Rural Channel Partners The Soldiers on the Ground

Happy channel partners make profits for the company. However, with the emerging young population, companies should learn new ways to involve and work with distribution partners, writes Prof CK Sabharwalrn
Rural Channel Partners The Soldiers on the Ground

Raigarh is a small town in Madhya Pradesh, a few hours from Indore. Nearby is the Adivasi region. If you wish to travel to Jabhua, a small agricultural hamlet, through the forest road and you are alone, as the evening falls, chances are you may be accosted by brown bare chested men, bearing bows and arrows, demanding that they must first beat you up, and then as a reward take away your valuables thereafter. Many incidents have prompted the administration to advise everyone to go in a convoy, for the sake of safety. A distributor in Raigarh, who has a pesticide and fertiliser outlet, caters to this sensitive area. The shop is adorned with posters, depicting products from many companies. This morning finds many barefooted farmers, sitting on the bench in his shop, looking at agro-chemicals for use on soybean, cotton, vegetables and paddy. The products come from MNC such as DuPont, Bayer, BASF and Indian companies alike, and some are world class technologies for crop protection. The farmers are illiterate and rely on the dealer to guide them on how to use the products for crop infestation. The dealer mostly sells on credit, recovering his money post harvest time. Imagine the depth of distribution penetration in such a harsh environment.

In Bhattu, a big village near Adampur, in Haryana cotton belt, about 45 kms from Hissar, Mahesh, MSc graduate, is an agro input dealer and also stocks general merchandise. He arranges a farmer meeting for us in the cotton fields of the Sarpanch of the village. About hundred farmers attend the demo event. We talk about and display our products, ask questions, reply to queries all in regional dialect, about how bollworms could be controlled and damage to the cotton crop prevented. There are enigmatic faces and great excitement in the meeting. The Sarpanch leads us to his house nearby. We can sight in the house, a big old general electric fridge, and a Whiteline washing machine. LG Sampoorna colour TV, regional language friendly, is perched on a shelf. A Ford tractor and Bajaj motorcycle, adorn the pathway. Mahesh continues his dialogue involving the farmers and use of our company products, even as a Hissar Agriculture University entomologist joins in the chat. The Sarpanch is an influencer and an opinion leader. We give him free samples of some products in return for his hospitality. Talking one to one with consumers through your B2B partners, creates awareness like no indirect medium can.

One of our distributors Ramaswami in Ongole, Andhra Pradesh organises a village field day. It includes tug of war competition, free eye check up camp, and of course farmer gatherings involving engagement of our company products and services. We learn that everyone in the village is barefooted, and sure enough there are many snake bite incidents. We announce distribution of five hundred free chappals for the villagers through the Pradhan. We also learn that an old woman has just crossed her 101st birthday. We announce Rs 100 per month towards her medicines, as a goodwill gesture. The villagers are happy. They like companies that care, are not only about commerce and have a deep sense of sincere involvement with local rural people. As these events continue, the farmers engage in more serious discussion about pests, disease and other crop problems faced by them. We visit fields and view bitter gourd plants hanging much like grapevines. Ramaswami tells us that rains have eluded South this year, and credit management will be a challenge for companies. He looks to the sky and whispers a prayer to the rain Gods. ‘Amen’, we echo!

Gender equality
We meet this young lady on Air India flight going to Jodhpur. She works for a famous MNC lubricant oil company and is the Area Sales Manager for lubricants in Jodhpur territory. Later, we travel in her jeep since our destinations are common. She stops at retail outlets along the narrow Rajasthan rural roads. She inspects product displays; there is a contest on; takes notes of stocks and collects cheques of outstanding. Farmers talk in Hindi to her, about lubricants for tractors, and she shows charts to them on her laptop. We wonder that a woman with a management degree, can venture into the hinterland, and enjoy her interactions with dealers and villagers, and yet feel quite safe. “Sir these villagers will kill anyone who dares to look at me with a dirty eye. I am safer here than home," says she. The male dominant rural marketing is giving way to gender equality!

Need of channel partners
We are in Mussoorie, the queen of hill stations in the north, in UP. About 70 distributors of agro inputs from Gujarat, Punjab, MP, Rajasthan and Haryana, have been installed in a hotel. They are here to attend an annual company conference, and equally to enjoy nature and the awesome beauty of the mountains. Training programmes, new product launches, pricing and promotion campaign fliers, engage their attention for the day. Cumulatively, this group of channel partners contributes Rs 100 crores to the company’s top line! Come evening and the live band with a crooner gets everybody to cluster to the floor. They dance and shake their bodies like crazy, and might put Travolta to shame. This expression of complete freedom denied to them, in their conservative rural households and ‘Panchayat’ ruled villages, becomes a USP for us. “Sir your conferences are very enjoyable, and we learn a lot; I attend each one after achieving my targets!", smiles a happy satisfied Satish Garg, on way back home. Happy channel partners make profits for the company, is the lesson here folks.

Selecting rural distributors is much like finding a suitable spouse! The relationship has to endure; there has to be trust; the partnership must grow by meeting each other’s objectives and above all, there must be visible representation of the company’s products in the marketplace. Criteria for selection of the channel of distribution comprises of many variables, such as location, allied lines, dealer network, ability to invest, involvement in promotions and village level work, legal and accounting competence, honesty and integrity, and various other factors depending on product categories. Many stockiest of companies such as Tata, HUL, Godrej, Marico, etc., are decades old partners, and their generations are associated with them. Cancelling a rural dealer has to be a well considered decision, much like a divorce! It scars both parties and affects the region. Sales people who deal with the channel, must obviously be well trained and professional, yet have emotional intelligence to manage win-win relationships. And they must be accountable for their actions. 

Right promotion
Brands thrive on rural promotional activities involving channel members. Participation in rural haats and melas, agricultural fairs and exhibitions are great way to showcase products and make consumers aware of offerings. Our company once launched a scratch card scheme, where the top prize was a Eicher tractor. To publish the event around Budhlada Mandi in Punjab, during one cotton season, we somehow loaded the prize Tractor into an open lorry and let it roam from mandi to mandi, loudspeakers blaring local messages to farmers, luring them to dealers’ shops to buy and participate in the campaign. Later, we anchored the tractor in the middle of a roundabout for all to view. As a result, our sales in the region shot up wildly, at least for a while.

This does not end here. Clearasil and Vicks Vaporub rural publicity vans promote village to village through publicity events. Chik shampoo campaigns showcased girl’s hair being washed with sachets of shampoo, to demonstrate healthy and beautiful hair, with pure fragrance of french perfume. Crafting a brand mental map with consumers in rural India is an adventure of learning all the time and innovating as one gathers insights. Not every aspect of marketing is about Kotler! You have to learn to dirty your pants, as you watch the sun setting over the vastly green fields of rural India.

For the long haul
Building capacity for inclusive growth is all about partnering with rural channel members. Technology provides an ever increasing platform for quick engagement. Educating and informing about products and services has become much easier for companies. But with the emerging young population, new ways to involve and work with distribution partners must be found, while respecting India’s diversity, culture, traditions and values. The budding young rural managers must deal with patience with this diversity! If you love to travel and relish street food, well then, the hinterland is what you must explore, and tread each day on new paths of discovery!

Author: Prof CK Sabharwal, MD, Crop Health Products

The Changing Face of Rural India