Sakshi Agarwal sits in front of a computer in a room of other girls also working on computers. She has long black hair and is wearing bright pink-ish red clothes.
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Sakshi Agarwal: Global Changemaker

The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Sakshi Agarwal to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.

#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?

Sakshi Agarwal: My innovation is The Farm Theory. According to a UN report (2017), 1.4 billion hectares of land (equivalent to 30% of the total agricultural land available) and 170 trillion liters of water (enough to fill Lake Geneva thrice), is used to produce food that’s wasted—food that is “ugly.”

Ugly produce is simply a bunch of freshly harvested, but misshapen, discolored and imperfect fruits and vegetables that are dumped into landfills simply because they’re cosmetically ugly. The grocery stores and supermarkets have certain cosmetic standards that need to be met before the produce gets displayed on the shelves. Therefore, ugly produce, being cosmetically unappealing, never leaves the farm.

The middlemen procure from the farmers at extremely low prices and add up to 250% to consumer prices. Farmers hardly get 20-30% of final prices. These short incomes with minimal margins force them to take up loans. Failure of repayment of these loans causes an average of 45 farmers to commit suicide each day in India.

The Farm Theory combined these problems and scenarios to create the most innovative and sustainable Value Chain in the world. We set up Collection Centres (CC) in the farming villages of Karnataka. These farmers sell out their entire crop to TFT, thereby realizing 20-30% more revenue on their crop than a traditional market. We employ the women of that particular village to grade the vegetables in that CC and transport these graded vegetables to our warehouses in Bangalore. For this, we employ the young adults of that village, who also happen to be the children of farmers.

The Farm Theory will be leveraging the use of Artificial Intelligence to regularise the Grading Procedure and quality checks of the agri-produce. This technology scans for shape, size, faults, and quality.

#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?

SA: After countless visits to farms and numerous interviews and interactions with farmers, my team was disheartened to know the truth about our country’s farmers, but at the same time we were motivated by their trust, responsiveness and willingness to share their problems with young enthusiasts like us.

When we spoke about the concept of “ugly produce,” the farmers were not aware of what it was called, but when we started describing how it looked, they showed us plentiful and diverse types of ugly produce from their farms; the only difference was they called it “waste” instead of “ugly.”

When we told them that we could help them sell that ugly produce, which constitutes 20-40% of their total harvest, they couldn’t believe us, and they didn’t—until we actually sold 7000 kgs of ugly produce in 21 days and gave them their first income from their otherwise “wasted” fruitage.

Once we won the confidence of a few farmers, the word spread like wildfire in the entire village, and also a few neighbouring villages, about The Farm Theory. There is no one in India that is doing what we do, and farmers couldn’t even dream of selling this ugly produce. We set up a CC in that village, amidst the farms, and are now procuring 15,000 kgs of not only ugly produce, but also the entire crops of the farmers, every month, irrespective of their shape, size and color.

We are now supplying 1000 kgs of fruits and vegetables every day directly from farms to restaurants and the Indian Military Canteens. We have opened 3 retail stores in Bangalore and are launching campaigns to educate the public about the health and environmental benefits of ugly produce. We are soon launching our mobile app that would enable anyone in the city to order their fruits and vegetables directly from farms through TFT, and we are working on creating an artificially intelligent supply chain which will make our grading and quality checks more efficient and credible.

#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?

SA: Our venture is very farmer-centric. We not only wanted the farmers to grow, but we also wanted the entire village to thrive. Just supporting the farmers with their crop procurement would be significant growth for the farmer, but would still take a lot of time for significant economic growth in the village. Also, gaining the trust of the farmers and making them feel comfortable with us, was the most important task that we had to accomplish. Therefore, we employed the women of that village as our Collection Centre Supervisors, the young adults of that village as our logistics heads, and we are also launching TFT education centers in that village to educate the children of the villagers.

Another unforeseen obstacle was the massive amount of waste that we were generating every day, since we were dealing with highly perishable goods. Therefore, we are partnering with NGOs in Bangalore who are converting this organic waste into natural fertilizers to help the farmers shift towards organic farming and reduce their dependence on chemical fertilizers.

#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?

SA: The Prime Minister of India—Shri Narendra Modi Ji. He is an absolute inspiration and an iconic leader with a vision to empower the world by harnessing the power of the youth and of the vulnerable. By empowering the youth, he is instigating the creative and empathetic emotions in young adults like me, and by propagating the message to empower the poor and vulnerable people (like the farmers and women in our country), he is channeling the passion and creativity of us young adults towards helping and strengthening these backward classes of our community. He creates a collective vision to actually make this world a better and a more equitable place to live and births the possibility of us leading that movement. I live by Modi ji’s (“ji” is an Indian way of giving respect) campaign of doubling the income of Indian farmers by 2020. This inspires me more than anything not only to work for our farmers but also to inspire other young adults like me to participate in this watershed movement.

#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?

SA: I believe every human has a story to tell and every human is inspiring in their own way—you just have to look close enough.

I think there’s a lot more that I have to achieve and serve to this planet, and that my journey has only begun. But what I’d hope for the younger women to inculcate in their lives is to always keep the “bigger picture” in mind. For example, scoring on your tests is important, but that’s not the be-all and end-all. They should never forget what the actual purpose of their education is: to make them a more informed and rational citizen, so that they work for the progression of the world and help others progress too.

I don’t want the young women to be held up on what the world thinks are achievements. They should break away from the unwanted materialistic pleasures that the world hails and fights for, and instead fight for strengthening the suppressed, and fight against all the injustices in the world.

#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?

SA: In the past, what happened to men was considered public and political and thus could be changed. But what happened to women was considered cultural, private, off-limits, and even sacred. Women were considered as minorities and there was no one who could represent women and fight for them…there still isn’t anyone. Women still have to face the hard truths of their lives and still have to hide the truth of what they experience—sexualized violence, gender biases, body shaming, gender wars, suppression, harassment, and assault—because the world thinks that women deserve it and other women have accepted it as a fact and a taboo. No one is willing to take up these conversations. They seem like unpopular “man-hating” stances.

But the world has permanently changed. We have entered a new era that is messy, imperfect and urgent. Women need to stand up for women. Women need to stand up for all those minorities—trans women, indigenous and disabled groups, black girls, and those low-wage workers—because this era hails the far-reaching power of empathy among survivors who heal themselves and strengthen each other to fight back. Women are important in innovation because innovation needs to empower and empathize, not just make disruptions in tech industries and build business empires.