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DeHaat, an online platform that offers full-stack agricultural services to farmers, has raised $ 12 million as it looks to scale its network across India.

The Series A financial round for the eight-year-old Patna and Gurgaon-based startup was led by Sequoia Capital India. Dutch entrepreneurial development bank FMO, and existing investors Omnivore and AgFunder, also participated in the round. The startup, which began to seek funding from external investors last year, has raised $ 16 million to date and $ 3 million in venture debt.

DeHaat (which means village in Hindi) eases the burden on farmers by bringing together brands, institutional financers and buyers on one platform, explained Shashank Kumar, co-founder and chief executive of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The platform helps farmers secure thousands of agri-input products, including seeds and fertilizers, and receive tailored advisory on the crop they should sow in a season. “We have built a comprehensive database of crop tests to offer advice to farmers,” he said.

DeHaat, which employs 242 people, also helps them connect with 200 institutional partners to provide farmers with working capital, and when the season is over, helps them sell their yields to bulk buyers such as Reliance Fresh, food delivery startup Zomato and business-to-business e-commerce giant Udaan.

DeHaat today operates in 20 regional hubs in the eastern part of India — states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand — and serves more than 210,000 farmers, said Kumar.

Shashank Kumar, Amrendra Singh, Adarsh Srivastav and Shyam Sundar Singh co-founded DeHaat in 2012

The startup has developed a network of hundreds of micro-entrepreneurs in rural areas that distribute agri-input goods to farmers from their regional hubs and then bring back the output to the same hub.

“We have an app in local languages and a helpline desk that farmers, many of whom don’t own a smartphone, use to reach out to us and explain their pain points and needs,” he said.

DeHaat does not charge any fee for its advisory, but takes a cut whenever farmers use its platform to buy agri-inputs or sell their crop yields.

The startup will use the fresh capital to extend its network to 2,000 rural retail centres, on-board more micro-entrepreneurs for last-mile delivery and reach 1 million farmers by June of next year, said Kumar. DeHaat is also working on automating its supply chain and developing more sophisticated data analytics, he said.

At stake is India’s agriculture market that is worth $ 350 billion and serves nearly 100 million small and independent farmers, said Abhishek Mohan, VP at Sequoia Capital India, the VC fund that writes more checks than anyone else in the country.

“This industry is on the brink of a massive transformation thanks to ease of regulation, farmers getting organized and increasing penetration of smartphones. DeHaat is leveraging these trends to build the next-gen product in agricultural supply chain,” said Mohan in a statement.

“The tipping point that led to Sequoia India’s decision to partner with them was the field visit, where the farmers expressed how proud they were to be associated with a platform they felt truly worked in their favour. This impact and deep brand loyalty stems from the leadership team’s razor-sharp focus, deep empathy and fine execution,” he added.


TechCrunch

Dozens of startups have stepped up in India in recent quarters to improve banking experience for millions of users and businesses in the country. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could not get a loan or a credit card from a bank can now secure both from fintech startups.

But this push to bring financial inclusion to everyone still has many areas to cover. Blue-collar workers, for instance, are still facing challenges in availing some basic banking services.

Kosh, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), is beginning to tackle this challenge. It groups three or as many as ten blue-collar workers and gives them a loan.

“When a user logs into our Android app, they are able to apply for a loan. But before they do that, they need to add some of their colleagues and friends who are also looking for a loan,” explained Aayush Goel, co-founder of Kosh, in an interview with TechCrunch.

This way of banding together people allows Kosh to charge a lower rate of interest on the loan, said Goel.

“We have borrowed this from the world of microfinance. Essentially, we have a joint liability model. Let us say there were three people who were looking for a loan. We band them together and instead of giving each of them a separate loan, we give the group one loan” he said.

Aayush Goel (pictured above), and Sahil Bansal co-founded Kosh in March last year

In each group, at least one member is credit-worthy in the traditional sense, he explained. The startup also uses alternative data such as information gleaned from text messages to determine a person’s eligibility.

Such an arrangement has traditionally seen fewer people default (or fall behind paying their debt) because of social pressure from their colleagues and friends, as all of them are liable.

Kosh started to disburse loans in December. It currently offers loans up to twice the salary of an individual and over a tenure of up to 10 months, said Goel. The startup has disbursed close to 150 loans worth $ 35,000. It works with a Noida-based non-banking financial company to fund these loans.

