Nothing exemplifies the challenge of change in the agricultural sector as the story of Barrix Agro Science. But founder Lokesh Makam is not giving up
Looking at the bio of Lokesh Makam, Founder and CEO, Barrix Agro Sciences, you would expect a person on the fast track. And considering the glacial pace of in agriculture, perhaps he is.
Since founding his firm back in 2011, the trained pharmacist has come a long way, with his IPM (Integrated Pest management) and IPM inputs based strategy paying dividends. The strategy is all ab0ut eco friendly solutions that can replace chemical inputs. With a focus on pesticides. Something Makam and his team refer to repeatedly in any discussion as ‘poison’.
Makam has achieved this by developing a range of pheromone based products that remove the need to be sprayed repeatedly, and use a completely different tactic to handle the issue of pests. A ‘Pheromone’, in case you missed it, is a special chemical created by a mammal or an insect, that affects the behaviour of others of its species. So if you’ve wondered how ants travel in a straight line, its pheromones. Or how a bee calls other bees to a particular area, pheromones again. Barrix is focused on using lab constituted versions of these pheromones to target specific pests for specific crops. Specific pheromones also mean that they will not affect other, beneficial insects like say, bees. Thus building a technology based advantage.
To give you an example, the Melon Fly can damage over 15 varieties of vegetable crops. So the Barrix Fly Trap has pheromones that attract and trap the male melon fly. The firm claims that along with its easy installation, the fly trap can improve yields by upto 40%, besides saving cultivation cost by 30% by reducing the need for multiple spraying of crops. The result is a pipeline of 12 pheromones, 28 pheromones already developed, and 15 patents applied for.
Validation has come virtually every year since inception, in the form of prestigious awards and recognition for the firm. From both government, private sector, and international bodies. A DSIR certified lab, multiple entrepreneur of the Year awards, and even a voice at the Niti Aayog. So credibility is certainly not an issue.
So if everything is so good and desirable, whats holding Barrix back? Two reasons. The natural ‘slow’ rhythms of agriculture, and the impact of massive government involvement. Consider the slow speed first. typically, a firm will need to invest in demonstrations to convince a farmer to give it a shot. Keep in mind that the farmer is taking all the risk here, and is being asked to shift from something that has worked well enough till now. Even if he does allow an experiment on a small patch of his fields to evaluate the difference, it is still not going to be so easy to evaluate, besides, a full crop cycle goes by before results do come in.
The second problem is simply one of government apathy and inefficiency. The apathy rules in the form of natural resistance to change, where long term contracts are already in place with incumbent firms, and awareness is low about pesticides misuse, or the benefits of IPM. A second problem Makam pointed out was the tendering system and its consequences. Where governments have seen the benefits and tendered for suppliers, Makam has opted to stay out due to the long payment cycles, leaving the field open for poor quality suppliers who leave a poor experience behind them for the farmer. Making it even more difficult for Barrix to convince them to shift.
Barrix presently has product distribution available in 10 states, mostly in South India, and claims to have impacted 7 lakh farmers in the journey so far. It’s a small drop in the ocean that is India’s 120 million plus community of farmers or cultivators. But Lokesh Makam is clear that the struggle’s been worth it, and like any entrepreneur, continues to prepare for the explosive growth that is just a corner away, in his view. Funding is one answer, but equally critical is the inexorable movement of government policy, as more and more chemical molecules used in pesticides get banned, each ban opening up a whole new opportunity for Barrix. Looking to close this year with a turnover of Rs 15 crores, he has high hopes of changing India’s farming landscape eventually, with the experience that has been acquired. ” In the first three years, the thought of shutting down did cross my mind, but when we saw the first field results come in, we knew that this was something we had to do till we can take the ‘poison’ out of our food”.