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Prashanth Venkataramana


Prashanth Venkataramana is CEO and Co-founder of Essmart, a social enterprise that drives technology adoption in rural India through last mile distribution of life improving products and by using the same network to bring market insights to manufacturers. Prashanth holds a Master's Degree in Engineering for Sustainable Development from the University of Cambridge through a Pemanda Monappa Scholarship and a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Anna University, Chennai. He started his career with Saint Gobain as a Design Engineer and later moved to the International Business Unit as Project Manager for the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia regions, developing deep expertise in sustainability and green buildings. He co-founded Essmart in 2012 and has helped grow the business to its current operations over the past eleven years. Prashanth has a deep interest in agriculture and renewable energy and firmly believes in using science and technology to achieve development goals in rural India. Prashanth is a Barclays Asia Pacific Unreasonable Fellow since May 2023.

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So, I want to first congratulate you on creating Essmart, which is such an innovative, impactful and successful company. Let's start with like the broader things and then we'll come to Essmart. In today's world, there are two types of people, right? People who believe in climate change and people who believe it's a hoax. What do you think about that and about what is the global impact of that. Is climate change real? Why does sustainability matter in today's context.


I think it's difficult to be a person who doesn't believe in climate change. With a lot of climate events that are happening, it is getting harder for them to keep their stance. But I think that even if it can't be reversed, if collective action is taken, it's something that can be mitigated to a great extent. There are a lot of examples of success, even for us. While growing up, we saw problems with the ozone layer, how CFCs were causing those problems and how through collective action globally, it was, uh, solved almost fully. So that's a problem that doesn't really exist anymore. A lot of these things are things that require commitment across nations, and it requires a global effort to actually overcome.


So it is happening, I think, with this generation and the next, it is something that would be taken more seriously. Especially given that it is a planet with limited resources and we have generations to come, the future generations are obviously going to take a lot more action towards this. There're a lot of things that can be done from technology, uh, from innovation, from those standpoints and from collective action. So it's not something that is a doomsday kind of thing, like a lot of people are trying to resist by saying, that we don't believe in climate change. It's all a hoax and things like that. But it is something that can be overcome, uh, through collective action. And for me, sustainability. All of this has also changed for me after becoming a father, I think there is a sense of responsibility for the next generation that we need to leave things the way they were, if not better. And how we can do that through individual actions is what we need to think about. Seriously.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​One of the things about developing countries and developed countries is that often countries like India, which consider themselves to be developing economically, they say, we don't want to, you know, sign all these accords because we still want to create those greenhouse gases because we're still developing, whereas countries in the West which are considered developed on various parameters, they feel that the rest of the world has to stop emitting, you know, all these gases.


Right. So what are your thoughts on that, do you think developing countries like India should consistently develop more sustainable models even whilst they're "developing"?


I think that is a kind of paradoxical situation where we have the problem more with the countries that are trying to get out of poverty. It really depends on how you define poverty, how you look at economic indices. A lot of things like that. But I do think that there is an obligation for countries that are economically developed to invest in these kind of initiatives to ensure that the development that is happening in the Global South is taken up in a sustainable fashion. If not, you're going to see more emissions, you're going to see more of this uncontrolled kind of development. So I think it starts with putting in financial resources, expertise, all of that, and investing time into this because the brunt of it is going to be faced by everyone equally, if not worse, by some of these developed nations.


Top left: A flower-seller in Andhiyur using an Essmart solar lantern. Top right: The Essmart team. Bottom: Farming in Tamil Nadu.  

So that's another thing that that needs digging into, right? Because it's not like we don't have sustainable or green, you know, technologies. It's just that they're so expensive that even if they're available everybody cannot afford to use those technologies because they're so expensive. Do you think there is a problem globally in terms of why these things are so expensive, how do we make it more affordable to everybody?


Everything has not remained as expensive as it was. The price of a lot of these technologies has dropped consistently over the last two decades, and even more so over the last 5 to 6 years, especially with solar photovoltaics, battery storage, all of that. The costs have come down tremendously. I think a lot of it is that kind of regulatory and policy backing that is needed. So there needs to be some strong decisions to look at existing practices and how we can curb them and allow for more adoption, because with more widespread adoption, costs will come down, prices will come down further, and it will become more accessible for all. But that really takes a lot of governments to come together and make strong policies on this.


Let's talk about India's rural sector now. Is there untapped potential there? What are the opportunities there and what are the challenges there?


