ReshaMandi: A tech-enabled silk route for the stakeholders of the Indian silk industry

ReshaMandi, a start-up born during the pandemic last year is India’s 1st agri-tech start-up focused on digitising India’s silk supply chain by providing an AI & IoT-led digital ecosystem for silk, starting right from the farm to the consumer.

   
ReshaMandi-A tech silk-route for the Indian silk stakeholders

Manjunath, a silk farmer from Devanahalli in Karnataka, has been involved in sericulture farming for over a decade. Despite having perfected the traditional practise on his one-acre mulberry plantation and his 2,500-square-foot rearing shed over the years, he was unable to make the profits he expected.

The difficulties were numerous—every month, he witnessed approximately 25 per cent crop failure. He had to travel at least 100 kilometres to the mandi’s to sell his yield. On top of that, he had to sell his produce at whatever price that the silk reelers set. Because there were no predetermined floor prices, negotiating prices could be difficult at times.

Then Manjunath adopted tech interference into his farming practises to find solutions to his ongoing monthly problems. Those solutions had a significant impact on his overall problems. His crop failure rate decreased from 25 per cent to 10 per cent. He didn’t have to travel long distances to reach the mandi anymore; instead, he sold it on an online marketplace for a better price, which increased his earnings.

However, Manjunath is not the only one who has benefited from precision agriculture and application; many other stakeholders have done so as well. For example, Syed, a handloom weaver from Doddadunnasandra village in Karnataka, used online channels to easily and cheaply procure silk yarns, resulting in a 10 per cent saving on costs.

Similarly, Shahid Junaid, a 7th-generation silk weaver and handloom businessman from Varanasi, began purchasing silk yarns from an online silk supply chain, where he was able to obtain better quality silk yarn at a lower price than that offered by local traders.

The one thing that these three cases have in common is that they all used modern tech applications developed by ReshaMandi, an agri-tech start-up that only serves the silk industry in India.

Launched in 2020, this Bengaluru-based start-up is assisting various silk sector stakeholders from start to finish. Right from farming mulberry leaves, rearing silkworms and producing silk to marketing the final product, with its IoT and AI-based 360-degree solutions.

Surprisingly, with its singular focus on one industry, this start-up has managed to reach a significant number of people involved in the silk trade in a relatively short period of time. Mayank Tiwari, the company’s founder and CEO, speaks with us.

“As of date, we have engaged with about 10,000 farmers and worked closely with 7500 farmers, 560 reeling plants and 3840 weaving units. We have about 10 collection centres spread across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra and are planning to expand even further. We have been on track with the vision we set off with and are happy to announce that we have successfully helped our farmers sell over Rs 15 crores worth of cocoons without them having to face the hassle of travelling to the markets,” Tiwari tells us.

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The idea and vision behind ReshaMandi

Mayank Tiwari, an NIFT graduate, has extensive experience in the textile and fashion fields, which has helped him to understand the difficulties that ordinary people face. His run-ins with people and his observations of the industry pushed him to create ReshaMandi.

Focusing on the silk industry, he pondered upon the idea of systemising the sericulture sector’s unregulated, unattended supply chain. “I strongly believed in the potential of the silk industry. Being based out of Bengaluru allowed me to easily get in touch with the farmers of Ramanagara—the silk city of Karnataka and the largest market for silk cocoons in Asia. I evaluated their processes and yield, worked with them on-ground, helped them achieve market linkages and took up the responsibility of logistics and transportation,” he tells us.

The Indian silk industry is the world’s second largest producer of silk, second only to China. Despite the fact that silk is in short supply in India, demand exceeds supply. The current gap between supply and demand is being filled by imports, indicating both challenges and vast potential for improvement in the sector. That is what ReshaMandi is attempting to do.

Initially, Tiwari spent over a month travelling back and forth from Bengaluru to Sarjapura, gathering information and doing groundwork. He collected the cocoons and ensured that they arrived at the Ramanagara mandi after assuring the farmers of a fair price for their produce. Meanwhile, Tiwari has enlisted the help of other partners in his journey.

