ITC: Leveraging IT for Rural Transformation
Your Company is engaged in imparting a revolutionary dimension to its rural partnership by leveraging information technology to elevate the Indian farmer to a new order of empowerment. The ‘e-choupal’ initiative of your Company is a powerful illustration of the potential of information technology to transform rural economics, notwithstanding the structure and size of land holdings in India.
This alternative model leverages information technology:
To deliver real-time information and customised knowledge to improve farmers’ decision making ability, and thereby better align farm output to market demands and secure better quality, productivity and improved price discovery
To aggregate demand in the nature of a virtual producers’ cooperative and thereby access higher quality farm inputs and knowledge at lower cost and
To set up a direct marketing channel virtually linked to the mandi system for the purpose of price discovery, yet eliminating wasteful intermediation and multiple handling, thus reducing transaction costs and making logistics efficient.
This model, in facilitating a direct marketing channel in competition with the existing mandi system, is in conformity with the reforms recommended by the Shankarlal Guru Committee appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Besides inducing efficiency of the mandi channel through competition, this alternative channel will also serve to conserve public resources that would otherwise be required for the expansion and upgradation of the mandi infrastructure. This digital infrastructure can also be used for channelising services related to credit, insurance, health, education and entertainment, in addition to serving as a strong foundation for creating a vibrant futures market to facilitate farmer risk management.
This model thus enables a quantum improvement in the cost and quality of extension services. In the conventional model the effectiveness of extension service is severely limited by the capability of the individual extension worker. The e-choupal model, on the other hand, confers the power of expert knowledge on even the smallest of individual farmers.
Your Company’s investment in such an e-infrastructure, whilst creating abiding value for the farmer, is in turn placing your Company in a unique position of trust with the farming community as a reliable supplier of goods and services on the one hand, and as a buyer of high quality, cost effective farm output on the other, thereby supporting its own competitiveness.
The task of adapting the e-choupal concept for different crops and regions continues to test your Company’s entrepreneurial capabilities. In addition to special commercial circumstances obtaining in each case, there are many constraints like infrastructural inadequacies, including power supply, telecom connectivity and bandwidth, apart from the challenge of imparting skills to first-time internet users in remote areas of rural India. The potential benefits of this project have spurred your Company to seek innovative solutions to overcome constraints.
Competitiveness of Indian agriculture induced through such a market-led business model, can trigger a virtuous cycle of higher productivity, higher incomes, enlarged capacity for farmer risk management, leading to higher order investments, feeding even higher levels of quality and productivity. Growth in rural incomes would also unleash the latent demand for industrial goods so necessary for continued growth of the Indian economy. Over time this will create another virtuous cycle, snowballing the economy into a higher growth trajectory. This model, with appropriate modifications, can be extended to other facets of agriculture like floriculture, sericulture, horticulture, aqua farming, poultry farming, animal husbandry etc.
International competitiveness can thus be engendered wherever it is feasible to create a structure whereby the corporate sector’s need for creating shareholder value can be enmeshed with that of the farming community in a mutually supportive, interlocking and interdependent partnership.
Starting with just 6 choupals in June 2000, this ITC model has already become rural India’s largest internet-based initiative, covering as of today 1020 choupals linking 6000 villages and serving nearly a million farmers. Your Company’s objective over the next decade is to create a low-cost IT-based interactive transaction and fulfilment channel to cover 100,000 villages, representing 1/6th of India’s villages, reaching out to millions of farmers.
The challenge of uplifting rural India towards prosperity is so vast that many, many more corporate players are required to participate in such value adding rural initiatives to supplement Governmental effort. The benefits of rural initiatives tend to be back-ended, thereby stretching corporate resources. One cannot expect everyone to be fired by passion alone. In order to mobilise wider participation of the private sector in similar endeavour, Governments, Centre and State, can play a catalytic role by crafting a nurturing policy framework.
ITC: Leveraging Biotechnology for sustainable growth
Another dimension of your Company’s involvement in the rural sector relates to its successful partnership in the wood fibre to finished product value chain. Interpretation of Landsat imagery data indicates that barely 11% of the geographical area of the country is under real forest cover, against a desirable 33%. Further, an alarming level of top soil erosion is dramatically reducing the productivity of available land resource, accelerating environmental degradation. According to estimates of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, the average top soil loss is about 16.35 tonnes per hectare per year, which is three to five times what is acceptable, representing loss in crop capacity equivalent to 13 million tonnes annually. Your Company’s pioneering Farm Forestry programme encourages farmers to create plantations on their private wastelands. Towards this end, your Company makes available high-yielding, disease-resistant clonal planting stock developed through biotechnology based research at Bhadrachalam. About 14 million clonal saplings have so far been planted over 8400 hectares of land as a result of this initiative.
