Raghav Raghunathan was born curious. The only son of hard-working parents from India’s lower middle class who never compromised on his education, he was lucky enough to feed his curiosity at one of the country’s premier English-speaking schools in Bangalore. While many of his classmates, children of India’s rising tech elite, attended private cricket lessons, Raghav’s extracurricular activity was reading editorials in the Times of India. To him, the newspaper offered a diverse picture of the reality unfolding in India and around the world, and Raghav, even in grade school, craved the story beneath the surface.
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As he grew up, Raghav continued to be drawn to the power of language and its ability to shed light on the politics and influence of human relationships. In high school, he fell in love with Julius Caesar and other classics. Under different circumstances, Raghav may have become a writer but he grew up in India in the nineties, where the arts occupied the lowest rung in a society that prized the prestigious fields of science and engineering. “I found literature inexhaustible in its ability to illustrate the complicated, interconnected nature of the world and how difficult it is to be a leader,” Raghav said. “I didn’t even know the term ‘Liberal Arts,’ but, as I was preparing to enter the world, already many paths felt closed to me.”
Despite a growing love for the arts, he followed a traditional path and ended up at India’s National Institute of Technology in Karnataka in 2008. Raghav immersed himself in engineering, but his formal curriculum left him hungry to engage with his creative side. He began to look for ways to fill this need outside the confines of the classroom. While visiting friends at other colleges, he witnessed a number of competitions where students wrestled with diverse challenges outside their chosen majors and created solutions through business to address them.
Energized by their entrepreneurial spirit, he founded his school’s first Entrepreneurship Cell to help students transform their ideas into innovative enterprises. What began as four friends eager to experiment and test solutions to tough problems grew to a network of more than 50 volunteers and experts from fields like biotechnology, retail and IT. By the time Raghav graduated, the Entrepreneurship Cell was ranked among the 20 best student ventures by the National Entrepreneurship Network and Tata Group, one of India’s largest global conglomerates.
When Raghav graduated, he received offers for high-paying positions at major global corporations that would provide him with the social and economic mobility his parents had worked so hard to make possible. “For 22 years, I followed a very structured, conventional path, and these lucrative offers were the natural culmination of that journey, the exact aspirations of my parents,” Raghav said. “I, however, was not inspired. My interest in business and markets was really about political economy, the connections between people that ultimately made them richer or poorer as a collective.”
He decided it was time to seek out a road less traveled. One of Raghav’s classmates had introduced him to Ashoka University’s Young India Fellowship, a one-year post-graduate liberal arts program for young leaders committed to public service. He applied for the fellowship and, with his credentials, naturally made the cut. The fellowship’s courses on political economy taught by India’s former Planning Commission Minister Dr. Mihir Shah reignited the passion for the world he had as a child. As the fellowship came to a close, Raghav was eager to combine his technical skills with his interest in helping communities come together to solve complex problems. Seeing Raghav’s passion, Dr. Shah suggested he join RamRahim Pragati Producer Company Ltd., a fledgling agriculture enterprise that could use his business savvy.
In July 2013, Raghav accepted the challenge and joined RamRahim, eager to learn and add value. RamRahim is one of India’s largest farmer-owned collectives representing more than 3,000 female smallholder farmers in Dewas, the tribal region of rural Madhya Pradesh. The management at RamRahim works alongside the women to develop and introduce low-cost, sustainable agricultural practices to increase incomes and participation in the lucrative post-harvest value chain. Marginalized farmers account for 80 percent of India’s farming population, playing a critical role in the country’s food security and its ability to grow inclusively as a nation. On paper, Raghav was hired as RamRahim’s head of operations to focus on building a business plan and streamlining operations. In practice, he quickly learned that the real challenge was not to offer solutions but to listen.
“This was a sector where I had no expertise,” Raghav said. “I spent as much time as possible with the farmers and the other stakeholders listening to their stories and concerns. Sometimes I simply helped a farmer load bags of produce onto a bullock cart, and other times I sat with the Ministry of Agriculture to discuss the role of farmer-owned enterprises in the value chain.”
Over the course of a year, Raghav noticed that the majority of RamRahim’s produce was sent to middlemen for cleaning, grading and sorting. Farmers effectively lost control of their product as soon as it left their fields and thus received only a fraction of the market price. Raghav introduced a new low-cost spiral grader that would allow the women to prepare their produce for the market and keep the business within their farms. Ensuring farmers would adopt the tool, however, was not an easy task despite the money it could generate for them. “Farmers are accustomed to traditional methods that have existed for centuries,” Raghav said. “You can’t go to a farmer with a new product and expect him to start listening. They only start listening when you convince them you are the real deal.”
Fortunately, Raghav found a champion in one of the women farmers, Dina Bai. As Raghav began to pilot the spiral grader in the village of Chandupura, Dina Bai sheltered both Raghav — and his new idea — for the entire season. “She knew that if we could change the mindset of farmers, we could not only reduce costs but also reach better markets that offered a premium for the produce,” he said. “She directed the farmers to use the machine and established her house as a collection zone for the processed produce while resisting middlemen and traders who offered her incentives to ensure this practice did not spread. I watched Dina Bai transform from being a woman farmer protecting the interests of her household to a powerful influencer ensuring fair compensation for an entire farming community.”
In 2014, Raghav and Dina Bai convinced half of RamRahim’s farmers to use the spiral grader. As the quality of the produce improved, the cost of processing decreased by 50 percent. By 2015, all of RamRahim’s farmers were grading their produce. Largely due to Raghav’s leadership, RamRahim also became the first farmer-owned company granted membership to the Indian National Commodity and Derivative Exchange in 2015. Membership allows farmers to lock in a price for their produce, providing income protection in a traditionally volatile market. Thanks to these victories, RamRahim could, for the first time, provide bonuses to its farmers since its founding. While Raghav was energized by RamRahim’s success, it had been a long year and he yearned for a community of people to share his stories, struggles and triumphs.
It was around this time that Raghav stumbled upon Acumen’s Fellows program. Operating in India, East Africa and Pakistan, the leadership development program equips emerging social leaders with the skills, knowledge and moral imagination to drive social change in their communities. In 2015, Raghav became an Acumen Regional Fellow. “I was committed to the farmers but lonely in my work,” he said. “I came upon the opportunity and, even in the process of applying, I began the journey of reflection I was craving. Before the fellowship, my work was still primarily focused on understanding the business plan but, through discussions with my cohort of fellows, I began to look more closely at the power and importance of engaging shareholders, such as Dina Bai, as partners in growing the business from the beginning. The trust we were building in the community was inextricably linked to RamRahim’s success.”
Today, Raghav is hopeful for the future. With the support of Acumen’s 60 India Fellows, he knows is not alone. “I was encouraged by Acumen and my Fellows to question my assumptions and explore the values behind my actions,” he said. “I now better understand the women I work with and am better equipped to collaborate.” What excites him most today is how the language of the women farmers is changing. “They are starting to ask ‘What does our balance sheet say? What is the return on the money we have invested?’” he said. “We have moved from focusing on women’s empowerment to gathering the stories of women empowering systems that challenge established notions of addressing poverty. We have moved from empowering women to being empowered by women. Earning their trust and the right to represent them is what I feel most fortunate about in my life.”
Iam a Masters candidate at Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, a Fulbright-Nehru Masters Scholar.