It’s all natural

What could an electrical engineer, homemaker and former Test cricketer have in common? Meet 27-year-old Ashmeet Kapoor, an engineer who quit his US job to come back to India, 35-year-old Vandana Sudhakar Dutt, a homemaker from Gurgaon, and 65-year-old former India spinner Dilip Doshi for the answer: the business of organic food products.

Published: 09th December 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th December 2012 12:55 PM   |  A+A-

What could an electrical engineer, homemaker and former Test cricketer have in common? Meet 27-year-old Ashmeet Kapoor, an engineer who quit his US job to come back to India, 35-year-old Vandana Sudhakar Dutt, a homemaker from Gurgaon, and 65-year-old former India spinner Dilip Doshi for the answer: the business of organic food products. Kapoor runs I Say Organic, an online portal for organic fruits and vegetables in Delhi, Dutt lists organic stores and brands on her online portal eSvasa, and Doshi’s Organic Haus retails international organic products in India. These three very different individuals are the trailblazers of India’s coming organic age. From fruits and vegetables to breakfast cereals, beverages, cosmetics, personal healthcare products, detergents and even clothes, the demand for organic products just won’t stop growing. A recent report of the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture says that 1.5 per cent of all agricultural acreage in India will be certified organic by the end of this year, by when it will have captured 2.5 per cent of the global organic market. The size of the organic food market of the country is about Rs 1,000 crore now.

Ranked 33rd worldwide in terms of total land under organic cultivation and 88th in terms of agricultural land under organic crops as a proportion of total farming area, India’s organic revolution is just about germinating. The good news is that it’s less of a long way to go and more of a great place to grow. And Kapoor, Dutt and Doshi are just three of the frontiersmen cracking this market open.

There are others like Sandhya and her husband Shrikant, the owners of a 15-acre farm in Kodaikanal. Both left the beautiful hill station for the chaos of Chennai 10 years ago, setting up a shop called The Eco-Nut. Today, the store is so popular that it attracts customers from Puducherry, Pune, Bangalore, and even Mumbai.

The Eco-Nut stores all kinds of natural products from pulses, dals, oils, cheese, milk, curds to Tiger Shola honey procured from Kodaikanal. Some products like flax seeds and flax seed powder, which Sandhya recommends as anti-cancer, are quite popular. The store also sells products to fight diabetes, knee pain, arthritis, low/high blood pressure and natural hair dye along with 60 varieties of organic vegetables and 20 varieties of fruits.

The time is right for young entrepreneurs to harness the power of the natural, like Abhinav Gangumulla and Santosh Banpur have. The two IIT graduates came back to Hyderabad after their degrees to find half the city’s green cover gone and the usual degenerative development at work swallowing the rest. They went organic, setting up an eco-solutions store called Hyderabad Goes Green (HGG). Set up in mid-2011, HGG’s range runs from organic pulses to handlooms and personal care products.

Gangumulla and Banpur began a weekly organic vegetable market every Saturday, sourcing the produce from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA). The organic bazaar trumps most of its competitors with its pricing. “We sell all vegetables at a flat Rs 40 per kg. This was mainly because we faced a bottleneck when it came to billing. Since some vegetables are acquired at a lower price and some higher, eventually they all average out,” says Gangumulla.

According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Exports Development Authority (APEDA), the cultivated land under organic certification in India is 4.43 million hectares (2010-11) making it feasible for entrepreneurs to experiment. Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, the Hyderabad-based founder of 24 Letter Mantra, an end-to-end organic food enterprise, couldn’t agree more. “These were techniques that have only been displaced in the last 20 years by chemical pesticides and fertilizers becoming available. We were able to convince farmers to at least try it out on a much smaller scale and see for themselves,” says Seelam.