Since January 2001, your Company has also been engaged in a social farm forestry programme that targets poor tribal families, with the objective of bringing into productive use their private wastelands that have otherwise remained unutilised for decades. The programme primarily seeks to build capability at the grassroots level that would support and sustain a virtuous cycle of development in some of the most backward tribal regions of the country. This typically entails creating village level samitis and imparting extensive training in sylvicultural practices. Planting mixed species contributes to bio-diversity, whilst inter-cropping secures quicker and additional economic returns.
Over the next decade, ITC’s farm forestry and social farm forestry programmes aim to bring into productive use over 50,000 hectares of wasteland by planting about 100 million saplings. This would imply direct employment for 50,000 households, while another 30,000 households would benefit through indirect employment.
These programmes represent your Company’s contribution in a meaningful measure towards the larger goal of rural prosperity. Such an endeavour supplements the national effort by bringing into productive use substantial tracts of degraded private land, creating the biomass towards restoring ecosystems, providing a sustainable source of productive employment among the weakest sections of rural population, while concurrently securing a competitive source of wood-based raw material for your Company. This vital and sustainable source of competitive advantage for your Company, in turn would imply growing shareholder value and conservation of foreign exchange for the country of upto Rs. 7000 crores over the next decade through exports and import substitution.
The objective of imparting income generating capability among the rural poor drives yet another of your Company’s social endeavours – the task of eco-restoration through watershed and wasteland development. It is not very well known that although India receives about 370 million hectare metres of rainfall every year, only 43 million hectare metres is available for assured irrigation. This is so because 95% of precipitation occurs during 4 months in a year, and much of the rainfall is lost due to run-off, evaporation and seepage. In the absence of infrastructure to hold water that is otherwise available in plenty, drylands account for more than half of India’s gross sown area. Nearly 50% of the rural workforce is engaged in such drylands. Your Company, assisted by select NGOs, is engaged in bringing 1500 hectares of degraded land every year under a soil and moisture conservation programme in the economic vicinity of its business locations. This programme envisages creation of 1000 large and small water harvesting structures (percolation tanks, farm ponds and check dams) over 10 years, thereby increasing water storage capacity by nearly 1.5 billion litres. These water bodies will provide critical irrigation to nearly 15,000 hectares of farmlands in their command areas. These initiatives will thus secure significant increases in farm incomes through shift from single to multiple cropping, besides cumulatively generating at least 1.5 million person days of farm labour employment during lean periods.
ITC: Linking Farmers to remunerative markets
The e-choupal initiative in its fullness would provide your Company with an invaluable agri commodity sourcing capability to strengthen your Company’s agri trading business. It is your Company’s strategic intent to leverage this strength in conjunction with its traditional capabilities related to branding, trade marketing and distribution to create growth opportunities. As indicated to you last year, one such opportunity being actively pursued is in the area of value added branded foods. The branded foods market represents a significant opportunity for long term growth. Alongside growing per capita incomes, the Indian food consumption habit is expected to progressively evolve from basic foods to value added products. Changing consumer preferences and heightened quality awareness, together with the expected reform of the regulatory framework and tax structures, will provide a fillip to the food processing industry. Your Company possesses many a strength to exploit this growth potential, not the least of which are the specialist cuisine and bakery knowledge of its Hotels business. Your Company’s foray into the branded foods market commenced with ready-to-eat gourmet foods under the brand ‘Kitchens of India’. Your Company also recently launched the ‘Aashirvaad’ brand of packaged atta and the ‘Mint-o’ brand of confectionery. It is the objective of ITC’s Foods business to establish its product brands across segments, and towards this end the business is gearing capabilities to launch a host of high-quality value added confectionery and bakery products, and ready-to-cook convenience foods.
Growth in the value added consumer end of the market would in turn grow demand for higher quality agri commodities, thereby opening up remunerative opportunities for the farmers. Your Company believes that Indian farmers need to be supported and empowered to capture optimum value for their produce by linking them more effectively with consumers in the domestic and international markets.