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Cultivating Moral Imagination to Scale Impact for India’s Smallholder Farmers

Spudnik Farms Reaps Lessons from Acumen Academy’s Climate Resilient Agriculture Accelerator

October 18, 2021

Sumeet Kaur was a lawyer working for one of the largest tax advisory firms in India before shifting her focus to agriculture. Seeking more meaningful work that aligns with her values of equality, sustainable living, and helping others, she pivoted careers and began growing  vegetables on a small plot of land and selling them to customers in the city of Bangalore. 

In a short time, Sumeet realized nobody was offering a product tailored to customers in urban markets looking for a trusted, affordable and convenient source of organic produce. At the same time, she noticed smallholder farmers across the country were facing exploitative living wages and operating in a wasteful supply chain that was inefficient and vulnerable to climate change. 

“If I could just tie up loose ends, I could create something that would not only serve urban consumers, but could have a more positive social and environmental impact,” says Sumeet.  

In March 2019, Sumeet launched Spudnik Farms: a B2C agri-tech company building an alternative food system that secures sustainable livelihoods for farmers and guarantees safe, healthy food for consumers.Through their subscription-based model, consumers receive a weekly box of organic fruits and heirloom vegetables produced by local smallholder farmers. Spudnik Farms helps farmers grow sustainably and eliminate food waste by helping them organize production and harvest according to a predetermined demand while also guaranteeing a profitable price. To help them mitigate the effects of climate change, they offer trainings on regenerative agriculture practices and encourage water conservation techniques such as drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting.

As an early stage enterprise working at the complex intersection of farming, climate, and food security, Sumeet felt the company needed to build a unique set of tools focused on stakeholder engagement. In August 2021, she joined Acumen Academy’s Climate Resilient Agriculture Accelerator with the goal of creating impact at scale and increasing their famer collective from 24 to 500+.

“We want to make sure that at each step of scaling we have the right technical skills but also make sure that we’re always connected with our farmers and where we started. We want to learn how to measure impact in that way,” says Sumeet. 

The Accelerator is a 10-week program supporting 15 agri-enterprises as they build the competence and character needed to develop solutions that improve the livelihoods and climate resilience of smallholder farmers across the country.

Throughout the program, Sumeet has leveraged the individualized support of expert advisors and investors. Working closely with her mentor, Shalini Chhabra, who is a Managing Partner at 3i Partners and the Acumen teams, Sumeet is cultivating an experimental mindset, re-evaluating assumptions, and refining her ideas for scale and impact. 

“Before, we had been thinking mainly about monetary impacts. One question I always asked myself was, ‘Okay, today we might be able to increase a farmer’s income from 100 to 1,000 rupees, but then what? How can we continue to build value?” says Sumeet.  

As part of the program, participants worked with 60 Decibels, an award-winning impact evaluation firm to complete an actionable self assessment report to understand farmer resilience. With the help of this report, the participants, including Sumeet’s team, walked away with actionable items to improve the resilience of the farmers.

“Assessing the report, an insight that came through was that we haven’t really designed solutions for our farmers in the past around how to improve their access to savings. I told my mentor that farmers respond well to ideas that benefit their families. So we discussed plans to create a savings deposit program that helps farmers set aside money for their children, like a college fund,” she says.

With a background in finance, Sumeet’s mentor helped design the plan and put her in contact with financial institutions willing to help. With these actionable steps, Sumeet became confident the idea was possible, and leaned on the accelerator to test other hypotheses. 

“We’re looking at creating value-added products using the produce that our farmers cultivate, to help them move up the value chain. So we’re going back and doing customer surveys to understand what it is our customers want. There are several experiments within the Accelerator that are helping us do that without taking too much risk and doing it in an effective way so that we get the right information,” she says.  

As Sumeet continues to build Spudnik Farms in both scale and impact, she’ll reap the knowledge gathered throughout the accelerator. Among these lessons, she’s learned the value of knowing your stakeholders, and walking a day in their shoes to meet their needs. 

“I’ve learned about moral imagination and how to reimagine the world as it could be — better for the people I work with. When I put myself in their shoes, I’m able to understand their perspective and design better solutions for them, and for the planet,” she says.

Author

Karinna Alvarez

Karinna is a Writer at Acumen Academy. She creates actionable content that distills the values, principles, and hard-edged skills embedded in Acumen Academy’s course curriculum.

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