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When one mentions the Northeast of India, scenes of picturesque valleys and lush green mountains whiz past one’s inward eye and one is lost in the tunes of independent music wafted across the thin air of the hilly terrains. The sights and sounds surely make this region a place of envy for the rest of the country and its farmers’ produce the nation’s pride.
Situated in the abode of clouds, in the midst of greens, is Centre Of Learning, Knowledge and Services (COLKS) that is nestling entrepreneurship. Founded by Vijay Byrsat in Shillong, the centre is looking at educating farmers of the North East and also giving them access to the outside world.
From Finance to Farming
A zoologist by education, Byrsat had joined the banking industry and had also travelled the globe for work. But in 2014, he decided to give it all up and come back home to Shillong. “I had no clue about what I wanted to do. I got on my bike and roamed around the North East for two months. During my trip, I met a lot of influential people, big and small farmers. Once back from the trip, I sat down for a week and knew that I wanted to work for the farmers. The initial idea started with just providing training for farmers,” he said.
While many questioned his move of going back to the North East and setting up business there, Byrsat was confident. “We are geographically isolated and face many problems in logistics and infrastructure, but I was sure that change begins at home,” he said.
How They Help
Byrsat realised that the farmers in the North East lack market and financial access and that there were very marginal farmers, if at all they had land. “We started working on the skill gap analysis. We started teaching them how to solve their problems scientifically; this helped them grow their produce by at least 10 times. Then, we realised that one of the biggest problems is the lack of market access, their profits get killed by the middle men. So, we started working on supply chain management, post the training, which creates a market access for them,” said Byrsat.
But that wasn’t all. Finance was still a hurdle for most farmers in the North East. “We started working on their financial linkages. Today, we have a partnership with State Bank of India from where the farmers who are a part of the training can avail loans at a very low rate of interest,” explained Byrsat.
Established in 2015, the centre today has a network of over 4,500 farmers. They have also worked on creating brands from the farmers’ products like Bee Natural (premium brand of honey), Primecuts and MADessentials (organic cosmetics). “We even export the products,” he said.
The Opportunity Was also a Challenge
Byrsat saw an opportunity in bringing about the farmers together, to impart knowledge to them and subsequently helping them in increasing their market share. However, setting up the business in the North East is not an easy task. So, his opportunity was also his challenge. “Nobody had done this before. When I began to look for the startup capital, I was rejected by the bank for a loan, even though I was a banker earlier and knew what works. I put in my all, went to the market and there were a few who believed in COLKS vision. Within three months, we made the amount that we wanted to borrow from the bank,” said Byrsat.
Forming partnerships is an important part of his work as that would open up more roads for the farmers and Byrsat was quick to get on the job. “We signed a partnership with the government of Meghalaya. SAP has a social sabbatical program and we were one out of three in India chosen for the same. Senior management from SAP came down to work for us, pro bono for two weeks. We even had the MD of SAP come to our headquarters,” explained Byrsat. Soon, they were named one of the top 5 enterprises in the country.
Now, from North East to South Asia
For Byrsat, the future looks bright. Over the next three years, he plans to spread to the whole of the North East and then move to South Asian countries. “We had never planned all of this but each and every day we are learning new things and exploring new avenues. We received a interest from VCs too but we weren’t ready to share a large proportion of our equity just yet. But we plan to grow with our partnerships, both public and private. COLKS is a progressive and dynamic ecosystem. Creating Change, Changing Lives, that is the mantra we live by. We are not a social enterprise but more of an Impact one,” said Byrsat