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ADARSH KUMAR

India,

Schooled in economics, Ardash is providing the first venture capital to small agricultural and craft producers who have lifted themselves out of poverty through microfinance.

This profile below was prepared when Adarsh Kumar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.

Fellow Sketch:

Adarsh Kumar is revitalizing rural agricultural businesses through his venture capital fund: the Livelihood Equity Connect (LEC). By providing access to innovative agricultural techniques and professional development, Adarsh advances these businesses into sustainable and profitable ventures. 

As the first of its kind venture capital fund, LEC makes direct equity investments into mid-sized rural agriculture businesses. Adarsh uses these direct investments to catalyze growth in the agricultural sector since access to capital in rural areas continues to be a problem in India. Identifying four areas for improvement: infrastructure, aggregation, logistics, and finance, Adarsh uses existing best practices to create a template for each business which he incentivizes with financial investments. Adarsh champions proven practices, aimed at making agricultural ventures effective. 

Using this model, Adarsh has championed investment in five producer groups in the country. Four out of the five are still making profits, and the investments are growing. However, Adarsh confronted the challenge of high training and hand-holding costs, which rendered parts of the model commercially unviable. He overcame this challenge by proposing a partnership with the Government of India and the World Bank to build a model which was part investment, and part grant-driven. 

During this time the Government of India was looking to inject new energy into the National Rural Livelihoods Mission which aims to increase household income of rural workers through sustainable livelihood enhancements and improved access to financial services. Recognizing that this scheme would impact thousands of producer groups in the country, Adarsh has formed a partnership in hopes of scaling his model. Adarsh will work with the government and the World Bank to test and refine methods by which the non-commercially viable parts of the model get funded, and the commercial aspects continue to run on investment. Further, by accessing higher and higher levels of government, Adarsh hopes to address issues like the over-regulation of agricultural markets and simplify the process of setting up agri-businesses.

 

This Profile was updated in September 2014. Read on for the Election Profile.

INTRODUCTION

Adarsh, schooled in Economics in the USA, is providing venture capital to small agricultural and craft producers who have lifted themselves out of poverty through microfinance. His beneficiaries a no longer the poorest of the poor on account of access to microfinance and markets, but even these successful micro-borrowers face daunting hurdles, namely a lack of larger capital investments for their growing enterprises and their limited abilities to manage their ‘second generation’ companies. By providing professional development to farmers and setting up India’s first venture capital fund making direct equity investments into mid-sized private liability companies co-owned by rural producers, Adarsh Kumar is invigorating a whole section of India’s large agricultural and crafts sector and protecting the possibility for farmers and artisans to climb out of poverty.




THE NEW IDEA

In India, rapid macroeconomic growth has created new opportunities for poor producers to access growing markets and increase their incomes. But no viable models of providing support services such as investment capital and business development inputs have been developed.

Believing that demonstrating commercially viable models in the form of private producer-owned companies have the ability to jumpstart commercial investment in the large class of producers in rural communities, Adarsh started Livelihood Equity Connect (LEC). In LEC, he is seeking to establish a new and commercially sustainable model that will create a favorable environment for greater investments and enterprise growth to enhance the livelihoods of grassroots producers.

The venture capital amounts that Adarsh will invest in producer-owned companies will be small compared to what traditional venture capitalists are accustomed to dealing with. However, by developing and organizing many producer groups, he will create investment opportunities for fixed assets in sectors like dairy and fishing, bundle the services to investors, and prove that such investments can be made profitably. He will also prove that the equity investment in producer-owned entities can be an opportunity to provide these groups with business advice and assistance, enable their success as enterprises, and expand the opportunity to scale up their operations.




