ARINDOM DATTATo say that Arindom Datta is an expert in the Agri domain is an understatement. With 26 years of experience across the Public Sector, Development Sector, Indian Private Sector, and now with Rabobank for the last 13 years, Datta has acquired an extensive understanding and the knowledge that is incomparable to any other. His first exposure to this domain was with the Apex Development Finance Bank in India, which was set up exclusively for the Agri Sector. He had taken up this job without any previous experience or exposure to Agriculture and, after a remarkable and rewarding journey, he now heads the Rural & Development Banking/Advisory at Rabobank as its Executive Director.
Over two decades of rich experience in Rural Finance, Cooperative Banking, Microfinance and Agribusiness must have taken you through an exciting and a rather remarkable journey / career path. What is it about this domain that inspires you to work continuously even today?
Arindom Datta: It is predominantly my passion to help farmers with their livelihoods here in India. It is heartening to see them overcome adversaries, see their business thrive in a sustainable way, and that I had a small hand in giving them the advice and support that they needed. I feel like I am on a continuous roller-coaster ride! There are ups and downs in every season, but the action never stops. There is always a lot of work to be done and the challenges keep mutating in different forms, which keeps me on my toes.
From being a subsistence farming a few decades ago, agriculture has come down a long and winding path. From your experience, how do you think this sector has evolved in the last 2 or 3 years?
Arindom Datta: Lately, the private corporate engagement has been growing and there is a deep interest from major global players. Further, there is aggregation happening at the ground level and the focus has moved to building sustainable markets, rather than only on productivity increase. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. (Source: The World Bank)
Agribusinesses contribute immensely to employment and income worldwide, and each of them face unique challenges in their business operations. What would you say are some of the major challenges common to these businesses?
- Lack of policy clarity on export and import of agriculture commodities as this inhibits investments in agriculture.
- Freeing of agriculture markets: farmers in most commodities still do not have access to regional and national markets. Some of the Indian states are modifying the agriculture market laws to allow for direct selling to large agri- markets and there are some promising initiatives being taken up on providing platforms for price discovery.
- A national policy on water- and environment-friendly agriculture is still not in place. This is critical to ensure sustainable farming practices.
- Loan waivers and subsidies often prove to be counterproductive as experience shows choking up of agriculture financing or excessive cultivation of paddy leading to chronic water issues or overuse of urea due todistorted incentives.
Our readers are interested in learning more about “sustainability banking”. Could you share your insights on this?
Arindom Datta: Sustainability Banking is about financing companies and businesses which have a commitment to make their businesses more sustainable from the environmental/social or SGD perspective. It means knowing our customers better by engaging in their sustainability ambition and performance. From our perspective we provide knowledge, networks and solutions to our clients and also manage our own sustainability risks. We structure special sustainable banking products as per need and also achieve our own ambition to be among the most sustainable banks in the world, which we already are.
What effect does financing sustainable food systems have on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030? Also, what are the steps being taken at the moment to achieve these goals, and what kind of impact is expected within the next decade?
In many regions, particularly the EU, SMEs serve as the backbone of the economy by investing in the latest technologies and adapting readily to the changing environment. In India, however, MSMEs face a considerable challenge in receiving financial support, although the Government is implementing new policies in their favor. What needs to change to provide better support for agri-SMEs and smallholder farmers, considering they are key players in the rural economy?
Arindom Datta: Agri-SMEs including private companies, FPOs, etc. play a major role in a robust agribusiness system as they not only provide key inputs to the farming community but also provide markets. A robust ecosystem for this sector needs to evolve, which would facilitate the sector to formalise. For this, access to finance, knowledge and markets are key. One positive development in the Indian market is the growth of advanced technology used in agriculture sector. This would in the medium-term positively impact the sector as it is a big enabler for Ag-SMES and for small-holder farmers to access services and markets in a transparent manner. Further, technology would be an enabler for ‘the aggregation issue’ that the sector faces and would facilitate scale in the upstream part of the supply chain, which is currently lacking due to fragmentation.
The present and the future holds a lot of promise for the agriculture sector. What are some of the trends that you foresee in the agriculture space?
Arindom Datta: Two trends that are coming out very strongly are strengthening of institutional arrangements at the ground level through FPOs and, for the first time, the use of diversified best-in-class agri-technology. Both trends are addressing the issues of information asymmetry and are now bringing innovative services and products to farmers and supply chain players.
What advice would you like to share with the agriculture community?
Arindom Datta: My sincere advice to the Ag-community is to embrace technology to be able to reach out to smallholder farmers, to embrace sustainability, and to factor in water risk in all business decisions. Furthermore, enhance the competitiveness of Indian Agriculture through the use of judicious inputs, and increase the focus on traceability and safe food for which technology provides cost-effective solutions.