He tells us, “I was also planning on digitising this entire process and presented this vision to Saurabh Agarwal who was in the US at the time and is now working as the Chief Technology Officer at ReshaMandi. He was immediately on-board with the concept and built the entire tech ecosystem for ReshaMandi within a week. We also got in touch with my friend, Utkarsh Apoorva, an IIT graduate who is now the Chief Business Officer of the firm. He was so inspired by this idea that he also got his investors on board and thus began the journey of ReshaMandi, India’s first and only silk agri-tech start-up.”

According to Tiwari, his team was able to deduce various pain points in the entire silk supply chain within 30 days and conceptualised a solution in the form of the ReshaMandi mobile application—a 360-degree solution.

The solution employs AI, IoT, cloud platforms, and sensors, and it collaborates with all the stakeholders in the silk industry, including weavers, reelers, and farmers, to address the entire silk production cycle, from harvest to end product, i.e., the textile.

“Additionally, it acts as an e-marketplace for sericulture. While IoT device led alerts and an AI-led technology work for generating the Renditta (scientific cocoon grading) of cocoons. We tracked its progress along with the results over a period of three months,” Tiwari tells us talking about his solution and how it works.

According to the company’s data, sericulture farmers who used ReshaMandi’s solution saw a 35 per cent increase in produce and an 80 per cent reduction in crop failure. To which he says, “This has led to profitability for our associate silk farmers and with AI cocoon gradings, we have ensured fair pricing at all levels of the trade.”

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One stop for all

ReshaMandi is committed to implementing technological interventions at every stage of the silk supply chain, thereby benefiting all stakeholders, including sericulture farmers, reelers, weavers, handloom businesses, and retailers. According to Tiwari, the concept of his company is quite unique because there has never been an intervention of this scale in this sector before. “The ReshaMandi mobile application itself presents the complete silk ecosystem for the stakeholders to tap into at various stages of their processes,” he says.

He then goes into detail about how his company and technology help each stakeholder. For example, the ReshaMandi app is available for sericulture farmers in vernacular languages and provides them access to an online marketplace where input products for rearing silkworms and mulberry plantation are available.

Through this app, farmers can also make an appointment with ReshaMandi’s field staff to pick up their produce (the cocoon lot) from their farms. They can view the cocoon market rates on the app daily. Also, they have complete control over and transparency in the selling process because of this.

The company offers tech solutions such as an AI led disease detection systems which aids in identifying diseases. Its IoT based monitoring and advisory services and tech enabled crop tracking reduce the risk of crop failure. While their AI enabled scientific cocoon grading ensures quality.

Tiwari tell us how this technology works, “The IoT based devices collect data regarding various factors like the pH value and the moisture content of the soil and the environmental conditions like light, air quality, humidity, and temperature. The information thus gathered is sent on a cloud-based server which further provides communication and alerts to the farmers in their local language in the form of notifications.”

Subsequently, after using the information and data collected by the devices, tailored advisories are generated specifically for each farmer based on their needs and the existing set up on their farms. According to the start-up, IoT subscriptions for farmers cost between Rs.700 and 900 per month, which is quite affordable for them.

When the first base is covered, the entire system functions more smoothly, opines Tiwari. That is why he believes ReshaMandi’s expanding farmer network facilitates the smooth procurement of scientifically graded cocoon for reelers, which in turn helps weavers acquire quality assured yarns, thereby providing market linkages at every stage of the process. “The transparency guaranteed under this process allows for fair pricing and better output due to which reelers and weavers have been able to increase their earnings,” he says.

At the same time, ReshaMandi has been encouraging sustainability in the silk ecosystem. Currently ReshaMandi assists silk producers in connecting with other sectors so that their by-products don’t go to waste and can be utilised by other sectors.

