In a field such as Agriculture, it is critical for researchers to bridge the gap between Agricultural R&D and the technologies that are applied in the real world in the farming business.

Padma Priya Sahu, our next pathbreaker, Agronomist and Agribusiness Professional, applies her technical expertise in the farm equipment sector to identify gaps in the farming business and enhance profitability.

Padma Priya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing her PhD focused on Soil Science and Agronomy, from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and choosing to work in the corporate world, to understand customers better.

For students, the Indian Agricultural sector needs techno-functional agri professionals who can understand both sides of the value chain (supply and demand) and work on solutions that can provide mutual benefits for the entire ecosystem.

Padma Priya, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small town called Mughalsarai (UP) and later in Kolkata. My father worked for Indian Railways and my mother was a homemaker. As a child I was raised with strong values of honesty, integrity, respecting people including house helps and standing up for your rights. 

I grew up amidst nature. The craving for a fruit was natural, having all kinds of trees including Mulberry and Jamun, just a hand away. Little did I know that I will end up studying how these fruits, vegetables, flowers are produced on an economic scale. 

I did my schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya and loved everything about my schools. I was the captain for my House and captain of Kabbadi team and was always enthusiastic about participating in extracurricular activities, debates and extempore. 

My favorite subjects were Biology and Chemistry. I wanted to be a doctor (Physician), at that time. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

While growing up, we were aware of very few professions –  Medicine, Engineering or Civil Services. While I was trying for my medical entrances, my father showed me a newspaper clipping about the ICAR AIEEA exam for UG. This exam is conducted to fill 15% seats in Bachelors degree for all Agricultural Universities in India, with a “National Talent Scholarship” for top rankers. Though Biology was my favourite subject, I also had Maths as per my parent’s advice. This helped me, as Agriculture sciences needs Maths, Biology with Physics & Chemistry. So, I thought of giving it a try and cracked it with a scholarship. As a result, I never went back to my aspiration to pursue medicine.

I continued with my post graduation in Agricultural Sciences and PhD from IIT Kharagpur in Agricultural sciences 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

As I mentioned before, Agriculture, as a profession, was little known to me. But once I started studying, I was overwhelmed with a variety of subjects offered, which included fundamentals of biology, chemistry, physics, maths, statistics, economics, business management, engineering etc. The versatility of this discipline got my attention. Besides, we had regular field trips to reinforce things that we were studying, all this was very enjoyable to me. I was hooked and it was my turning point. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my graduation, I wanted to be independent and get a job. Through campus, I was selected for a job in an NGO, PRADAN and was posted in Ranchi. After joining the job I figured out how different life is during education and work. My work required me to be in remote places of Jharkhand, which I was not mentally prepared to do. My family was not very supportive of me getting into a job and encouraged me to pursue further studies. As I had also cleared my post graduation entrance, I took a call to quit my job after working for one and a half  month and joined my post graduation in Agricultural Chemistry and Soil Science from same University. While doing PG I was anxious about my future and prepared for State Govt and Central govt Ag jobs.  

Meanwhile an advertisement of an open position for a JRF in Agriculture, from IIT Kharagpur caught my attention. The position also had the option to do PhD in Agriculture and Food Engineering dept with Soil water discipline. The project was “Identification quantification control of non point source pollution from water resources from Ag land” funded by Ministry of water resources, Govt of India,  with an attractive fellowship. After clearing the test and interview I got selected for this position. Academically, I had to complete 1 year of course work and identify a topic which has to be approved by the academic committee. My topic was “impact of pesticides on ground water pollution”. The second year of PhD involved designing of experiments and their approval. The experiments involved application of pesticides in different doses for major crops and monitoring the leaching of pesticides from different setups under controlled and field conditions. Since the experiments dealt with pesticides, I had to be cautious during sampling, measurements and analysis. I got a chance to learn running of high-end instruments. Also, I learnt a lot from my PhD supervisors and lab mates. As Agriculture is a seasonal industry, the experiments can only be repeated next season with the same crops. Hence it took two years just to run the experiments. Post that i was publishing a research paper in a reputed journal. Once the publication is accepted the dissertation is sent to scientists in the same field, out of India and one within India. After they approve the thesis, with no major changes, the degree is awarded. Doing a PhD was a life changing experience and definitely rewarding at the end.