Yeah. So India's rural sector is a world in itself. People do call it differently by using the word Bharat for rural. And these communities are way different from urban Indians in how they live life. The reason I got into this is because I had a kind of unique upbringing where my mother was from a rural community. She grew up on a farm and met my dad whilst in college. And my dad, being a city person, only lived in a city. And I grew up with that unique kind of, uh, during the summers, we would only be on the farm kind of thing and, uh, back to either boarding school or the city school. Either way, it was a complete difference, and it was like going between two different worlds. ​​​​​​​So, it always was like, in a way, for me a goal in life, was to do something in rural. I suppose in some sense this is a kind of luxury that I did have this option to live a rural lifestyle alongside an urban lifestyle.

The opportunities in rural India are sometimes, uh, not as easy or it's not as, uh, rosy a picture as people would like to believe. There are a lot of these theories on how there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. There is all of this untapped opportunity, which is true. But the challenge here is that it is not something that's easy to tap into. There are a lot of efficiencies in a city. When you think of rural, it's this beautiful green picture. All of that is true. But there are a lot of inefficiencies in reaching rural in, uh, the way rural life is done.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​And it comes with a certain, uh, like it's not a fast paced, kind of capitalistic lifestyle. It's more about culture and preserving tradition and a very different approach to life in general. There is a lot of migration from rural to urban, for sure. People can say, the more ambitious would move to cities. Uh, why would they stay back in a village? So then you're left with those who are not so ambitious and motivated. So how can you build a team there? Which is true. But it's also untrue in many other ways.


There's a lot of things with the mindset when you think of, uh, rural people, they are slow to change or, say, to adopt even to a new technology practice. They've been doing something for generations together and for someone to suddenly come from a city and say, hey, use this. It's not going to be something that they would change overnight. So it is a slow-to-change kind of mindset. It is a slower paced life, but the way I've seen it is, uh, in a sense, the definition of poverty as not the lack of money, it's the lack of opportunity.


So I think that is the problem with the urban-rural divide. I don't think rural populations have the same access to either the quality of education, knowledge, technology, different aspects of life that urban citizens are taking for granted. I thought of this as a problem, not as an opportunity. I felt that I was empowered enough to try and not solve, but at least try and contribute to the solution in some way. It cannot be solved by 1 or 2 people. Again, it takes small incremental changes by perhaps an entire generation, a whole lot of people. But there can be change affected when a lot of this adds up. That's how I look at it.

Essmart journey

The Essmart journey.

India is technically, if you think about it, largely an agricultural country, right. Like, I don't know, the percentage of the population that does agriculture. But now a lot of people are leaving because they're more ambitious about their own lives or because there's no income from agriculture because of various problems like no rain, all of those things. So tying back to your own inspiration for why you started Essmart, like you were saying, you know how it's not that there is tons of money in there. You have to do take this sort of hard leap of faith to make some change, right? So, you said that you have had an interest in the rural sector because you've spent your summers in the country and you have these family connections. But what is it as a businessman, because you were trained as an engineer and then you went on to study sustainability at Cambridge. Right. Um, so you you must have had like big visions for yourself. What made you choose to go back to that part of the world? What drove you? You said you wanted to make a contribution, but what?


Thanks for that question. I think it gives me a chance to think about some of these things also. Going back, I think, again, in terms of inspiration, my childhood heroes were obviously my own father and mother, in many ways. But my father was more a successful corporate executive who climbed up the ladder to reach the top of a company. But growing up, I think we were always given the examples of my grandfather, who was a police officer, he was an IPS officer who took care of many other people in his family, all of that, and is always remembered as someone who helped other people. And within the extended family... my mother's uncle, was someone who's mostly forgotten by people now, but, is a Bharat Ratna winner for his contribution to the Green revolution in India. So that's again, a controversial subject. The green revolution. But his contribution was that of bringing together the science, bringing together the political acumen to actually bring in technology into wheat farming in India. So he was, by and large, a role model for many people in my family. He was one of the signatories of the constitution, part of the Constituent Assembly and was a union minister. All of that. So we were always taught to be like him or try to do something for, society on the whole, like he did. Not in a sense of a businessman or anything like that. It was more in a kind of a Gandhian way of thinking or giving yourself fully for the benefit of society, that kind of mindset. So I'm not, uh, a very, uh, so, like, I'm not a born businessman at all. A lot of people do refer to me as a businessman, but I come from a family of people who worked in government or in agriculture