Tiwari sheds some light on this initiative, “A low-quality product or the remnants of a previous product cocoon can be used as raw material for fabric that is used to make sustainable packaging. Then there is Silk Sericin, a natural polymer made by silkworms that has applications in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Besides that, cocoons can also be used as fish feed in aquaculture. Mulberry twigs are also used in the pharmaceutical sector, for extracting chemicals. So, there are multiple ways in which sustainability can be achieved and ReshaMandi is working on the ground to help achieve it.”

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Experiences as a COVID start-up

The idea of ReshaMandi was conceived during the first wave of the pandemic in the initial lockdown period. As COVID entrepreneurs, Tiwari and his partners have had their fair share of experiences during this period.

“As soon as the restrictions were eased, we started with just providing the much-needed logistic support to the farmers by taking their cocoon lot directly from the farms to the mandis. The farmers much appreciated this initiative because of the difficulty experienced by them in transporting their harvests in the midst of a raging pandemic. This reduced the long waiting lines encountered by them and eliminated the uncertainty of the selling process. We also observed many reeling and weaving communities either having a difficult time procuring the material during cross border restrictions or going out of business due to the drop in demand,” says Tiwari while narrating his experiences to us.

During the time when the firm was starting its journey and reaching out to farmers, they had to face some tough days as well. One of the challenges that the founders faced was the language barrier.

Tiwari says that it was difficult to explain the offerings of ReshaMandi to the farmers. However, they were willing to know more, “Surprisingly, the farmers were open to understanding the concept and were quite accepting of our ideas and technology. We decided to make Reshamandi’s application available in regional languages like Kannada, Marathi, Hindi and English for the farmer’s convenience as our intention all along had been to make this atmosphere friendly for them,” he says.

However, by the time that the second wave hit India, ReshaMandi had already made an impression on the silk industry stakeholders. In addition to that, the learnings and observations from the first wave kept the start-up afloat this time, while they added more to their services in the form of bundled solutions.

Talking about that, Tiwari tells us, “Agriculture is an essential service, so we continued our operations. Our staff on the ground operates with all the safety precautions required to prevent infection. We are better positioned now than we were in the first wave to tackle the problems faced by the silk community by providing them access to an online marketplace through our app and market linkages through our wide network of stations on the ground. Our brand ‘Amraii’ also provides the weavers with an opportunity to sell their produce online through the ecommerce site.”

Today, these multiple engagements with the silk stakeholders and their interest in going digital have been benefitting ReshaMandi in terms of business. As per the company’s growth sheet, they have been growing at a double rate on a month-on-month basis with a vision to increase the output and quality of silk produced in India and decrease its dependence on imports. “We have grown 60x in 9 months already. And going ahead, I expect to grow at 20x MoM. Interestingly, ReshaMandi is the only existing silk-agri-tech start-up in the country, and we do not have any competitors in this sector,” Tiwari further informs us.

The path to the silk route is rough

India is the only country in the world that produces all five commercial silks. According to industry estimates, India currently has over 50,000 reelers, 2.5 million weavers, and over 4.5 lakh power looms. The total raw silk production in 2019-20 was estimated to be 35,820 MT, a 35 per cent increase over the previous six years. In addition to that, the industry provides livelihood to about 90 lakh people in the country.

However, the sector is still plagued by issues such as price fluctuations, high production costs, low productivity, and, finally, a lack of technology.

Aside from that, the exquisiteness of Indian garments is dependent on the combination of Chinese silk and Indian silk. Because of its higher tensile strength, quality, and lower prices despite import duties, Chinese silk remains the most sought-after in the Indian market. Every year, 2,200 to 2,500 tonnes of silk worth Rs 750 crore to Rs 800 crore is imported from China.

But, over the years there has been talk about whether India can decrease its dependency on China for silk. Which is one of the goals that ReshaMandi has set on its vision board. “China and India put together account for about 90 per cent of total silk production. We are working to make fundamental changes in the silk supply chain to make India Atmanirbhar in silk, further building on the momentum of the Make in India initiative,” Tiwari avers.

