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ITC e-Choupal to quintuple reach
Economic Times - 12 Apr 2010

ITCs e-Choupal network has reached out to over four million farmers growing a range of crops such as soyabean, coffee, wheat, rice and pulses in over 40,000 villages through 6,500 kiosks across 10 states including Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. When the government reimposed restrictions on commodity sourcing to tackle wholesale price inflation in 2006-07, ITC chief executive (agribusiness ) S Sivakumar the man who scripted the e-Choupal model of business began exploring various options to insulate farmers using the e-Choupal model from the risks of reversal in the governments agri reforms.

The company is now in the process of rolling out e-Choupals Version 3.0. The new version will help ITC discover new anchor businesses to insulate its existing e-Choupal model from risks of reversal in governments agri reforms. It will also deepen the companys relationship with individual farmers and, thus, create more value itself, for the farmer and the network partners. The company hopes to launch the full version of e-Choupal 3.0 by 2012.

So, will the new version further improve a farmer's life. Sivakumar is confident it would. Under the new version, ITC plans to offer personalised crop management advisory services to individual farmers, integrating mobile phones into the digital and physical network of e-Choupal. It will enable a farmer to provide information on the type of soil, crop variety, the date of sowing and details about crop condition on an ongoing basis to the company. Subsequently, this data will be processed to give farmers specific advice.

Integration of mobile phones with sophisticated analytics will not only enable personalised solutions but also reduce costs. But all this will require a fair amount of experimenting. The necessary hardware-cum-software prototypes are being developed by Nokia and ITC Infotech. Though Nokia Life Tools for agriculture is in the marketplace, the two-way mobile application and its full operationalisation will take some time.

ITC obviously plans to leverage the inputs it will get from millions of our farmers. The data generated will be of immense value to companies selling farm inputs as well as to financial services firms and consumer goods companies. If we offer this data and other processed information to enterprises in the agriculture value chain at a price, it will reduce the cost of this service to the farmer, Mr Sivakumar explains. These firms can, in turn, personalise their own offers. It could be a farm demonstration specially designed for a farmer or an insurance package relevant to a crop in different agro-climatic conditions. Such personalised services will add a second anchor business to e-Choupal, keeping intact its core philosophy of complementing the farmers good with the companys good.

What more can Version 3.0 offer It will provide services to rural youth preferring urban jobs to agriculture and farm labour following semi-urbanisation of some of the top-tier villages. e-Choupals can be used as centres for information on job vacancies and eventually, for providing skills that help increase the employability of rural youth. We are gearing up e-Choupals as rural employment exchanges, which will connect the rural youth with jobs. This will be a new anchor business with a clear revenue model.

ITCs e-Choupal in alliance with Monster India an online career and recruitment firm recently launched web portal to enable job seekers in rural areas to apply for jobs through e-Choupals. In the first month, over 1,200 job openings from 52 companies were made available through this channel.

Once this stabilises, ITC plans to further integrate backward in the people supply chain. It is exploring the skills training business in partnership with appropriate firms to deliver these services over the next few months. Through all these initiatives, ITC is hoping to morph e-Choupal into an all-weather venture relatively derisked from regulatory flip-flops and even market swings.

Will the new version bring in some benefits to ITC By personalising its relationship under e-Choupals Version 3.0, we can increase our reach from four million farmers to 20 million within the existing network area itself. Once personalised, each farmer's family will come into the e-Choupal network as either a consumer or a contributor of some sort, Sivakumar adds. That will give ITC an additional reach of 16 million.

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