"I should be ashamed of this, but I'm not."
After spending the last year in rural India building the MyRain business he co-founded with his partner Paula Uniacke, Steele Lorenz (BS '10) was ready for some comfort snack food. So when I asked him if he wanted anything from the U.S. before I left, he gave me a list that included items like Little Debbie cookies and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. On the trip over to India, I learned that Little Debbie cookies caused TSA more problems than anything else I have ever carried onto an airplane. They seem to be impenetrable to X-rays. "I should be ashamed of this list, but I'm not," Steele confided to me. The work Steele has done with MyRain over the past year, however, deserves a whole shipping container of cookies.
Before moving to Madurai, MyRain aimed to sell drip irrigation systems to farmers. Although drip irrigation was already being used in parts of India, a crippling rural supply-chain gap for farm technologies left many farmers without the technology. And even though the team had piloted the venture idea in the summer of 2011, the plan was still full of untested assumptions. Upon moving to India and encountering some early growing pains, MyRain is beginning to realize its vision. Steele has established a strong sales team and a network of dealers and retailers. They are now selling drip irrigation and other innovative farm technologies, such as seeders, weeders, sprinklers, post-harvest processing devices and sugar cane thrashers, that can enhance farmers' livelihoods while improving environmental conditions.
Steele's tale of his first year is one that defines entrepreneurship; months of hard work, a crash course in doing business in India, and a great deal of frustration. For Steele, being in a developing country halfway around the world, unfamiliar with the local language and away from his U.S. support network, made these challenges all the more acute. The hard work and perseverance have paid off, though, with a few big breaks. The first was when, after a few unsuccessful hires, he found a great operations manager in Manikandan. Having a local manager on board, and one with sales and marketing experience working in a Western business environment, was a huge step and has allowed MyRain to make great strides in defining its value statement and market approach. The second was in finding a good manufacturing partner in KSNM, again after some earlier unsuccessful partnership attempts.
Since February, MyRain's progress and growth have been explosive! Here are a couple of highlights from 2013 so far:
• MyRain has delivered more than 2 tons of drip irrigation laterals this year and is on pace to exceed 1 ton in sales per month by December 2013.
• Since the beginning of 2013, MyRain has had strong sales growth -- 20 percent to 30 percent increases -- every month.
• To continue the pace of rapid expansion and take advantage of strong demand in the fourth quarter of 2013, MyRain is looking to hire two to three new sales people this summer, which will double the size of the team in Madurai.
In my time working during the Indian globalization craze of the past decade, I've seen enough start-ups grow to recognize the characteristics of the hyper-growth ones. MyRain has all those characteristics. The most important are a smart, passionate team, and a dynamic, tireless leader in Steele.
Acara, IonE, the University of Minnesota, and the state of Minnesota? Why should we care about small-plot farmers in India? There are several ways to answer that:
• Acara's impact as a University of Minnesota environmental entrepreneurship program comes not only through teaching students, but also through the passionate venture teams like MyRain that go on to make a positive global impact by launching real ventures. We can't wait to see what they achieve in the next year!
• IonE is not just about research and outreach, but also about developing real solutions to environmental problems, many of which have huge implications for small farmers. We must also use our skills and resources to help farmers in the U.S. and around the world manage and adapt to changing climate conditions. MyRain is working to ensure that products and knowledge are available for farmers to boost resource efficiency, improve crop yields and enhance livelihoods.
• Kate Brauman, IonE fellow, recently led a study evaluating how crop water productivity -- the amount of crop produced per drop of water used -- varies across the globe. India is highly water inefficient per unit of crop grown. Drip irrigation is one way to help improve efficiency of agricultural inputs and thus sustainability of farming practices. But with nearly four times the number of farms in the state of Tamil Nadu alone than in all of the U.S., many farmers don't have access to products. MyRain is working on improving the distribution system. Although Steele and his team can't serve all those farmers, every big change starts from an idea and a passionate group of skilled individuals.
• It's part of the University's land-grant mission of research, education and outreach to support agriculture. This mission has served Minnesotan farmers well, along with farmers around the world. The world is so interconnected now; Minnesota's interests are global, and events in other countries can impact us in many ways.
• In addition its product sales in India, MyRain is also working as a consultant for Minnesota businesses to help examine market entry points for innovative technologies in rural India. While MyRain's current operations are in India, as the operation grows, more jobs may come through its Minnesota office and expand across the country. So there are plenty of big-picture reasons for doing this. Steele and Sri are both recent graduates of Minnesota. Our job here at the University is to develop new leaders for the world.
No, Steele certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.
Fred Rose is co-director with Julian Marshall of Acara. Photos courtesy of the author.