How Dr Renuka Diwan Is Working Towards Bringing Pride and Profitability To Farmers

Dr Renuka Diwan
While half of India’s workforce is employed in agriculture, the practices involved in farming remain outdated to a great extent. Technology has made great inroads but not so much in this profession. We need ideas that will help farmers move towards enhancing earnings. It is interesting to note that various Indian start-ups are rising to this challenge.

Two women founded Agri-tech companies that are solving agricultural problems such as food wastage, farmer incomes, climate shocks, etc. in India, won big at The/Nudge Prize | Cisco Agri Challenge this year. While S4S Technologies was chosen as the winner, BioPrime AgriSolutions emerged as the runner-up of the challenge which had called for ‘solutions to enhance the profitability of small scale farmers’.

Sudha Srinivasan, CEO of The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation shares the thought behind the inception of the prize. She said, “The/Nudge Prize | Cisco Agri Challenge strives to support entrepreneurs who have the zeal and the passion to work in this direction and improve farmer’s livelihoods.” Srinivasan shares that BioPrime was selected as the runner up because “Bioprime Agrisolutions is pioneering the growth of Biotech in agriculture to accelerate the development of climate-resilient crops.”

Dr Renuka Diwan is one of the three founders of BioPrime AgriSolutions. Dr Diwan completed her PhD in Plant Sciences from the University of Pune. She did her postdoc in genetic engineering in collaboration with Cambia, an Australian company. She worked extensively on bioactives for over 13 years and has over 15 years of experience in plant tissue culture and designs lab/field tests.

Dr Diwan spoke to SheThePeople about overcoming the roadblocks in her inspiring journey, breaking barriers as a woman entrepreneur and why we should tell more success stories of women. Some edited snippets from the interview.

What are some of the key challenges the agricultural sector in India is facing?

Indian agriculture is unique and so are our challenges. Landholdings are small and scattered, 80% are small and marginal farmers. The cost of cultivation has gone up at least 50% over the past 10 years and yet we continue to have one of the lowest per-acre productivity in the world. This means that farming is no longer a lucrative occupation, a fact which is reflected in farmers not wanting their children to take up farming.

You are an agricultural biotechnologist, a city-bred scientist taking technology to a village farmer. In this science meets tradition nexus what were the initial roadblocks you faced?

One of the first roadblocks was our thinking, as scientists coming from academic backgrounds. We thought that developing the molecules would be our end goal, but we quickly realised that this was the beginning. The journey from molecule to product was a tough one as it needed a great deal of market understanding and farmer understanding. We were fortunate enough to get corporate connections through the Research and Innovation Circle of Hyderabad (RICH) to Delta Agrigenetics. Delta team helped us understand farmer needs. We did extensive demos and travelled to Maharashtra, UP, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand meeting hundreds of farmers and understanding their feedback and requirements. We also did a market survey and benchmarking to identify commercial relevant factors. We then iterated the product to meet both. This took almost 3-4 rounds of iterations and 1.5 years. It is very important to have a channel to take deep tech solutions to the field, as there is a lack of farmer trust. Startups on their own may not be able to navigate this space- firstly because of lack of trust, they may not be able to deploy the solutions on a large scale and secondly they may not be able to decipher and read market and farmer needs.

What has been your experience of working with women farmers? What are some of the typical challenges they face?

Women in farming are largely restricted to laborious jobs. There are only a few women who have decision making power. Women still face discrimination and it is 10 times more challenging for them. Lack of support from the family, lack of support from the community and generally a lack of ecosystem prevents more women from stepping up. However, with more and more FPOs and SHAs being formed things have started to change. These groups help the women organise and provide support, guidance and training that is needed. We need a lot more of these on the ground.

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What was your vision for Bioprime when you started and where have you reached with them today?

Bioprime was founded by three scientists to bring back pride and profitability to the farmers. Our vision is that every harvest is a successful harvest and that every farmer gets assured yields despite the adverse climatic conditions. Today we have our first set of products for building climate resilience, plant health and yield launched in several states in India. We are building India’s largest plant associated microbe library that will help in developing biologicals for plant health and protection based on newer and safer chemistries. We are co-developing products with India’s top Agri input corporates. This is one of the first such co-development agreements in the country where a corporate and a startup have come together and are contributing their expertise to develop cutting edge biologicals.

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A particular incident which has changed you as a leader?

Most definitely has to be COVID time. At the onset of the lockdown we had geared to send a huge batch to Uttar Pradesh, there were boxes pilled from floor to the ceiling- just waiting to be shipped when the lockdown was announced. No one knew where this was going, and I dreadfully sent out the email saying that we may have to reduce the salaries by some percentage. I prepared for a backlash, but what I got in return were emails from every single one of our employees that they are okay to even hold the entire salaries for a few months because they wanted to ensure that Bioprime survived and they could come back and work here. When we got permission to start operations (as we fall under the essential category), we had labour problems as they had all gone back to their native villages. All our employees contributed to the manufacturing– from research to accounts, doing what was needed. We ensured that we took care of our people and arranged for vaccines for them and their families, protective gear, etc.

How do you think awards and acknowledgements help an entrepreneur in her journey?

Awards and acknowledgements help keep up the morale of the team. Otherwise, it can become a long, lonely and especially hard journey. It gives the team a sense of achievement and that is very important when you set big audacious goals. It also helps in establishing a trust factor with clients, and the community and helps bring better talent, and better capital. Awards and acknowledgements go a long way in building a start-up.

Women in Sciences have traditionally been a minority. What are some of the changes you have noticed during your journey? What are some of the conversations we still need to put the spotlight on?

Very true. Women in STEM are still a minority. Women-led, deep technology-based startups are even rarer. Some very deep perspective change is required. It is so hard-wired in our brains that we don’t even recognise the prejudice, the wrong narratives sometimes. We have to learn to be more conscious. Just the other day I was speaking on a panel on deep tech startups which had some PhDs, and some industry veterans and I were representing the startups. I was also the only woman on the panel. The moderator inadvertently was referring to all male members as “Dr”, even though most clearly were not – and not once did he address me as “Dr”. On another round table on fundraising, the male founders were asked how they successfully raised money while I got asked how is our technology different, though we had raised far more capital than any!

In corporate meetings or negotiations, if I turn down any offer, I often get told that maybe I should consult the CEO/founder, without realising that a woman could be leading this!

In none of these cases, the intention of them was to devalue me or women. Once I told them what the situation was, they quickly corrected me and were very helpful. Some have gone ahead and championed our cause. It just goes to show how deeply rooted our biases are.

We need to have more women’s success stories told to our younger generation so that when someone says CEO or a “Doctor” a mental picture of a man does not automatically pop up.

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