So, business is something I had to learn through experience. I was fortunate to work in a large company at the start of my career and got a really good grounding in many of these things. My inspiration comes from a combination of these things. And the opportunity to go to Cambridge, to be able to get this kind of cushioning that even if I fall, I can't fall too hard anymore. I do have a good kind of education, so it allowed me to take some of those risks. That's what opened some of those doors. And I thought it was a way that I can contribute in some small way. I can actually create jobs, if not anything else, by starting an organisation in Tamil Nadu. Now across three states in South India and so on. My motivation was to see that technology was available in rural areas through this and also do something back home. It was very tempting. It wasn't an easy decision though - moving back to India when you have what could be called a high flying kind of career with Saint Gobain. Leaving that and moving to Pollachi was completely the opposite of what my parents thought was coming. I still find it difficult to explain to them what I'm doing. 

Yeah, I mean, I had to face so much resistance from my family for giving up engineering and choosing, you know, the humanities. That itself was a big thing, like, what the hell are you doing? And for you, to give up your career and go back to the, you know, village and say, I'm going to stay here and do this stuff. I'm sure you must've faced questions, at least. 

Yeah, it was a huge change, I remember with Saint Gobain, some of the sales I was doing was upwards of $500,000 or $1 million in a single invoice. And then from that coming down to selling one solar lantern for $24 (INR 2000) was a bit of a shock for everyone. 

That takes a lot of guts, right? I appreciate and admire your, you know, given all the privilege you have, you very consciously went back to India to make a change. Because I come from a family of civil servants too, and I totally understand that need to want to give back to society in whatever way. And that brings me to my next question, about rural transformation. How can you empower the stakeholders in the rural community? Also, is that a thing that's okay to say? Rural? 

I don't think people are offended by being called rural. There is still a lot of difference between urban and rural. There is a lot left to do in terms of bringing opportunities to rural communities. So this is where I see the problem. I don't think someone living in Gurgaon can say that their lifestyle is much better than someone living in a village, given that the air quality that they breathe there is... Rural places have much better indices in many ways, better than cities. But I think the opportunity to make space for changemakers from rural communities, to tap into the country's strength, motivate and create more successful individuals, is lacking. Providing these opportunities will speed up the country's progess, and help us, as a nation, find our voice in the world in many ways. 

A lot of people do move out, they get better opportunities. But to solve rural problems, it won't happen with people moving back from abroad, or those from cities offering rural solutions sitting in air-conditioned city offices. The problem has to be solved by the people themselves. 

Right. You see, that's the thing that happens in all sorts of spaces, right? Where people think that just because they are from an urban space or maybe living in a "first-world" country or whatever, they just assume that they are smarter or more well-equipped to solve those issues. Sort of like a saviour mentality. They're just coming in, thinking, oh, I'm gonna save you guys. But like you rightly said, it's the people who live there who actually have the solutions. What we are essentially doing is giving them, you know, sort of tools with which to find those solutions. So, now is probably a good time for you to introduce Essmart and talk about its products and services. How it works. 

There are a lot of technology products and solutions that are already available, designed by people in different parts of the country. Some of that is based on clean tech. They improve productivity in agriculture, in health, other such indices. There are also a lot of products in urban areas that we take for granted, that are not reaching rural communities. Even when products are designed for rural populations, they don't reach the intended population. Even when they do, they are either given out for free or they are done as some kind of a project or subsidised in some kind of unsustainable fashion. Where ultimately the product is not used to its full potential and sometimes it is just discarded once something goes wrong with it. 

So, Essmart was created to solve this problem. To create a distribution channel that helps technology products reach the populations that they were designed for. There were no shops in rural areas that sold these kind of solutions. At least, now with Essmart, there are a lot of these shops that we've activated. Coca-Cola and Colgate finds its way to most villages in India. Essmart uses some of these distribution efficiencies.

In addition, there is the need to train and activate product support at these shops - where they actually sell these products. So, many of these products go under repair in the first three or four years of their operation, but can be repaired easily. If there is a technician and spares available. So, Essmart also focusses on the life of the product to make sure that people are confident of buying these products from local shops. That they know if something goes wrong, they'll be supported by their local shopkeepers. Right now, we have a network of 5,500 such shopkeepers spread across three southern states. We've also started working with farmer cooperatives that are called FPOs or farmer producer organisations. We're working with about 120 farmer cooperatives. 