A former employee at a chemical fertiliser and pesticide company, Seelam’s ambitious project of seeing a country sustained by organic farming was spurred by his own awareness of the impact of chemicals on soil. When his father was diagnosed with cancer, it was the last straw; 24 Letter Mantra was born in 2004. The company now has tens of thousands of acres across the country, and stocks about 100 different products, from lentils, rice, spices, flour, oil to cooking pastes like ginger-garlic paste, tamarind paste, and even beauty products like face packs, cleansing lotions, gels and serums, organic henna, oils and soaps.

Another Hyderabadi venture that turned many heads—and continues to—is Good Seeds. An initiative that finds its USP in the concept of community, it was started in January this year by four friends: Sujatha Ramni, Lalith Mitta, Ganesh Margabandhu and Narayan K Murthy. Tying up with NGOs and farmer co-operatives like the CSA and Deccan Development Society, the market is put up every first Sunday of the month at Saptaparani, a cultural space-cum-children’s library.

Adding to the community experience, the monthly market also hosts organic lunches cooked by a few from the group using purchases from the market. Given the homegrown nature of the idea, Good Seeds has also branched into personal care and handicrafts like terracotta jewellery and kalamkari bags.

The organic revolution is no Deccan phenomenon. Odisha-based spice-maker Ruchi is one of the leaders in the organic market. Helmed by Sahoo siblings, Arvind and Rashmi, the company started with a range of products like fortified Chudda mix (made from rice flakes or poha) and fortified Sattu, but have now shifted to the health and wellness segment with the introduction of Ruchi Foodline and Frozit. “We have organic turmeric and are now venturing to other spices. This apart, we have added a whole range of edibles like palm candy, which is very good for digestion and stomach health, isabgol mix for constipation and digestion problems and tapioca (sagu). We are also planning to bring out a range of fortified vermicilli and pasta,” says Rashmi. She adds that Actirice, a wheat-based rice substitute, primarily targeted at people suffering from diabetes and hypertension, has emerged as a signature product.

It’s not just for the business-minded types. Gurgaon-based homemakers Suruchi Ailawadi and Vandana Sudhakar Dutt have got together to ride this wave, leveraging webspace for ‘organic’ change. An online resource portal for organic food, eSvasa, was a result of their worries about adulterated food. Vandana, who has a master’s in international business, teamed up with Suruchi Ailawadi, a computer whiz, to start their own little green revolution in February last year.

Along with providing resources on organic food, the portal also has content on topics ranging from reviews of organic restaurants to recipes “We also link organic producers with suppliers through our site,” says Ailawadi. She adds that their initial target audience was young mothers who were not aware of healthy foods and traditional healthy habits, but gradually expanded to include health conscious people of all ages. “They are under the impression that they are better off buying food items from gourmet stores. Surprisingly, a sizeable section of our Facebook community is under 25, and in line with the theory that young India is health-conscious.” The website’s big draw is its listing of online stores devoted to home delivering organic produce.

One of these popular names is I Say Organic, brainchild of Ashmeet Kapoor who left his US job to come to India as part of a couple of village electrification projects. Kapoor soon leased two acres of land in Barpar village of eastern Uttar Pradesh and set up a demo farm there. This was followed by the launch of I Say Organic in May last year.

The Internet-based company delivers fresh organic produce in central and south Delhi along with Gurgaon. It has recently started operations in north Delhi. “We source oranges from Nagpur, sweet limes from Tamil Nadu and pomegranates from Maharashtra,” says Kapoor. The prices are high but then, as Kapoor says, he gives farmers 25 per cent premium over mandi prices.

Dilip Doshi, the left-arm spinner who took 114 Test wickets for India, is also on the organic bandwagon. Doshi founded Organic Haus last year, his frequent visits to Germany and the first-hand experience of the organic food revolution there catalysing the effort. “The word ‘Haus’ which means house, is our tribute to German excellence in the field of organic products,” says Doshi.

