Akshay Verma grew up in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, but went on to work as an investment banker with UBS in London after getting degrees at Columbia University and Oxford University. While he enjoyed a privileged life, images of poverty in Bihar continued to haunt him. In […]
Verma took the “teach a man to fish” adage literally to found Agratam, a fish-farming social enterprise he started in 2012 while still a student. He has initiated what he calls a “Blue Revolution” to convert some 9,000 square kilometers (3,500 square miles) of waterlogged wasteland into productive fish-farming units. Verma set up demonstration fish farms and hatcheries, educated fish farmers in modern techniques and facilitated loans as well as access to life and health insurance for them as part of a sustainable ecosystem.
Today, Agratam is connected to 500,000 of Bihar’s 15 million fishermen. Verma wants to bring more people into his ecosystem, improve market linkages and set up distribution centers and fish feed mills.
Agratam won third place in the 2017 Ideas for Action competition, which recognizes financeable, sustainable and innovative projects that align with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Ideas for Action is a joint competition from the World Bank Group and Wharton’s Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. (Ideas for Action – or I4A — is looking for social entrepreneurs to pitch ideas before Feb 28 for its 2018 competition.)
Akshay Verma: “Agratam” is a Sanskrit word that means “advanced, forward, No. 1,” and that was the mission with which I had founded this social enterprise in 2012.
Verma:I come from a region in India that is very backward, poor and underdeveloped, so while I was growing up that was something of which I was constantly reminded. I was fortunate to get a good education. I went to premier institutions in India and abroad. I worked in investment banking for about four years, and did really well as the quintessential Indian boy is supposed to do.
Verma:But one thing I was always reminded of was where I came from and the problems that (Bihar) always had. That was the inspiration to change things and make it better. We have a glorious history, but the present doesn’t look as glorious. We’re going through a downward trend, but we have to bounce back up.
Verma: When I started visiting Bihar in 2012, I realized that the numbers didn’t make sense — “130 million people, 85% below the poverty line [and that] one dollar a day is the poverty line.” These were just theoretical numbers. When I went there, I realized how bad the situation was and how visibly poor the state is, how malnourished the children are, and how there’s no access to anything. That makes you start thinking as to how do you solve this? Is it better policy? Better social interventions? Economic lending? What do you do?
“We take unproductive, waterlogged land and convert it into profitable fish farms.”
We started our first fish farm in 2014. In the last three years, we’ve grown significantly. Fish farming is very profitable, and it spits out cash. The yields are about 16 times higher than the [average] agricultural yield in Bihar. We reinvest whatever [profit] we make to prove a point about the potential. The task ahead of us is to build the whole value chain. There are shortages of good quality inputs, and so we’ve had to set up hatcheries. Bihar doesn’t have a single fish-feed mill, and they need to come up. And then, when more people produce [fish], we need market linkages, distribution networks and common resource centers.
Bihar has 15 million fishermen, and we are connected to only 500,000 – [looks like] a huge number, but in the context of Bihar or India, a small number. We send them text messages about diseases to look out for, or when it’s a good time to fish, and what rates are prevailing in the markets. There’s a lot more that needs to be done.
Verma: This [provides] a better return on capital than any other business I know. I used to work in private equity, and I have invested in many companies. You double your money every time you go into a new crop. The only risks may be that you get a delayed return, because the market wasn’t there. But unlike a crop, fish doesn’t have to wait for a certain age or time before you can sell it. It’s a cash crop. Whatever weight it has, it sells.
Apart from the direct impact, you have all these traders who come up [as well]. People who had no jobs and no way to earn suddenly have an assured supply of fish — they buy your fish, and they sell it onward. A 20-acre farm can easily cater to 500 or 600 traders a day, and that is only to meet local demand. Then there are ancillary industries like net-making, transportation and infrastructure that start coming up. You’re also feeding people fresh fish, good fish. Imported fish takes about 18 days to arrive, and that is injected with preservatives, and is not fresh.
Access to capital is absent. I lobbied a lot of banks. We even got fisherman credit cards instituted. I helped [arrange] lending of $1 billion dollars in the area. Not one loan defaulted, but no new loan was made. We got fish insured, and we had to create infrastructure. But then I realized that we needed a private sector intervention to truly let it happen.