – and the sooner the better.
Sathya Raghu is the Co-founder and President of Kheyti.