The startup said it plans to broaden its neobanking offering this year by creating bank accounts for its customers. “There is a general lack of discipline in how these people spend their money. Having access to a bank account that works for them could prove very useful,” said Goel.

In recent years, a handful of startups such as Bangalore-based Open and NiYO Solutions have developed neobanks or alternative banks to serve businesses and individuals. In January, two former Google Pay executives announced their own neobank startup that aims to serve millennials.

GIGI Benefits, another Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), offers insurance and savings — perks that only full-time employees typically have — to gig-economy workers and freelancers.

“We help each worker set aside part of a paycheque to cover their costs of insurance, short-term expenses, and plan for their retirement,” said Sowmya Rao, founder and chief executive of GIGI Benefits, in a post.


TechCrunch

Amazon Pay users in India can now use voice command with Alexa to pay their utility, internet, mobile, and satellite cable TV bills, the e-commerce giant said on Wednesday. This is the first time, the company said, it is pairing these functionalities with Amazon Pay in any market.

The e-commerce giant, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, said any Alexa-enabled device such as the Echo Dot smart speaker, the Fire TV Stick dongle, or headphones from third-party vendors will support the aforementioned feature in India.

To be sure, Amazon has long allowed users in many markets to purchase items using voice command with Alexa. But this is the first time the American company is letting users pay their electricity, water, cooking gas, broadband, and satellite TV bills with voice and Amazon Pay.

Amazon Pay is available in many markets, but the service has become especially popular in India, where the concept of parking money to a digital wallet skyrocketed in usage in late 2016 after the Indian government invalidated much of the paper bills in circulation in the country.

Without disclosing specific figures, Amazon said “3X more customers” compared to last year’s event used Amazon Pay service to pay during the recent six-day festive sales. It said a quarter of all digital transactions during the event was carried out on its Pay service.

To boost Amazon Pay engagements in India, the company has offered lofty cashback on Pay on a number of purchases over the years. Users can also enjoy hefty discount if they use Amazon Pay to pay for their food, tickets, and other things on select popular third-party services.

During the holiday season, the company said, “customers booked flight tickets worth 300 trips around the earth.”

Amazon Pay makes it much more convenient for users to pay their digital purchases especially those that are recurring in nature, said Puneesh Kumar, country manager of Alexa Experiences and Devices.

The company says users can engage with Pay through voice commands like “Alexa, what’s my balance,” which will reveal the amount they have available for purchase in their Amazon Pay wallet. Users can also initiate the process of topping money to their mobile wallet using a voice command. They can say something like, “Alexa, add Rs 1000 to my Amazon Pay balance,” which will send a link as a text on their phones to complete the transaction.


TechCrunch

Zomato, one of India’s biggest food delivery startups, has major ambitions. It is increasingly expanding its reach in the country to serve dozens of new cities and towns every few weeks.

It is investing heavily in building cloud kitchens to quickly meet demand for certain food items. And it is internally working on “Project Kisan”, something which has not been reported earlier, to procure raw material directly from farmers and fishermen to better control the supply of items to restaurants. It also wants to deliver food by drones in the coming future.

To boost its revenue, Zomato is also trying to bring Zomato Gold, a two-year-old subscription program as part of which it allows customers dining in at a restaurant to access a number of discounted deals on food and drinks, to users who prefer to eat at home, sources familiar with the matter have told TechCrunch in recent weeks.

Zomato Gold is already a hit with customers. The company expects Gold, which has amassed more than 800,000 customers, to bring in $ 20 million to $ 25 million in revenue by end of this year.

But before Zomato goes about extending the program, Zomato Gold’s foundation has come under severe scrutiny from a number of restaurant partners in India who say that the startup’s offering is hurting their bottom line and brand image.

More than 2,000 of the 6,500 partners of Zomato Gold have opted out of the program in recent days. The disruption occurred over the weekend after the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), a trade body that represents more than 500,000 restaurants in the country, kick started a #LogOut campaign against Zomato and other dining startups such as Nearbuy, Dineout, EazyDiner, and Magicpin.

zomato nrai

Image: Manish Singh / TechCrunch

The Gold program was supposed to be a win-win for both Zomato and restaurant partners. Zomato presents users with restaurant menus, the option to book tables or get food delivered. Thereby, restaurants get better discovery and hopefully some patrons, but more importantly, improved reviews because of the freebies. And for Zomato, which charges a fee for Gold subscription, it is able to better monetize its customer base.