After a PhD, a typical career path would be getting into the R&D centre in the Corporate or Govt sector. However, I chose to move to the corporate sector in Marketing and that too, related to tractors & farm equipment. My first break came from John Deere in Pune, where my husband referred me for an Agronomist position available at that time and then there was no looking back. Though as a specialist in Agricultural sciences it was initially challenging to create my niche amongst all engineers, a company like John Deere (and its culture) was really helpful in getting the right projects and engagement.

My first role in John Deere, as a Crop System Specialist, got me up and close with the big farms of Punjab. My responsibility was to understand the productivity of these large farms and estimate the yield gap and suggest recommendations. The work gave me the opportunity to learn from the finest farmers in business of seed potato, who were so down to earth and knowledgeable, shared their wisdom and helped me build a strong foundation on customer connection.

My next move was into the role of curriculum developer with Global Training in John Deere. This was my first exposure to working with global teams, managing projects, dealing with advanced farm equipment and their applications in various production systems, globally. My responsibilities in this role were to prepare a training curriculum for channel partners, sales & marketing employees to equip them with knowledge about products which were coming into the market. It provided me opportunity to travel to different countries around the world and understand agriculture and usage of farm equipment.  

With my next role, I moved back to the domestic market, as part of the market development team. Here, my role was designing, planning, executing and monitoring of below the line activities (High target, direct marketing) at pan India level and reporting its impact on sales. Initially the role sounded challenging as it was very dynamic and required me to be available 24X7. With support of my supervisors & colleagues I picked up the nuances and started enjoying my work 

I stayed for 2.5 years in market development but missed being with customers. I got my next break in Mahindra and Mahindra, Farm Equipment Sector. In this role was customer engaging role and I was responsible for establishing the Key Account Management function, which was precisely catering to the business of tractor fleet owners. The objective was to establish a long term partnership with brand evangelists by leveraging their lifetime value.

How did you get your first break? 

Through campus, I was selected for a job in an NGO, PRADAN and was posted in Ranchi.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Initiating conversation with farmers and winning their confidence has been a challenge because it requires thorough homework, genuineness and empathy 

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as a Freelancer in iNurture Education technology, which I started about 2 months back. 

What problems do you solve? 

Key accounts are very important customers for any business in terms of value. A robust infrastructure is required to understand and manage their needs and expectations. My role was to analyse the business opportunities from these accounts and present them before the leadership, and at the same time, identifying the gaps in the current business of farmers (accounts) and enhancing their profitability.

My education, along with the various job roles I handled in the past, have equipped me with the skills like, identifying needs, analysing them, identifying the gaps, incorporating the recommendations, weighing the impact in terms of profitability etc. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day involves handling operations, identifying lags and closing the same, monitoring the time and impact of resolution, building long term engagement plans through loyalty programs etc.

I love Interacting with cross functional teams, collaborating with them to solve customer problems and learning new things on the go. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Agriculture is the backbone of our economy, farmers are the pillars of this backbone, my role is to strengthen these pillars 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my stint in one of my previous companies, I was chosen to be part of a global enterprise level project. Each member in this 3 months project brought in their unique expertise. The project goal was to identify opportunities to enhance the brand’s visibility, acceptance  and ultimately help decision making.  It involved frequent travelling, meeting a range of customers, influencers, channel partners, studying the competition and existing processes etc. As an outcome, the team finally presented top 2 ideas that needed to be scaled up. The project successfully got over and I was entrusted with the responsibility of demonstrating the scaleup in one particular area. 

My efforts began from convincing the business partner about the vision, arranging funds for infrastructure, all the way till adoption of the concept and its implementation. Months after the implementation, I met one customer, who mentioned how he benefited from the project. That was my biggest reward.

At a personal level, I was expecting my second child. But the support and encouragement of the organization helped me in putting in dedicated efforts without worry. 

The experience of cross functional team work, cooperating with each other and creating success together has been very enriching and has always stayed with me

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would use a quote from Robin Sharma here: 

The Ultimate purpose of life is to manifest our highest talents in a way that adds value to the world and makes it a better place.

Always understand the big picture and clarity on your role, this will help you be aware of how you can make an impact. 

Future Plans?

Continue serving in the field of Agribusiness and offer my services as a full time consultant