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Earl of the Rustic Trail

Earl of the Rustic Trail

Author: Tapash Talukdar & Ashish Agashe
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: May 15, 2009

Introduction: Pandurang Taware is reaping rich from his agri tourism model

For Pandurang Taware, being a son of the soil takes on a very literal and personal meaning. Born into a farmer's household, he chose to pursue a professional career in tourism instead. Seventeen years later, Taware made up for lost time and returned to start a business that combined his tourism experience with his entrepreneurial passion and a desire to connect with his roots. Today, the 39-year-old chief of the Agri Tourism Development Corporation has carved out a niche for himself by pioneering the concept of agri-tourism in India. Since he started this business four years ago, nearly 50,000 guests have flocked to his farms in Baramati, Maharashtra to spend a holiday, and learn a thing or two about rustic living.

Taware struck upon this idea in 2000 and spent another five years to give it a formal shape. "The most important part was to understand the psyche of the urban guest and teach soft skills to the farmers so that they could serve guests better," he says. A market research firm was hired to poll over 5,400 respondents in cities on their readiness and interest in such an idea. Once the concept and business model were ready, Taware took the plunge.

A sum of Rs 10 lakh Taware had saved in his job, was ploughed-in as seed capital for the business, which began operating out of a farm in his hometown Baramati in Maharashtra's Pune district. Initially, Taware and his family fully owned the business. Later, the farmers on whose land the business expanded, were offered equity in the venture. The business achieved break-even in the first year and has now grown to three sites in the vicinity of Baramati. It has served over 48,000 tourists until now, doing business of over Rs 1.5 crore with 25-28% in gross margins. "The best part about this business is that we do not spend much on creating infrastructure. Guests pay us to have a look at our farms and how they function," says Taware.

At Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 per person per night, guests get to experience activities like milking a cow, plucking fruits from trees with farmers, visiting fields of various crops like sugarcane and millets (depending on the season), visiting a jaggery-making unit, wineries, swimming in a pond or bathing near the well or a visit to a silkworm rearing farm. Adding to the fun is traditional food and a folk arts show comprising of music and dance in the evenings.

Yet, Taware says, the most exciting side of the business is its social aspect. Farmers who solely depend on one or two crops a year for sustenance, get a supplementary income. "This is an attempt to make a living in the countryside more sustainable for a farmer so that his future generations are not forced to migrate to urban areas for livelihood," says Taware.

However, ATDC is different from other businesses in one respect. "A farmer will not be able to carry out his daily chores if the guests exceed a certain number. In such cases, we open a newer site for operations. Our idea is clear: the tourism business is supplementary and a farmer must get a majority of his revenues from his core activity. If he doesn't, we will be doing injustice to our guests. We do not want to function like a resort."

Being a fore-runner in this model, Taware has been invited to present his concept at leading institutes such as the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) and has already taken over the mantle of increasing the footprint of the business. As the concept requires land holding that is upwards of five acres, Taware got groups of farmers to come together and start co-operatives. So far, Taware has been successful in forming seven such agri-tourism focussed co-operatives and led the launch of the Maharashtra State Agri and Rural Tourism Cooperatives Federation (MART), an apex body, this year. Besides Baramati, MART affiliated members operate at 72 dedicated sites across Maharashtra, which has benefitted over 300 farmers. Now, farmers from Punjab and Gujarat are also replicating the model after a visit to ATDC.

The way ahead for ATDC, Taware says, is to expand into arid regions like Madha situated close to Baramati so that people of the backward region also benefit from the indigenous model. As for MART--whose affiliates registered a turnover of Rs 30 crore collectively last year--efforts are on to take the total number of sites to 250 by 2010.

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