Each of these farmer cooperatives have a retail outlet which stocks Essmart products. Our products are primarily in agriculture, small agricultural machinery and a lot of clean tech like renewable energy products and some health tech. In total we have about 450 odd SKUs. That's a wide range of products that cater to the diverse needs across geographies. We have a very light kind of model with the inventory and the deliveries all done within 72 hours to any of the pin codes that we service. Shops can buy in flexible quantities. We deliver to their doorstep. Guarantee the life of the product with spares and also honour any warranties from the manufacturer. So, that's with Essmart. We've seen our impact across South India. And we work with parterships to reach the rest of the country.   

But coming back to the point earlier of the saviour complex and all of that... More than a saviour complex, what we see in this space is a creator's bias. Where someone creates a product for the rural sector, thinking that it is the ultimate solution without actually testing the product with rural communities. 

So what Essmart also does is offer product testing and market insights - where manufacturers can get their products tested with rural communities, not by just doing some simple survey or something like that, but getting rural communities to actually experience the product over a period of time, see their usage, see what their needs are, so they can co-create. We've worked with large companies like Bosch and Panasonic for their products under development. We also work with a host of start-ups in this space. Some are making insect-based fertilisers, cattle feed, hygiene products. So with all of this, we are helping them get the voice of the rural consumer into their design and development in a focussed way for the last year or so. This is something we see as a unique contribution and ability to be able to offer this to people who are trying to solve for rural populations. 

That seems to be the right thing to do, right? Because like you rightly said, the creator's bias of just sitting somewhere in an air-conditioned room creating something, thinking, oh yeah, I have this genius idea and this is exactly how people should use it. But obviously that's not going to be the case. Like the people who are actually doing the agriculture know better about what they want. Their input needs to be taken into consideration whilst developing anything. 

Yes, yeah, so that's something that we've seen. Resources, millions of dollars being wasted on products that do not work for rural communities and it's something that we think we can really help with. To design with the voice of the rural consumer. Because of our distribution network, and I think we are probably one of the only organizations that are able to offer such a unique service in rural communities. 

So, when you speak of large companies like Panasonic and Bosch, - I'm asking from a place of ignorance - when these companies design products for the agricultural sector, is it usually done on a global scale, or is it very country specific? 

That's a great question. I think it also points to some of the problems. So usually, there are some products that are designed for the developing world, or basically, sub-Saharan Africa, some countries in South Asia, and some places in Latin America, and Southeast Asia. That's one way it happens. There are some other companies that tailor their products once they enter a market as big as India, specially. Because we are a population of 1.4 or 1.5 billion. I don't know. We stopped counting, nobody knows the number. So, because it's such a large market, it makes sense for a lot of large companies to tailor their product for the Indian market. Even if you look at rural alone, it's at least 800 million. There is a huge readily available market when they look at India. So there is some customisation that is done, but for most other geographies, it's mostly designed as a single thing. 

We see Essmart partnering globally in future with other companies working with such distribution networks - to be able to bring out insights from their networks. This is part of our five-year vision. 

Prashanth's family

Prashanth with his family.

So, the next thing I wanted to ask you, was about agriculture. In the sense that do you think it has helped you, that you actually practise agriculture. In Pollachi or maybe Coorg... where you have an avocado farm and grow wheat. So the fact that you have literally touched these things and grown plants. For someone like me, fully urbanised, like I touch a plant and it dies, like I'm so bad, you know, at keeping things alive. I killed a cactus. It's so bad. So, that you actually grow things -  does it help your work to understand agriculture? 

I think it's very intentional when I do these things. I took care of my family farm for 10 years. And bringing avocados to that farm, I think I may say, that I was one of the first serious avocado farmers in the Pollachi region, with 150 trees, at the same time making an intercrop of it with coconut. It was a shot in the dark, nobody knew if it would work or not, but it did work out. We get harvests from them. I actually saw this happening in Coorg in my wife's plantation - growing avocados in between their coffee. I thought it was something that could be done in a coconut plantation. Thankfully, I was right. Otherwise, it would have been quite a big waste of time. It took six years to get the first crop, so it did take quite a lot of effort. 

