We talked to Pankaj Khandelwal, MD and Chairman of INI Farms, an Agri- consulting firm that advises international agribusinesses on their India market strategies, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Pankaj Khandelwal: We are doing good; our family and our business both have adapted well to the ‘New Normal’.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded INI Farms.
Pankaj Khandelwal: My professional journey started with McKinsey & Company, advising corporates on strategy and operational projects. Later my entrepreneurial journey began by starting INI Consulting, an Agri- consulting firm that advises international agribusinesses on their India market strategies.
I co-founded INI Farms with my wife, Purnima, in 2009, and today INI Farms has become a category leader in a short period. When INI Farms started over ten years ago, lack of infrastructure was the biggest issue for perishables, and post-harvest loss was extreme. We intended to address and fill-up these gaps with modern tech-enabled interventions.
INI Farms is amongst the first few companies to be venture funded in core horticulture in India. It has attracted marquee investors like Ronnie Screwvala (UTV), Aavishkaar, and Aspada. With exports to 35 countries, including the US, Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, and New Zealand, InI Farms has become a truly global company impacting the lives of over 5000 farmers.
Today, INI Farms works with over 5000 farmers across 8 Indian states and exports 40,000 tonnes of fruits in over 35 countries. With our flagship products of banana, pomegranate, and Fresh Cuts, INI Farms is at the forefront of bringing Ag-tech to Indian agriculture and has built large scale operations spanning contract farming, aggregation, supply chain management, and serving retailers globally.
We are headquartered in Mumbai, and we also have our subsidiaries and branch offices in Amsterdam and Dubai. INI Farms is certified for all major international certifications, including Global GAP, HACCP, ISO 9001, BRC and SMETA (social certification).
How does INI Farms innovate?
Pankaj Khandelwal: From farmer aggregation to supply chain management, we have adopted digitization and automation. It has helped us improve our post-harvest efficiency and reduce crop wastage.
We control and direct entire operations in chosen products right from farm-gate to consumers plate. This includes large scale farm-level aggregation, managing the supply chain, and delivering quality products.
Our deep engagement with farmers helps us in improving the quality of our products. Also, we provide a premium over the market price to increase the farmer income by 30-40%, ensuring 95% farmer retention. All our products are consistent across seasons, geographies, and sourcing locations, meeting customer-specific requirements.
On the consumer front, keeping in mind the rising consciousness for food safety and hygiene fuelled by Covid-19, we introduced an origin traceability feature called “Fruit Route” for all our fruits. The feature provides farmer-level traceability and transparency to the end-consumer, providing consumers with the footprint data of the journey of each fruit from pre-harvest to market shelf. Consumers can simply scan the dynamic QR code affixed on every Kimaye fruit to trace its journey.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Pankaj Khandelwal: For all sectors, Covid-19 was a disruptive shock, and the horticulture sector was no exception. As the lockdown was imposed in the midst of our peak export season, which is from January to June, our challenges were heightened. Consequently, 85 per cent of our export revenue was affected initially. Our logistical operations came to a complete halt, air freight unavailability, port issues, and shortage of truck drivers further added to our concerns.
While COVID-19 certainly posed multiple challenges, it also opened up new segments and created avenues for business expansion. D2C is one such segment we identified and entered. We launched our fruit delivery portal, Kimaye.com, to make the most of the rising demand for healthy and hygienic food products among urban consumers. Despite initial disruptions at the onset of COVID-19, with fruit containers stuck at ports and air cargo coming to a standstill, we managed to adapt and recover.
Another game-changer has been the increasing offtake from China of Filipino produce that is resulting in a supply gap in the middle eastern markets. By identifying and leveraging this shifting dynamic of the global horticulture exports market, we have significantly boosted our exports to middle eastern markets. Consequently, our exports increased by 25 to 35 per cent in the second half of the year 2020. Overall, our volumes have increased by almost 30 per cent in the last 6 months, as compared to the same period last year.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Pankaj Khandelwal: Consistent and trustworthy communication is perhaps the most crucial element of leadership in times of crisis. Clear communication with the entire workforce, planning for unexpected problems, responding with speed, and solving issues while keeping people at the centre are the key traits required for effective leadership.
Being under essential services, we had to get our teams to resume work in weeks. Our employees, and more importantly, their families, had to overcome their fear about the virus. To this effect, our HR team adopted the “Talk to Us” initiative to extensively communicate with our employees across all locations and addressed their concerns with empathy and assurance.
Although our offices were open with all the appropriate safety precautions in place for emergency purposes, we continued to manage our work through work-from-home. Even when the movement was restricted, we provided IT infrastructure and further system maintenance support to our employees.
One of our biggest lessons is that the pandemic has prepared us for the future to effectively deal with crises of any magnitude. Working from home and blurring work-life balance have highlighted the need for leaders to be flexible, empathetic, and plan holistically and not just operationally.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Pankaj Khandelwal: The traceability feature that we launched was one of the tools we implemented to ensure safety and hygiene to our customers. The feature provides footprint data of the journey of each fruit from pre-harvest to market shelf, ensuring food safety and transparency to our consumers. It also creates operational efficiency by reaching the source of any problem within two hours, enhancing the consumer experience by enabling consumers and distribution partners to view the journey of the fruits added to the assurance of quality and safety that is the core promise of Kimaye.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Pankaj Khandelwal: To deal with a crisis of such magnitude, the role of government has been extremely crucial. For instance, disruptions in logistics, both ship, and air emerged as the biggest challenge for us initially. Global lockdown restrictions brought domestic and international trade to a complete halt. Eventually, the government’s role in easing up restrictions for transport and trade of perishable goods was a stimulus for the overall sector.
Your final thoughts?
Pankaj Khandelwal: In order to confront the rapidly changing world around us, we need to have a mindset to consistently evolve and innovate. A combination of hard work and smart work is the opportunity of the hour. In all, seeing opportunity in adversity is the key to ensuring an upward trajectory for businesses in the long run.
For us, our farmers are our most important partners. Working with them, bringing advanced technologies to farms, de-risking their business, improving their livelihood, and celebrating them is central to our journey. With consistent farmer engagement and timely technical interventions, INI Farms adds value to its produce as per market needs.
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