A beneficiary of FLAME ORIGINS Program – a program that selects 10-15 early age startups to provide deep mentoring at free of cost — Bryan Lee’s brainchild Krishi Star is a social enterprise that envisions to improve incomes for small farmers in India. Bryan says that the program has empowered him to walk the entrepreneurial journey with a good strategy and focus.
In addition, he discusses in detail about his journey encompassing both highs and lows of business. A first hand description – directly from the pen of entrepreneur – the interview is insightful for everyone interested in the concept of entrepreneurship.
1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
I’ll take a bit of a non-standard business view on this question (hopefully my business school professors won’t revoke my degree!) – and say that there is not actually a specific problem we are trying to solve. It is more that there is a set of values that we are trying to embody as a company. In other words, while many companies are value-driven with business and social impact objectives, we want to be a business and social impact-driven company with living out our values as the primary objective.
This vision is one that has evolved over time. When we first started, our vision was “improving incomes for small farmers”, however, we realized that as passionate as we were about that vision, it did not fully encompass everything about what we were driving towards, something was missing. It felt disingenuous to be a social enterprise but ignore the multitude of touchpoints with other stakeholders such as customers, industry peers, our own internal team and even competitors. We felt that in order to stay true to the core vision of any social enterprise – to have a business working towards positive impact – we needed to strive to ensure that that every stakeholder, not just farmers, with which we interact directly or indirectly is positively impacted.
( Bryan Lee – The Entrepreneur)
Now, of course, for this vision to work, we do have to have a business and social impact vision as well. In this, Krishi Star’s vision is to build and improve agricultural value chains with the aim of benefiting small farmers and delivering quality food to end customers. Specifically, our focus is on postharvest supply chain efficiency and premium linkages. In India, especially for small farmers and quality-focused end customers there is a tremendous amount of supply chain cost and an inability to maintain premium quality controls. For example, in the tomato value chain, in which we work, postharvest wastage and inefficiency can be upwards of 20% between farmer and B2B end customer.
2. Shed some light on your solutions/services.
Krishi Star has two major verticals that together form our integrated market linkages approach to building quality agricultural value chains.
Firstly, at the core of our business, we are a market-driven food brand that markets and sells quality, natural fruits and vegetables with a focus on premium B2B customers. To date we have focused on specific value chains – tomato, apple, and mushroom and supplied both value-added processed food ingredients and fresh produce across a variety of industries such as HORECA (Hotel Restaurant Catering) and high-end retail.
Secondly, we facilitate the growth of quality value chains by engaging across postharvest initiatives. This often takes the form of development projects and partnerships with key stakeholders such as government, development agencies, and corporate CSR entities. For example, we have worked on end- to-end projects to build a high-quality fresh apple value chain in Himachal Pradesh and fresh and processed tomato value chain in Maharashtra alongside international development agencies and government partners.
3. What entrepreneurial hurdles did you face in India and how did you swim across?
We have faced many entrepreneurial hurdles along the way across functions! In finance, as a typical startup, we have faced issues such as working capital and accounts. In operations, we face a bevy of challenges inherent to agriculture such as maintaining a steady supply chain such as seasonality, regional supply shocks, and quality control across multiple suppliers. On the market side we have always faced commercial competition, which as a social enterprise putting resources into ensuring small farmer participation in our supply chain can often be challenging vis-à-vis competitors that have more commercial freedom to source from whomever is the most economically viable – for example, we were one of the first suppliers of domestic whole peeled tomatoes, but it wasn’t long after we had established the market that we saw competition. One time we visited a customer to ask why they had stopped purchasing from us; in response, they told us that they were still buying, however, when they showed us their storeroom, it was full of products from a competitor that had copied our exact branding in order to trick the customer!
At the end of the day, I would say that the key to overcoming these hurdles as an entrepreneurial venture has been twofold. Firstly, having the flexibility and comfort to deal with uncertainty and improvise new solutions on the fly. This has been everything from learning how to travel across rural India without a vehicle (lots of non-traditional modes of transport!) to building supply chains in new geographies (i.e. camping out in the Himalayas for a month to procure apples and build a low cost cold chain). Secondly, has really been belief in the long-term vision of what we are trying to accomplish. This has been especially evident to me as I have seen many of the companies that started around the same time that we did and may have even raised a lot more finance than we did shut down. For us, our long-term vision has caused us to persevere or even re-invent ourselves when needed. For example, initially the focus of our company was heavily on value-added processed food (e.g. tomato puree). However, when that line of business was not scaling impact as much as we wanted – with an eye on our overall vision of improving lives for small farmers we decided we needed to work a more systematic level and expand to fresh value chains to better engage with farmers’ needs.
4. How did you manage to get the funding?
As a value chain / food brand, we have relied heavily on building out working pilots and scaling our operations. Unlike in other industries/business models, especially heavily technology-based companies, in which innovative technologies and IP can drive funding, we have had the most success when showing on-ground operations to potential funders as a starting point.
5. Please, share your revenue-model.
Operationally, we earn majority of our revenue as a food brand through the sales of our product to customers.
6. What keeps you inspired to go ahead as an entrepreneur?
As mentioned above, it is the belief in the long-term business vision of the company that keeps me going. Additionally, it is the greater vision that I mentioned at the beginning of “making the world a better place” across all touch points. In this, I know that on any given day, even when we are hitting hurdles or if one aspect of the company is not performing as well as we would like we always have opportunity to positively impact those around us. For example, I am equally happy benefiting small farmers as I am in seeing somebody in our company mentor a junior employee or seeing our procurement team push for transparent business transactions in order to improve supplier relationships.
7. What is your message for aspiring entrepreneurs?
For those considering being entrepreneurs or already along the journey, enjoy and embrace every aspect of what you do, and good luck!