How an agri supply chain platform created a micro-entrepreneur network to beat the lockdown

Many startups in rural India begin as decisions of conscience, driven by the desire to seek economic solutions for disadvantaged local communities.
The Hesaathis at work
The Hesaathis at work

Indian farmers are not used to the milk of human kindness. If it was not for Vamsi Udayagiri and the social startup ‘Hesa’ he founded in July 2019, over a lakh of dairy farmers supplying milk daily to Dodla Dairy in Telangana would be waiting for 15 to 20 days to get paid. Now their waiting period is just two days, thanks to ‘Hesaathis’ go to ‘friends’ who provide the farmers active advice and help, such as buying and selling products on agri marketplace platforms such as BigHaat. Pilot projects of the Hesa app had taken off in January 2020 in Warangal, Visakhapatnam, and East Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh with 50 Hesaathis. In less than three months came the lockdown.

Udayagiri had two choices—pack up, dismiss the Hesaathis and hope to stay on the ground with a skeleton staff surviving on pay cuts. Or grit his teeth and stay in the game. The lockdown and fear of coronavirus were inhibiting agri producers and delivery personnel from entering cities to deliver their products. Hesa went on the war path, connecting more than 1,100 Hesaathis in a month and started delivery of services in cities and suburbs. 

Vamsi Udayagiri with Hema Nandiraju
Vamsi Udayagiri with Hema Nandiraju

Many startups in rural India begin as decisions of conscience, driven by the desire to seek economic solutions for disadvantaged local communities. It took Udayagiri a fortnight of travel through 100 villages in Andhra Pradesh in early 2019 to discover the stark urban-rural divide first hand. The steep differences in the cost of doing business vis-a-vis revenue was immediately apparent. An integrated rural marketplace was lacking. Udayagiri thought of developing a better rural financial ecosystem. “I sensed the opportunity for a successful enterprise that connects the dots to empower millions of rural livelihoods,” he says. The social startup is a one-stop destination for all rural problems and attempts to bridge the gap between rural and urban India by leveraging technology and manpower. The Hyderabad-based Hesa so far has over 7.5 lakh rural consumers in 11 districts of AP and Telangana. 

During his many village visits, Udayagiri spent days interacting with farmers. The direct engagement style of the amiable man with the salt and pepper beard, dressed in blue jeans and a tee, got Udayagiri the feedback he wanted. He realised that business in rural India thrived on trust and relationships. He decided to combine this traditional approach with technology. “We came up with ‘Hesaathi’, the go-to rural connector,” he says. They have a range of products and services, and solve the farmers’ problems with accessibility, availability and buying and selling in remote rural locations. It is Hesaathis who manage the supply chain at the local level.They do village-level mapping, manage surveys and conduct campaigns and promotions for Hesa’s brand partners.

Udayagiri’s efforts are paying off handsomely. In March 2021, Hesa was one of the two winners among 200-plus startups in the ‘Road to Elevate Competition’ held by IIT Madras’ Entrepreneurship Cell. A month earlier, it was recognised as one of the Top 5 Startups among 1,000-plus startups in India and five other countries at the Innopreneurs Startup Contest. Over 30 percent of Hesaathis are women. The startup has many employees from marginalised sections such as the differently abled, transgenders, retired personnel and returning migrants. “The Indian rural market potential is huge.

Hesa’s target is to reach 50,000 villages in the next two years and give rural families an equitable life and lifestyle,” says Udayagiri. Hesa seems to have overcome the lockdown blues and kept the home fires burning in rural Andhra by adding products, services and more financial transactions between March and April 2020. It has set a target to onboard 1,000 Hesaathis by May-end. 

Apart from Udayagiri, co-founder and wife Hema Nandiraju and a couple of friends with tech and supply chain expertise, Hesa now has a team of 30 in Hyderabad and over 5,000 Hesaathis and rural small-scale entrepreneurs. Its motto is “connecting Bharat with India and India with Bharat phygitally”. Smart turns of phrase apart, the credit for the good turn Indian rural supply chains deserve is owed to entrepreneurs like Udayagiri.

It took Udayagiri a fortnight of travel through around 100 villages in early 2019 to discover the stark urban-rural divide

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The New Indian Express