But somewhere down the line, Zomato opened what was supposed to be a program for a limited number of subscribers to everyone, making it unfeasible for restaurants to handle the additional traffic.

Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, has acknowledged the resistance and admitted that the company has made mistakes. “Somewhere, we have made mistakes and things haven’t gone as planned. This is a wake up call that we need to do 100x more for our restaurant partners than we have done before.”

Zomato, which operates in two dozen countries, and other food startups and restaurant partners met earlier this week to reach a conclusion. That also did not go as planned.

“Over the past two days, NRAI has held extensive meetings with all restaurant aggregators and we were bemused to learn that the aggregators were promoting deep discounts to stay competitive amongst each other. While one aggregator gave 1+1 (one drink or food item free on purchase of another drink or food item), the other had to adopt a 50% discount scheme in order to stay relevant,” Rahul Singh, President of the NRAI, said in a statement.

Singh noted that it is restaurant partners that have to bear the cost of deep discounts that food aggregators offer on their platforms. “Restaurants do not get any share of the proceeds that aggregators generate from guests as subscription fees,” he added.

Zomato, on its part, assured that it will bring changes to its Gold program by mid-September to introduce measures to prevent over usage by customers. But late Wednesday, NRAI rejected the proposal calling it insufficient and said restaurants will continue to stay off Zomato.

The restaurant association said the problem is deep discounts that Zomato is bandying out through its Gold program and the startup’s proposed changes don’t really address that.

“It’s a tweak in the drug, which doesn’t solve the addiction. Since the launch in November 2017, this program has been shifting goalposts. What started as an exclusive invite only privilege, became a marketplace for bargain hunters, a word admitted by the Zomato founder in recent tweets. This Gold has lost its sheen. We stand united in the cause to obviate the deep discounting phenomenon and will therefore #stayloggedout,” the NRAI said in a statement.

Restaurants have also complained that if they do not accept Zomato Gold program, they risk disappointing customers who have come to expect that every restaurant has enrolled to Zomato Gold. These customers then leave bad ratings on Zomato, which significantly affects the number of orders they get. Zomato makes most of its revenue from promoting and selling listings on its platform.

A Zomato spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company was committed to making some changes to its program, but declined to comment further.


TechCrunch

Pratilipi, an app that is uniting writers in India and encouraging others to try their hand at storytelling, has just raised $ 15 million to expand its network in the nation.

The Series B financing round was led by Qiming Venture Partners. Existing investors Nexus Venture Partners, Omidyar Network India, Shunwei Capital, Contrarian Vriddhi Fund, and WEH Ventures also participated in the round. The five-year-old startup has raised about $ 21 million to date.

Ranjeet Pratap Singh, CEO of Pratilipi, describes his platform as “YouTube for writers.” In an interview with TechCrunch, he said more than 100,000 writers are active on the platform and it has amassed over 5.2 million monthly active readers.

Pratilipi mostly focuses on text and audio storytelling in Indian languages, a niche space but one that also remains largely untapped. Singh said that the platform has managed to attract a very loyal reader base. An average reader spends about 53 minutes on the app, while web users spend about 15 minutes there.

As people from smaller cities and towns in India come online for the first time, there has been a huge surge in the demand for content in local languages in recent years. Ankush Sachdeva, CEO and cofounder of social networking platform ShareChat, said earlier this year that he was surprised to see how quickly ShareChat had built a community with tens of millions of users by just offering content in Indian languages.

Pratilipi currently serves no ads to its users, but writers on the platform also do not have a way to directly monetize their content. That’s part of what Singh intends to change with the fresh capital.

He said that Pratilipi will soon begin to purchase rights to some stories and help writers secure deals with movie and web series studios and publishing houses. A significant portion of the capital will go into engineering to improve stories recommendations that populate the platform.

“Pratilipi is well positioned to capture the next wave of internet users in India, who prefer to consume content in their own vernacular languages. The company has already built a strong community of readers and writers, and network effects provide strong barriers to entry,” said Helen Pei-Hua Wong, Partner at Qiming Venture Partners.

“In China, we have seen the fast growth of user-generated content platforms, some of which became the main source of entertainment for millions of internet users. We hope to share our experiences in China to help the company grow,” she added.

Pratilipi competes with YourQuote, which has raised about $ 1 million to date. YourQuote runs short stories on its app and organizes open mic events across various cities and towns for writers and poets. In many ways, Pratilipi also competes with ShareChat, Helo, and Vmate, all of which have built social networks around text and media content.


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