I've been pushed into agriculture by my wife and sister-in-law in many ways. I offered to help them with their farm, and since then they've been glad to let me do most of the stuff. I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy working with people. And a lot of work in plantations as well as farms does mean dealing with people. Trying to bring some kind of energy and direction into tasks, doing it repeatedly over a period of time is what makes a difference. So, that's something I've enjoyed doing. I think it's satisfying to see yourself grow something. And even more when you actually make money out of growing something off the ground. It's a pretty satisfying feeling. I've always looked at it as something that should be done with a conscience but also a business-like approach in terms of adopting technology or using the latest practices - but being environmentally conscious as much as one can be. So, as long as it makes sense for running it profitably. That's how I see agriculture. I don't see it as a beautiful kind of getaway from an urban lifestyle, the pollution, all of that. 

I really think that many of India's problems in agriculture are because educated people don't involve themselves as much as they can. And me having that privilege in many ways to actually be able to do that and make it successful. 

I think that's one of the successes of Essmart too, right? You are empowering all the stakeholders and you're bringing positive change and engaging them in the process of creating these things. which is the future of sustainable networks or doing anything anyway. So, coming to the next question I have for you... you were talking about how it's important for educated people to go into this sector. So, I wanna ask you, do you think Gen Z, who are way ahead of us millennials in so many ways, do you think it is a great opportunity for them to explore this sector? Even when there's not so much money there. What would motivate young entrepreneurs to look at this? 

I think, first of all, Gen Z don't like taking advice. I don't know if any of this would be taken seriously. But let me try giving whatever I think is the thing. With Gen Z, they want to do more than just earn a living. They seek a certain purpose or a sense of fulfilment from their professions. Recognition, maybe, or social acceptance. They're already showing interest in avenues like agriculture and rural communities. 

What I'd say to any entrepreneur is, it's not going to be easy. Don't do it if you want to make money or if you don't like your boss. This is going to be much harder. This is not a one or two years stint. It might be a 15 year or 20 year stint and you're also responsible for a lot of other people in many ways, including their incomes. So, it's a lot more responsibility. It is a lot more stressful. It's a lot more challenging. But at the same time, if you are successful, there is a lot more, in terms of reward and recognition. And that could motivate Gen Z in many ways... 

Tell me a little about finding investment. If a person chooses to start a company like this, for someone who doesn't have the privilege to put the money in themselves, where do they find investors? 

It definitely helps having a good network. So much of Essmart's initial fundraising success is completely because of the efforts of one of my co-founders who graduated from Harvard and had the courage to actually bring this idea to so many different people. She put a lot into this idea. For me personally, it was the concept that we were discussing - should we start this company as a non-profit or a for-profit - was such a unique situation to be in. 

Like normally in India, you would only think of starting a company as for-profit, otherwise why else would you start a company is the thing. But this comes to the question of social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is very different to running a business. If you're running a business, you're looking to make some money, you can easily replicate something that makes money and do that in a successful way. Entrepreneurship is more about solving a problem and social entrepreneurship is more about solving what is seen as an injustice. So, there is a clear demarcation. The solution to a problem can be scalable, definitely. Entrepreneurship is something that is a pathway to develop a kind of resilience. 

The way to raise money, by now most people know, but I think the part people don't know is that you're going to be rejected a lot. It is basically each time you speak to a different VC, or seed funder, there're going to be a lot of people who will turn you down. It's about staying. It's also a way of testing you and seeing how much you can push back, like how much perseverance do you have? 

So, a lot of things depend on how long you keep fighting. I think that's the only way you're going to be successful in raising money. Even with fellowships, with a lot of these grants and awards, you could be turned down by 9 different people before someone says yes. You need to get out of your comfort zone and be ready to fall several times. Success is not going to be a destination. It's going to be something that happens along the way several times. 

I totally admire what you've done because I understand that hustle. You know, it's not easy to make it as a writer either. You have to face rejection so many times before anybody even publishes you. So, it's a very lonely thing in a sense. That you're just sort of like plodding on and on and on because you believe in this mission. But you have to convince a lot of other people to see the same thing as you. 

Absolutely. I'm sure it might even be harder in many ways. To be a lone writer fighting. At least as an entrepreneur, with two other co-founders, you have different people to bounce off or we can alternate in terms of energy and strengths. As a writer I'm sure it's a lot harder. 

Yeah, just doing this in a room. It is a tough thing. But thank you so much, Prashanth. You're transforming many things, in many ways, and in a sustainable fashion. That's the important thing here, right? Everyone is brought into the equation. 

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