He adds that there are two types of customers who approach his company. “One is the convert who’s already familiar with organic goods and is happy with the wide variety of 100 per cent EU certified products we offer. The other person is curious to understand more about organic goods,” he says, bullish about the organic food business. “The size of the market hasn’t been estimated yet but it has a huge potential. Some peg it at a few billion dollars, and is growing at a compound rate of 15 to 20 per cent,” says Doshi.

Agrees Jawad Ayed, founder of Zansaar—an online décor and organic food product retail store. “According to a report by the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture, the Indian organic industry is aiming to up its total turnover, including exports, from Rs 675 crore to Rs 4,000 crore by 2012,” he says.

Kerala’s Peermade Development Society (PDS) is a living, growing example. One of the pioneers in the sector, they now export more than Rs 10 crore worth of organic spices to Europe. “Europe, especially Germany, is using our spices. They are convinced about the importance of organic products and we are giving them the quality and purity they demand,” says PDS Executive Director Fr Hubby Mathew. 

PDS exports organic spices such as black and white pepper, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric. It was only in 2009-10 that they witnessed a boom in the exports and by 2012 the exports doubled and reached Rs 10.50 crore. Around 2,000 farmers are now working in the farms of PDS and the company is using bio-control agents instead of chemical fertilisers. “There is an organic replacement for every chemical that we use in agriculture. Though it is costly and needs extra care, PDS is following that method,” says Fr Mathew. While there are several farm-based eco-entrepreneurs, few work with cosmetics.

One of these exceptions is Chennai-based geneticist Dr Sonia Dhawan. Thanks to her grandmother’s recipes, Sonia’s cosmetic products are in great demand. Her products, called Granny Greg’s, are full of ‘unadulterated’ products made from natural oils like Eucalyptus, Lemon Grass, Rose, Saunf, Camphor, Ylang ylang, Citronella and beeswax among other ingredients. “I have been approached by several retailers”, she says, explaining that though she has been making the products for several years, she has been selling it only for the last three to four years.

Preferring to call her products ‘natural’, she says that organic products require certification. “We are in the process of getting the certification done” she points out.  She shares her apprehension about the quality of the product if made in larger quantities as she would not buy or use a product if she does not trust the source. “I only make products which are small in size as pure products have essential oils which tend to evaporate easily,” she says.

Her products have a shelf life of 12 to 18 months. On costs, she says that since procurement is tedious, it reflects in costs as well. She is now keen to expand in the city first and then move to bigger markets and conducting exhibitions along with her NGO called A Hundred Hands.

Another interesting product and perhaps the only one of its kind is the Krya Natural Detergent Powder. Developed by Chennai-based Preethi Sukumaran and Srinivas Krishnaswamy. The idea of Krya crystallized in 2009, when Preethi and Srinivas quit their respective jobs and then took a year to travel and explore their latent passions in life. “We had always had a personal interest in all things environmental and started small experiments to reduce the chemical overload in our home, and also for us to tread lightly on the planet. Through these experiments we developed several ideas for products around the home and also built upon our prior business experience in building brands to start Krya,” says Krishnaswamy.

Krya is setting new standards in categories that Indians work in. “We are the first detergent powder in India to give a complete declaration of the ingredients our formulation, right down to the exact percentage of each ingredient. This helps people to make an informed choice. The government regulations in India do not require detergent manufacturers to declare the ingredients and most brands do not,” says Krishnaswamy. Their ingredients are also sourced from a certified organic farm that complies with the Indian Government’s NPOP (organic) guidelines. “We are happy to share the certificate if someone wishes to see it,” he says. The duo is now launching their next product, an organic dishwashing powder in the next two months. “We will then launch an organic floor cleaner to provide a complete portfolio of ‘green’ cleaners for the home,” he says.

Organic has clearly become the term of the year with entrepreneurs venturing into its production, manufacturing and retailing. India’s organic products are going global, and there seems to be no stopping them.

with S N Agragami (Bhubaneswar), N Manasa Mohan (Hyderabad), Sunita Raghu (Chennai), Sharan Poovanna (Bangalore) and Santhosh Christy (Kochi)

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