THE PROBLEM

Forty percent of India’s workforce is comprised of small farmers, craftsmen, and producers who work as individual entrepreneurs. They invest their inputs and sell products with the hope that any profit they make will be enough to sustain themselves and their families. Most have not been able to escape poverty due to the small scale of their operations. Many forms of aggregating such producers have been attempted, including producer groups and cooperatives, but none of them have been able to create a successful, viable and replicable model of reaching a bulk of producers in the country. All of them also suffer from a common weakness of not being able to bring in investment capital into required areas such as local infrastructure, training and working capital needs.

In the late 1990s, microfinance was seen as the new silver bullet, but even then it only had a limited impact. The maximum loan was only about 20,000 rupees, which was significant, but not particularly transformative. Rather, the biggest gap facing struggling famers and artisans was the limited availability of credit and the absence of equity investments for rural producer groups. The credit available through existing microfinance schemes was not sufficient to expand working capital, invest in infrastructure, build a brand, and compete in mainstream markets. Though there were some government grants and donor agencies stepping up to support and invest in producer groups, the offerings of these agencies did not match the financial and technical needs of a growing number of producer groups.

 




THE STRATEGY

When Adarsh created the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Association (AIACA), he noticed that the incomes of crafts producers increased dramatically when people had better access to existing markets and were able to compete in such markets. Hoping to achieve similar results, he turned to the agriculture sector.

A key component of Adarsh’s plan rests on established producer groups that are tied to their communities and in tune with local needs and challenges. Adarsh created LEC to assist these producer groups to transition into companies that operated more like a commercial business. LEC brings in investors into these companies so that the company is partly owned by producers and partly by commercial investors. LEC helps the company grow by providing professional and financial services and as the enterprise takes off, the producer-owners are encouraged to buy (and the investors obliged to sell) the investors’ shares at market value so that mid-sized enterprises can be turned over to the producers in five to seven years.

Presently, Adarsh is still laying the groundwork for LEC to match the investors and producer groups, but is planning to launch its first initiative in less than 6 months. Currently, he is bringing together interested producer groups with an eye towards geographic and sector specialization. He gleans insights from spending time in the field talking with producers and hearing how rural dwellers hope for their lives to be improved. To date, 22 producer groups have already lined up after realizing that they, other producer groups, and LEC and its partners could invest together and benefit together from these more ambitious, strategic investments.

In addition to connecting small producers to sources of debt and equity and promoting the concept of commercial investment in farmer-owned enterprises, LEC will also invest in developing the management capacity of the five organizations it plans to launch each year. In addition to starting a mini-MBA program, LEC will also have mid and senior managers from Indian corporations volunteer as board members and act as mentors to help develop business plans for scaling and growth.

As LEC blazes this new path, Adarsh has found that producer groups embrace his plans because they are well aware of the challenges in accessing markets, capital, and professional development. The private sector has also come to see that these blockages can be addressed and that this can be a viable and profitable space for investment. Adarsh will soon launch LEC’s first joint venture and is looking forward to replicating it widely.

 




THE PERSON

After growing up in India, Adarsh came to Washington, D.C. to pursue undergraduate study in Economics at Georgetown University. After graduating, he returned to India to work on development issues and eventually had the opportunity to lead the integrated rural development program of Urmul in 13 villages in Rajasthan. This project was his first experience living in rural India, and he still cites it as something that guided him down his current path.

After completing his studies at the Kennedy School of Government, Adarsh returned to India once again in 2000. It was then he noticed that certified trademarks like Australian wool and Italian glass were fetching top dollar in their respective home countries, while the products of incredibly skilled Indian craftsmen were severely undervalued. In response, Adarsh` founded the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Association (AIACA) to increase market access and enhance incomes of craft producers in India. AIACA worked to bring leading citizen organizations (COs) and private businesses together to tackle systemic constraints in the crafts sector, and through a collaboration with FabIndia, Adarsh helped conceptualize a model to help craft producer groups develop new product lines, connect to bulk buyers, and scale up through outside equity investments.

Over the last two years at AIACA, Adarsh has been developing and field testing the concepts that are at the foundation of LEC. Starting in December 2009, he has transitioned over to LEC and is working on it full-time.

 




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