Zunaed Rabbani, CEO Agro Input Retailers’ Network (AIRN)

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Zunaed Rabbani is an International Development & Management Consultant who is currently in-charge of AIRN, and simultaneously works as the Capacity Building Director for the USAID-funded Agro-Inputs Project.

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY AIRN

Can you please give us a brief overview of AIRN and how it came into being?
In 2012, the Agro-Inputs Project (AIP), funded by USAID, began its journey with the objective to improve knowledge, availability, and use of safe, high-quality agricultural inputs by agro-retailers and farmers in southern Bangladesh. Over the last five years, AIP has provided funding, training, and technical advice to agro-input retailers to provide better services to farmers. However, AIP’s most notable achievement has been the creation of a new formal entity for agro-input retailers – the Agro-Input Retailers Network (AIRN).
While there are several formal, Dhaka-based agro-related industry associations, to the best of our knowledge, there has never been a platform – formal or informal – for agro-input retailers until the advent of AIRN. The Network, an enterprise registered at the RJSC as a company limited by guarantee, is now a pool of knowledgeable and trained retailers giving sound agronomic advice to their farmer customers, and thus, taking the relationship ‘beyond mere transactions’ between input retailers and farmers.
AIRN now has about 3,000 input retailers spanning 19 districts and 81 upazillas in the southwest of Bangladesh. These retailers have undertaken a 3-day long training that instigated a thorough behavior change as they have updated their licenses, renovated their shops with proper ventilation and fire extinguishing system, and shelved their products as per WHO guidelines. Many of these retailers have shown commitment to ethical and responsible business practices as they are well aware of the link between long-term profitability and ethics. These behavioral changes required year-long persuasion and demonstration of best practices. Simple in nature, but the impact is far-reaching. Our findings show that a proper, well-organized shop attracts customers. It also changes the seller’s outlook towards his own business. This is Psychology 101. Something we are used to in the urban areas, but it is not practiced in the rural market. We had to instill these ideas through a detailed activation plan that included field trips, meetings, sharing best practices and constant persuasion. Of course, not all of these 3,000 retailers are on the same page, for which, AIRN has also categorized them in Champion, A, B and C category retailers.
So you are basically looking at a cadre of agro-input retailers who have been transformed into relatively responsible and knowledgeable entrepreneurs and at a system that speaks of standardization. You are also looking at a strong governance system that is quite democratic. Representatives of all 19 districts sit on the Board of AIRN, who are elected by their upazila committee, who are in turn elected by the general members in their upazila. This way, AIRN ensures ownership of the members it has.

What are the challenges of the agro-industry at present and how will you be addressing it?
The agro-industry, in general, is quite complicated, and has a multitude of problems ‘from farm to fork’. But let me address the challenges where AIRN, can make a change and are currently working.
A lack of information is one of the biggest challenges that affect a farmer’s yield. Gone are the days when farmers can apply age-old knowledge of theirs or their ancestors. This is due to factors like climate change, insects and pests getting resilient to certain treatments and diseases crossing borders. Thus to tackle all of these, input companies are bringing out newer medicine quite frequently. It’s important that farmers are aware of these newer and better practices; otherwise, they will apply dosages which are well above the recommended threshold set by the companies. This could be catastrophic for crop cultivation, similar to how the human body reacts to the overuse of antibiotics.
Usually, farmers have three sources for accessing this information. First, farmers have the Sub-Assistant Agriculture Officers of Department of Agricultural Extension agents (under the Ministry of Agriculture). While there is a cadre of relatively well-trained agricultural officers at the upazila level, their mandate is overwhelming, and they are overburdened with tasks. Second, they are visited by company representatives. The company sales staff provide product-related information to farmers, but that is subject to biases for the very company they represent as they have to meet a sales target. The third group is the non-exclusive input-retailers. If these retailers are unethical, ill-informed or unfamiliar with the products, it can lead to disasters.
This is why, AIRN works with the retailers at first, and through its training, underscores the importance of retaining customers through the provision of embedded services, which allow farmers to have a better yield, and provide the retailers with a happy client base resulting in increased income. AIRN has plenty of evidence that suggests trained retailers can be the de facto extension agents who can provide agriculture-related services and information to farmers. Pretty much the same principle a pharmacist applies, but for agriculture hence it is a bit complex.
The second challenge is the overall perception about input-retailers. While the agro-value chain has been a topic for years, not much has been said about this specific market actor. This group of people has often been criticized for not considering the best interests of the farmers. However, we have a different experience and different story to tell. Retailers are the closest to the farmers and can be turned into a fantastic technical resource for them. This is what AIRN through its training and awareness programs want to establish.

WHILE THERE ARE SEVERAL FORMAL, DHAKA-BASED AGRO-RELATED INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS, TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A PLATFORM – FORMAL OR INFORMAL – FOR AGRO-INPUT RETAILERS UNTIL THE ADVENT OF AIRN.

