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Having lived and worked in several countries for UPL over the years to develop the company’s extensive business ventures internationally, when Ashish Dobhal returned to his home country as India Region Head, he realised that despite Indian farmers working incredibly hard, agricultural productivity and quality in India was lower in comparison because it lacked modern farming infrastructure.
India is the home of UPL and is also the company’s third-biggest market, so market share wasn’t the dominant consideration for Ashish. Rather, he says his main focus has been on lifting Indian farmers up with innovative new products and services. “India is the only place where, besides a wide range of products, UPL also has a range of technology-led services,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Now the challenge is to leverage these resources to improve Indian farmers’ output.”
“India is the only place where, besides a wide range of products, UPL also has a range of technology-led services. Now the challenge is to leverage these resources to improve Indian farmers’ output.”
Modernising the agriculture industry has become somewhat of a life-long passion for Ashish. He studied agriculture and entomology at the prestigious YS Parmar University in Solan, India before joining UPL in 2003 within the research and development (R&D) team and, since then, has moved from product development to sales to apex leadership roles, diversifying and expanding his skills and expertise alongside UPL itself. “I am the poster boy of how the company has grown and how I’ve grown with the company,” he says.
Ashish believes the Region Head India role is perfect for him because he loves to “connect the dots, break down silos and think quickly on my feet”. While he originally excelled in R&D and sales, UPL Global CEO Jai Shroff felt confident in placing him in the position to head expansion projects in Europe, Japan and China, which provided him with new perspectives on culture, agritech and everything in between. These have helped him identify and tackle the gaps he sees in Indian agriculture to raise the sector up and ensure it thrives.
To this end, UPL India has launched ProNutiva, an integrated package that offers agriculture services such as spraying, soil testing crop protection and nutrition. “We have revived the groundnut performance in India by using ProNutiva packages and seen a one-and-a-half-to-two per cent increase in the oil content, that’s the quality part, and a 30–40 per cent increase in the yield,” Ashish explains.
Another game changing climate smart solution UPL introduced to Indian farmers was Zeba, which the company worked on for over a decade to develop and refine. Zeba is a biodegradable product made of corn that conserves water and fertilisers and, as a climate-smart technology, aims to promote sustainable farming.
“By connecting with the villagers on a deeper level, we communicate the value of nutrition and sustainable farming.”
But that’s not where UPL’s farmer outreach ends. It runs multiple programs that Ashish says prioritises value over profit. “If there’s insurance that has to be provided, we do that. We offer free medical clinics and if the wildlife of that area has to be protected, we do that as well. By connecting with the villagers on a deeper level, we communicate the value of nutrition and sustainable farming,” he explains.
One of UPL’s unique offerings is the UPL Unimart, which helps farmers understand various UPL technologies for sustainable farming. “Unimarts are small franchises modelled as experience stores in India that sell UPL technologies and solutions,” he says. “But unlike other conventional distribution models, farmers can go sit down, have a cup of tea and talk about a particular technology that UPL is introducing – without the hard sell.”
While UPL is helping Indian farmers with farm mechanisms, soil testing, crop protection and nutrition, and Unimarts, Ashish says some challenges still remain. “If you ask me in one word what the biggest challenge is, I’d say communication,” he says. “It’s all about how you research, communicate and convince.”
In a country where the average farmer barely owns an acre of land, reaching millions of such farmers can be challenging indeed. To solve this, Ashish says UPL is being proactive by investing in digitisation for farming with the UPL-backed Nurture.farm.
UPL’s efforts to bring sustainable and efficient farming to India is bolstered by an international chain of suppliers, Ashish explains. “Rajnikant Shroff, the Chair and Managing Director of UPL once told me that long before customers, the suppliers invested in us. So we must take care of these relationships.”
Ashish appreciates that partners from all over the world are helping UPL improve its supply chain and innovation drive. It’s thanks to their domain expertise that UPL doesn’t have to go through a steep learning curve and can implement technology much faster. Combined with UPL’s OpenAg program, which is building an open network of sustainable agriculture around the globe, its partners are helping the company to grow.
“Rajnikant Shroff, the Chair and Managing Director of UPL once told me that long before customers, the suppliers invested in us. So we must take care of these relationships.”
UPL’s global footprint has exposed Ashish to different kinds of industries, cultures and farming ecosystems. But closer to home, Ashish says UPL is trying to bridge the gap in farming between Indian and international standards. “I would love to keep on working on aligning UPL’s R&D and experience with farmers’ needs,” he says.
“It gives me great satisfaction that we are able to make a difference in a lot of communities. When you go to villages and hear farmers saying we saved their harvests and money, there’s no bigger satisfaction than that.”