“The recent ban on Chinese yarn imports has also promoted the growth of indigenous silk. All of this provides us with a glimmer of hope, and we intend to work in tandem with these initiatives to completely replace Chinese silk from the Indian market,” he adds.

According to him, the quantity of silk imported from China each year can undoubtedly be substituted with domestic production. For accomplishing this, what the Indian sericulture industry needs the most are technical interventions along with robust government initiatives.

On the other hand, the recent pandemic has also had an adverse effect on the overall sector.

Due to the strict lockdown measures, farmers witnessed a slight reduction in their crop production. Tiwari says, “The government is taking initiatives to create schemes for sustainable livelihoods for silk farmers and reelers and for making silk production Atmanirbhar in the next 2 years. The Central Silk Board (CSB) under the Ministry of Textiles and the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) expressing their intention of increasing the agricultural income from 20 to 30 per cent whereas the government communicated its objective of providing employment to over one crore people exclusively in the silk segment through the Krishi Vigyan Kendra programme.”

There are some other market challenges as well, which are associated with supply chain hurdles. For instance, like any other agricultural sector, the silk industry too has an uneven distribution of power. Which means that there is an underlying distrust between the different stakeholder communities, with the traders being the most dominant group in this sector.

Tiwari explains the power game to us, “Farmers are known to be exploited and underpaid on the pretext of the inferior quality of their cocoons. This is largely due to their lack of understanding of the market value of their produce.”

ReshaMandi is trying to mitigate this problem by educating farmers with their latest tech solutions. “We decided to empower and educate the farmers with an AI led cocoon grading technology which is an adaptation of the world-renowned Renditta test. This technology is able to grade the quality of cocoons by using computer vision and data analytics on top of it,” he tells us.

Using this solution, the farmer only needs to scan their produce by making their mobile hover over it like a google lens. The training algorithms extract various features from the data set, in this case the images of the cocoons, based on which they generate the Renditta of the cocoons. Moreover, ReshaMandi’s app also features real-time market value of the silk cocoons to keep the farmers informed about the fluctuations in the prices, thereby introducing transparency in the process.

“We are also working on improving the quality of silk to bring it on par with Chinese silk by introducing scientifically backed techniques. Our IoT based device sensors collect data such as the pH value and the moisture content of the soil and monitor parameters like light, air quality, humidity, and temperature, thereby allowing the farmers to make better informed decisions based on impending problems if any,” Tiwari further elaborates on the technology.

Going ahead on the silk route

ReshaMandi’s objective is to make India ‘Atmanirbhar’ in silk creation and to raise the nation’s profile as a quality silk producer. To achieve this the company has been continuously working on its R&D and enhancing its services by collaborating with other technology partners. In this vein, the start-up has recently partnered with Fasal, an IoT based AI powered intelligence platform.

Talking about the collaboration, Tiwari tells us, “We joined forces to understand efficiency in the irrigation systems at various selected locations such as Sarjapura, Hobli, Anekel Taluk and Bangalore. The quality of mulberry has a direct impact on the growth and development of larvae, eventually affecting the quality of the silk cocoons. Using the crop stage specific intelligence provided by Fasal, the two teams worked together to identify areas which could significantly boost the productivity of mulberry, making precise irrigation a subject of deeper cooperation. And it’s been a quite successful experiment.”

Going ahead, the company is excited about its roadmap. The start-up is currently focused on presenting innovative options at each juncture of the silk production to help farmers, reelers and weavers during each phase of the journey, a feat which has not been achieved till date.

Also, due to the tremendous positive response that the start-up is getting, Tiwari is planning an expansion for his company. “Since last year, we have established ourselves in Karnataka and expanded in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Recently we also took our first step towards expanding in Maharashtra by starting our cocoon procurement program in Pandharpur,” he says.

Besides this, the start-up is getting international queries as well. “Based on our radically new approach, we have also received interest from parts of Africa. We certainly intend to replicate our learnings and success not only throughout India but also Internationally. Given the proof of our success in the silk ecosystem, we also plan to implement this in the other natural fibre ecosystems in the near future,” Tiwari concludes.