Abhinandan Dhakal, a masters student of Environmental Economics from the University of York, wanted to make a social and environmental impact. He moved back to his hometown, nestled in the Himalayas, to pursue agricultural entrepreneurship. In Sikkim, he witnessed that due to a weak supply chain for farm produce, many farmers were moving into cities searching for better opportunities. To address this issue, Abhinandan, along with his brother Abhimanyu, started Earthier of Shoten Group.
The Dhakal brothers wanted to change the eco-system for farming by providing the farmers with a better value for their work. So, they started researching for crops and stumbled upon Yacon, a crop native to Latin America. Yacon, commonly known as ground apple, has a high market value due to its health benefits. They also found that the weather and climatic conditions in Sikkim were well suited for its farming.
They went to ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) in Kathmandu to learn more about Yacon farming. They also brought back Yacon seeds from ICIMOD with them and, in 2013, started growing Yacon in a small plot of land as a trial-and-error method to experiment. After two years of experimentation, they finally partnered with three farmers and started their Earthier journey.
Abhimanyu, co-founder of Earthier, talking to Change magazine, said, “Initially, it was challenging to partner with the local farmers”. He added, “As a new venture, the hardest part was to gain the trust of farmers.” So, they spent most of their time educating farmers about the benefits of Yacon farming and also promised a guaranteed purchase from the framers wishing to switch to Yacon farming.
In Sikkim, another major problem faced by the farmers is human-wildlife conflict. Every year, a lot of the crops gets destroyed by wild animals. During the experimentation phase, the brothers noticed that there was no damage to Yacon from wildlife. So, this added to the already high value of Yacon farming.
Earthier, which started its journey with three farmers, is currently working with 480 farmers in Sikkim. The main reason for this company’s success is its continued effort to work with farmers and develop partnerships. Abhimanyu emphasized that “Our business model revolves around the farmers. So, we are always keen on listening to their problems and issues and trying to come up with effective solutions.”
The non-existent price of crops is also a massive burden to the farmers in Sikkim. In many instances, farmers have no other choice but to sell their crops way below the market price. There is no proper regulation or provision to regulate the market price of the crops. To address these issues, Earthier promotes transparency in the rates, in that the company quotes the rate before the farmers start planting. A team from Earthier visits the farm to grade the products. So, once the yacons are harvested, Earthier takes care of everything, which eliminates the hassle of transporting yacon to the market.
One of the main focus of their business is to increase the productivity, while promoting organic farming. Thus, they are constantly researching of ways to train and educate the farmers on productivity. Since Sikkim is an organic state, they use herbal concoctions to manage certain insects like ants.
This business revolves around Grower Engagement Model (GEM). They continuously strive to make farmers learn, unlearn and relearn the art of business and mold them into units of sustainable agri-business that take care of their immediate and prospective future needs. They want to give more value to the farmers, and in the process, they are focused on creating an entire supply chain and agro-processing eco-system that is unique to the Himalayas presented in a well-branded fashion to the world.
The company has played an important role in addressing farmers’ issues and uplifting their livelihood. By focusing on farmers’ issues, it has significantly improved the overall productivity of the crops in terms of quality and output per acre as well. They have gone from 100 tons output with farmer payment of INR 2,500,000 to 180 tons output with farmer payment of INR 4,000,000 in 2021 with the same number of farmers.
Earthier, which is on track to harvest 180,000 kgs. of Yacon from its partner farmers in 2021 primarily produces yacon syrup which has high medicinal value. It is especially beneficial to diabetic patients as it helps to regulate blood sugar level. Earthier’s Yacon syrup is minimally processed from the yacon roots. Apart from regulating blood sugar level, yacon syrup is also beneficial in reducing cholesterol levels and improving gut microbiome health. Thus, the company is not just addressing the agricultural issues, but also supplying a product that has tremendous health benefits.
In the Himalayan region of India and Nepal, as a result of poor supply chain, farmers are severely impacted. The success of Earthier can be used as a blueprint on how a business model that focuses on GEM can help address these issues of supply chain and have a lasting impact on farmers’ livelihood.