An App in Need, A Friend Indeed

A corporate filmmaker-cum-travel blogger speaks of how he chanced into a tech adventure during the Covid-19 lockdown, as his app becomes a farmer’s alternative for middlemen in Kerala

What we call ‘eye-opening’ are generally experiences which took a lot from us to hold it together. Towards the end of 2018, during my monthly visit to my hometown Pala in Kerala from Delhi where I work, my mother and I went to over a dozen shops trying to find a buyer for some 70 kg of our home-grown tapioca harvest. Neither sizeable nor negligible a quantity, this was a decent amount considering that by then we and all our neighbours had our fill of the root in its popular avatars – from boiled chunks to fried slivers. My mother, not one to discard even half an inch of leftover lace for 20 years, and definitely more enterprising than anyone in the family, pressed me into service despite its difficulties.

During the course of this gadding about from shop to shop, I came across friends from decades ago who were taken aback that I was still single and offered advice on where to find good marriage brokers and areas to avoid while looking for proposals. Not one of these well-meaning buddies pointed me towards a shop which might have been interested in the ware we were hawking. Finally, just as I was beginning to lose count, we managed to find a buyer.

Close on the heels of the euphoria was the eureka moment: while the bigger farmers had their marketing ties ups in place, the smaller ones lagged. This was not strictly un-understandable. The shopkeepers could count on the big agriculturists to deliver a specific produce at a given time, while the smaller landholders kept experimenting with their farming largely based on their own individual requirements. Still, it didn’t mean they had to prance about town, across scores of shops, uncertainty looming. Their output was of the same quality, if not better, considering small farmers largely grew organic. The quaesitum had to be this awareness, accessibility and the ability to connect as per requirement. Making the most of your own farming output was a given, developing some valuable relationships while at it would be a welcome bonus. I decided to do something about this.

Having an idea is the easiest thing; putting it on paper is slightly difficult. In order to do that, you need to clear all fog and find clarity. Since I had decided to realise the medium I had imagined as an app, the real uphill task began when I sat down with those who were going to help me technologically translate it. There are times when you feel you might have birthed a monster and the whole world is out to slay it; a fear bordering on the primordial.

Thommen Jose (right) with his partner and legal advisor Krishnan Muralidharan (left)

Kakkanad and Wayanad: Development and pilot

Finalising the tech team in early 2019 to develop the app also marked my first foray into the info park in Kakkanad, Kochi suburbs, since its development into an IT hub during the early 2000s. It was like a part of Bangalore had been sliced and fixed among grassy knolls and winding canals. Companies were in a constant state of flux – shifting out, moving in, shutting down or reopening with trimmed manpower, but visions and enthusiasm intact. The sluggish economy announced itself across many deserted hallways and closed down office spaces, largely empty parking lots and that lone coffee machine trying to look perky in red despite the fine film of dirt covering it.

However, Infintor, the tech company which my lawyer partner Krishnan Muralidharan and I had finalised, seemed to buck the trend – their office was bustling, clients waited outside the conference room for discussion and the coffee machine hummed constantly. After three months of constant interacting, misunderstandings, bickering, back slapping, hugging, sheer effrontery and genuine admiration, we took out the beta version in May. I took off with it to the agrarian belt of north Kerala – into Wayanad – for feedback and opinions.

“Your app promotes the age-old barter system,” said Cheruvayal Raman, a legend in farming circles, and a beacon when it comes to traditional farming methods and use of indigenous seeds. “Anything that aids exchange will be virtuous (punyam was the Malayalam word he used) – it will help develop not just relationships but also build trust. Not to say benefit the farmer in the process.”

His words were more than inspirational – they were like a lodestar shining light on what any technological intervention must owe to the end user – besides the standard tangible benefits, a takeaway that betters you from within and brings you closer to your fellow beings. Raman lived in a 150-year-old house made in the traditional adivasi way – thatched roof with adobe walls which remained cool all through the year. We sat on a mat in one of the rooms and talked well into the night; I furiously took notes under the light of a solar charged lamp.

The author, Thommen Jose (left) with Cheruvayal Raman (right)

Among the other farmers I met too, the responses were encouraging – the only obstacle to an open embrace of the GPS-enabled app being an intransigence was to believe that the technology was for free, that I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. However, it also made me think of profit models and revenue streams. But that could wait. Right now here was a mobile app which enabled the growers to sell, buy and exchange directly with each other or to shopkeepers.

“So, you don’t place the order?” Hamid, who ran a small vegetable stall next to a resort, asked. “And wait for delivery?”

“No,” I replied. “You choose what you want from what others have put up for sale and carry forward the transaction directly.”

Mobile apps have changed the convenience landscape alright, some day they might even take over our lives completely.

“Hmmm…” Though he didn’t seem pretty kicked about it, I managed to inveigle some of the interest back when I told him that it enabled him to save on the cartage – a saving he could keep for himself or pass on to the customer for loyal patronage.

All the mobile applications that deal in vegetables and fruits sell and deliver them at an address. There was none yet that enabled the buyer to either procure directly from a farmer or help a farmer to sell directly to a buyer. That my app did all these – that too with an additional facility of exchange for a good charming measure – took a while to sink in. Further boggling was that these services were for free. ‘Surely, you must get some money from every download?’ I have been asked this hundreds of times already. No, I don’t. Instead, for every OTP a new user receives, I bear the charges, however miniscule.

A local launch

The initial months of the lockdown which began in March 2020 went by in a flurry as I busied myself in coordinating with the tech team, who had by now scattered to three different locations, incorporating ideas of many more farmers including those who were into terrace and balcony gardening. Each time I decided this was it, some discussion or reading would throw up a niggle – and I would insist the team got it done, sometimes to their consternation. Anyone, who had anything to do with developing an app should know that the job is never done. If it should have a sustained relevance it has to be continually improved – not just the mere dynamics of the interface but by adding new and useful features. Around August this year, the app was re-submitted to Google Play, which took a while going live due to apparent traffic. Seemed like it was not just me who was nursing application ideas and getting all crunked up during the lockdown. The months that followed were used for trial runs among family and friends.

Farmfrnd was launched on Oct 28, 2020, by Mani C. Kappen, MLA.

Ever since the official launch of the app I have been getting emails from several quarters with more suggestions than questions – which itself is a relief, I must confess. This meant that the app was easy to use – the way it was supposed to be, with the entire transaction completed in three clicks. While being crucial for success alright, this was also done keeping in sight the target customer, the farmer, for whom the phone was an unavoidable encumbrance, a modern millstone – the lesser to do with it, the better.

The app may not dispense completely with the middleman or social media platforms currently in vogue, but it does show the small farmer out there a sure way to outsmart distances. This year, at home during the lockdown, I had planted over a 100 tapioca shoots and yam, in part also spurred by the rumours of a possible famine. While things are yet to return to normalcy, the harvest is going to be copious – once again overshooting our own needs. Then, this time instead of going around town with a trunk full of tapioca looking for buyers, I intend to find them in three clicks.

Fact file: Farmfrnd connects farmers with other farmers and shopkeepers facilitating exchange, selling and buying of produce directly from each other. It can be downloaded from Google Play:

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015