What are the core products and services of AIRN?
Quality over quantity. We want to do things well rather than do it all and trust me, as an input network, which can potentially work as a distribution and information hub, the opportunities are too many. In the early years, AIRN wants to provide training, provide business development services to member retailers by partnering with different private companies, from banks to technology solution providers, and by launching 2-3 products throughout its network.
AIRN believes that an input retailer, if knowledgeable and ethical, can be a great resource to reach out to farmers, to provide the ‘last mile’ delivery that the industry is grappling with. So, to establish the very premise that it is built on, AIRN houses a training service, which works on two principles – 1) creating knowledgeable and ethical retailers, and 2) disseminating knowledge to farmers through trained retailers and a pool of experts.
AIRN also has its curriculum on agronomic practices, safe use of pesticides, judicious use of fertilizers, environment-friendly retail shop management and very importantly on business ethics. Very recently, AIRN trained about 1,200 retailers on Integrated Weed Management based on a curriculum developed by CIMMYT (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre).
One key aspect that separates AIRN training service from any other is the inclusion of input retailers in the training pool. Retailers, as they are closer to the farmers than any other market actors, remain in the community and can have the products on their shelves to provide continuous support to the farmers. By incorporating local retailers with experts, AIRN ensures the harnessing of knowledge locally. This training wing officially started just a few months ago and is already generating revenue by providing training for development projects such as the USAID-funded SAPLING and CSISA III projects and the Dutch-funded BLUE GOLD project.
Regarding the product line, AIRN wants to deliberately shy away from launching too many products in their network because we want to avoid becoming sales-centric. The agro-market is huge, and we have identified only 2-3 input products which, on the one hand, will ensure quality to both retailers and farmers; and on the other, will generate enough profit for AIRN to sustain by keeping its neutral image intact.

As the CEO of AIRN, what are your future plans for it?
Although primarily into agro-inputs, but as a retail network of business people who maintain certain business standards, AIRN can potentially work as a hub for quality inputs and other services that are relevant to farmers, as well as individuals at the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid. Having a strong base in the rural market through a committee in each of its 81 upazilas, AIRN is planning to be part of innovative projects, from digital financial inclusion to app-based agro-solutions, from financial literacy for women entrepreneurs to nutrition-sensitive agriculture practices. Currently, we are in talks with banks, development partners, and technology solution providers where all parties will join hands to implement innovative and commercially viable ideas.
Rural distribution is also an area that I am keen about. We have tested the water with a product early this year and learned a great deal. However, a lot of social dynamics and hierarchy come into play, for which we are revisiting our strategy.
While I am excited about new business opportunities, I am also quite conscious of quality control of AIRN-logo holding retailers and therefore, we will soon be implementing a commercial, and slightly stricter, code-of-conduct for business operations. We may lose a few members, but this allows us to filter out retailers who are not committed to selling quality inputs and are not willing to go the extra length to provide embedded services to farmers. The internal communication channel is also something that is at the top of my priority list because it is a challenge getting the same message across and the same vibe to 3,000 retailers who are geographically so dispersed. A text message can probably be passed around for disseminating basic information, but you can’t transmit energy, commitment, and company ethics through such a loose connection.

PHOTOGRAPH PROVIDED BY AIRN

Less than 10% of the members of the program are women. How can we incorporate more women in AIRN?
To answer that, we need to look at the context first. I understand that although a significant number of women are involved as farmers, women are not well represented in the input retail sector. Now before the project was initiated, we could find only a handful of women in this business – many of whom were giving ‘proxy’ support to their husbands; some of them were selling fertilizers and biscuits from the same shop, which is an absolute ‘NO’ for AIRN members. We encourage retailers not to sell human food from the same shop where they store and sell pesticides and fertilizers. Having all the required license is also a must for AIRN members, and a big portion of existing women retailers did not have licenses while some of them had documents but did not renew them. Now, we are no authority to chase out business people who are operating without a permit, but we want to make sure our members follow industry practices and legal requirements. Our women retailers have licenses in their names as they are the ones who sit at the shop.
So, with support from USAID, AIP provided $1000 matching grants to 200+ women to encourage their entry into this sector. On top of that, the project facilitated their licensing process, provided technical and business training, linked them with existing market actors and organized courtyard sessions for women entrepreneurs. ‘Garnering sessions’ were also held where new women entrepreneurs were introduced to their local community.
So you can see that the project did go deep instead of spreading too thin. It wanted to make sure that women who are coming into input-retailing business want to stick around after the project is finished, and we are happy that the numbers and feedback look good. Very recently, we did a survey and found out about 98% of the 200+ women retailers experienced that their sales are going up every quarter. About 50 of those women retailers have received dealership from different companies. This speaks of their quality and the volume they sell and provides credibility, which in turns helps them to access loans.
These women entrepreneurs fulfilled all criteria of being AIRN members and were associated with the project so they got an easy entry into AIRN. We would love to have more women in AIRN, but they need to comply with our code-of-conduct. But honestly, if you ask me, numbers are not something I am too fussed about. I would rather focus on the quality of life women entrepreneurs are having – are they getting enough rest? Do their family members support her? Or, is she now being burdened with both household chores and income generating activities?
Depending on how you see it, there is no right or wrong answer as I prefer to not always think in numbers.

Has it been a struggle to juggle your work as a CEO while being a media personality?
Yes and No. No, because I have a life outside the media and not being financially dependent on it allows me to work on my own accord. I love performing on stage, I am fairly comfortable in front of the camera, but I also love that work that I do 9-5. So far, I have been able to balance both, although I had to turn down a few gigs such as hosting a morning show in one of the best radio stations in town since they clashed with my office hours. But I am in no hurry. Anchoring is still food for my soul, and I would like to keep it that way.
However, as of late, I have developed an interest in digital entertainment. I did some reading and was following the likes of Patrick Grove for a while but could not build up on it. I can see how the media industry would change in the next few years, and I wish I had more time to invest in it, to know more about it. At the beginning of this year, I started working on some interesting ideas and a project of mine got up to speed, but I had to put the brakes on it mid-way because I am not able to provide sufficient time to roll them out.

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