Solving for patterns

Solving for patterns

It’s the summer of 2012. We are on a road trip to a village 50 kilometers away from the city of Ludhiana. It’s hot, and the weather department has forecasted the arrival of Loo – a strong dusty, dry summer wind with very high temperatures. It’s advised to be indoors during this period.

The product category in question was tractor tires and this was our third trip to explore the mystery behind a quirky observation. While for some farmers the tires lasted a good five years, for others it barely lasted 2-3 years.

Initially, we thought this was a random case but curiosity got the better of us, forcing us to explore this phenomenon further. Hot on its trail, we decided to visit few tire dealers in the region to see if they were getting any complaints from farmers. It didn’t look as random as we had thought as the shops did get few complaints, however, it was not enough to conclude this as a pattern. 

There could be many reasons for this mystery–the surfaces on which the tires are used, hours of use, probably a manufacturing issue, etc. So, we had to isolate these variables and study to see if there’s a pattern. The question was – is it worth pursuing this rabbit hole as it’s not yet a pattern; it’s a random observation in a specific region. And going down this path would take up time. With the onset of summer, the answer should have been NO.

But our interaction with Sukhdev, the farmer who first told us about this phenomenon, who was angry and upset with the brand cemented our decision. This was the second time he replaced his tractor tire in a short 4-year period, which was creating stress in his life and burning his savings as tractor tires are too expensive to replace frequently. The intensity of his emotion was a good enough reason to chase this rabbit hole.

We started out with isolating the few variables which came into our hypothesis. 

The surface of usage – filtered out the farmers who used tractors on roads as the tires last longer when used just on roads, also isolated the farmers who used tractors both on roads and farms and started observing farmers who used tractors only in farms for an average of 6+ hours/day.

Parallelly, we checked with the R&D and manufacturing departments for any batch issues or variations in the quality of materials. But none existed. 

And amidst this hot summer, we landed on Sukhdev’s farm yet again. It’s 9 am, and Sukhdev had almost finished ploughing his land. He warned us about the heat strokes and warmly greeted us with fresh sugarcane juice – ice-cold! Towards the edge of his farm, he had a makeshift tent where we made ourselves comfortable to hear his story.

Sukhdev owns a medium-sized farm of eight acres. He followed his father’s footsteps by assisting him from the age of 12. He looked at me and said, “I am sure you haven’t experienced a shortage of food supply in cities.” That was true, I nodded. Sukhdev continued, “We pay a huge price to bring that CERTAINTY to you.”

UNCERTAINTY is one word that captures a farmer’s life. It starts with the quality of seeds and what percentage will sprout. No guarantee exists for the rainfall, a critical ingredient. Types of pests and when they would attack cannot be predicted. The performance of pesticides is unknown. Finally, what price the crop will fetch depends on many unseen forces ranging from middleman to demand-supply situation with no minimum prices guaranteed. Within this context, anyone who promises Certainty has huge traction with farmers. It can be a brand of tire, a seed company, a pesticide company, or a politician. The tire he was using guaranteed that Certainty, which was taken away now and that explains his emotional outburst.

It was also during this conversation that the penny dropped for us. Sukhdev had shifted from growing wheat to the sugarcane crop. With better yield per acre, less labor, and relatively fewer pest attacks, sugarcane offered better Certainty. It was during this period that his tractor tires started lasting for three years instead of the earlier five years.

Now a pattern started emerging among sugarcane farmers. Post-harvest, the roots of the crops need to be ploughed and burned for the next crop to be sowed. The sugarcane roots are sharper and thicker than the wheat crop, which chipped away the tire and reduced its life. With more farmers shifting to the sugarcane crop, this complaint is going to become more common!

To further validate this, we traveled to Kolhapur in Maharashtra, the sugarcane belt of India. While this pattern was repeated, we found the tires to last much shorter in this region! In northern India, the tire used in sugarcane farms lasted for three years compared to the two years in central India. On investigating, we found this was due to the soil type. In regions with hard soil and a crop like sugarcane, tires get damaged much faster than a region where there’s soft soil, and the same crop is grown.

This wild goose chase eventually resulted in a strategy where we mapped the entire country according to the soil type and crops. Hard soil and hard crops needed a certain kind of tire formulation and design to last longer, and this customized offering fulfilled farmers’ need for Certainty.

The solution to any problem lies squarely deep within the problem. To identify the pattern and solve it sustainably, you need a biological approach rather than a purely mechanical approach. In machines, a problem can be resolved by simply replacing a part or making an adjustment. This is not true in living systems. All parts are interconnected, and unless we understand the relationship of the parts to the whole, the problem will not be solved. 

Detecting this underlying pattern requires us to empathize with people, understand their ecosystems, and contextually appreciate their problems. The mind of an investigative journalist comes in handy when exploring a problem rather than using prepackaged frameworks to identify one. This requires patience, common sense, curiosity and empathy, all sprinkled with a good dose of cynicism and hope!

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