The Telegraph
| Sunday, June 30, 2013 |



The organic products business is booming and a clutch of entrepreneurs has figured that the best way to reach customers is via the Internet, says Sushmita Biswas

  • Ashmeet Kapoor gave up his career as an engineer in the US and launched, an online organic fruit and vegetable delivery service, in Delhi last year; Pic by Jagan Negi

It's almost a mission for Ashmeet Kapoor. The 27-year-old engineer chucked up a job in the US and returned to India to toil in the field of rural water management. But as he began to learn about Indian agriculture at the ground level, he made a quick switch sideways: he's buying organic food from farmer networks in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and selling it online through his site Says Kapoor: "It was difficult for me to convince the farmers initially to take up organic farming. But I made them aware of the market potential."

Jayashree and Ganesh Eashwar are devout believers in organic food who began their field-to-the-fork saga by snapping up a few acres of land in a village called Kundumaranapalli close to Tamil Nadu. They literally sowed the seeds of the business by growing groundnut and ragi and then opened a store in Delhi. Soon afterwards, they moved online and opened an online organic store, Says Ganesh: "Today, my online store stocks everything that a housewife needs to cook a healthy meal."

Organic food in India is still a niche business — but it's a niche that's piling high on many plates. And a clutch of entrepreneurs has figured that the best way to reach out to their well-heeled customers is via the Internet. Says Megha Deokule who runs an online store "Logistics-wise it makes sense to retail online. If we have to popularise organic produce in India, we have to make sure that it reaches a larger audience and that's possible online."

  • Delhi-based couple Jayashree and Ganesh Eashwar's virtual organic store supplies everything from cold-pressed oil and flour to peanut and cashew candy, and even milk; Pic by Jagan Negi

What's more, the range of organic produce is blooming and growing larger by the day. So, the organically inclined can snap up everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to cereals, spices and beverages. Says Karuna Singh, country director of international NGO Earth Day Network, Calcutta, "Today, people are increasingly becoming health conscious. Therefore, the organic market is a tiny but a rapidly growing market."

Megha, for instance, is an architect who first became an avid blogger and then opened a store in Bangalore selling online produce. Today she and her husband Pawan have closed the store in Bangalore but are focusing on selling their own label produce online. To build her portfolio of products she has tied up with organic farmers and offers everything from peanut butter to pink mustard, organic wholewheat breads, jackfruit papad and fig chutneys. Says Megha: "We also create an online food recipe for each product that we place on our online shop."

Manjunath Pankkaparambil, 44, is another organic entrepreneur who started at ground level by digging up the soil on his own land. He was an IT professional who worked in the US and then returned to his home in Kerala and turned his attention to organic farming. He bought a few acres of farm land in Munnar and then began growing carrots. Today he gets his produce not just from his own farm but also from other organic farmer networks of the region. He and his business partners Ambrose Koociyath and Ashok Arokiasamy run Lumiere, an organic restaurant in Bangalore and deliver organic products all around the city.

Interestingly, many of these organic entrepreneurs started out by doing a spell abroad and then returning to work in rural India. In Delhi, for instance, Rajeev and Rashmi Bhansali's Ehsaas Organic was set up in 2009 more out of passion than as a commercial venture. The couple who had returned from the US was alarmed by the quality of vegetables available in the market, so they bought a five-acre farm in Manesar, on the distant outskirts of Delhi, to grow their own vegetables and herbs organically. Today, Rashmi personally supervises her farm in Manesar. She takes requests via email and invites her customers to visit her farm.

  • Organic apple juice and meat are hotsellers at Ayesha Grewal's Altitude stores in Delhi and Gurgaon

Similarly, Ayesha Grewal, for instance, worked as a consultant in the US and then returned to work on renewable energy in the Uttarakhand Hills. While working in the region she figured that she could help the farmers of the region by increasing their selling opportunities. Says Grewal: "So, I started out making organic apple juice and slowly increased my product range to lemon juice, peach, apricot and plum jam."

Today, she has four shops in Delhi and an online venture, which started out by selling 108 items and which now offers a mammoth 1,800 products including everything from organic vegetables to organic meat, beverages, herbs, cheese and pasta. There are also other items on sale like lentils and a range of cooking oils.

Like Grewal, many of the other organic entrepreneurs quickly realised that they had to offer a reasonably wide spread of products if they wanted to pull in enough customers. So, Pankkaparambil's Lumiere offers everything from millet to sweeteners, bakery products and dried herbs.

On the other hand, Delhi-based Seema Dholi's Farm2Kitchen has taken a slightly different approach. Dholi started by selling fresh organic produce to households in Gurgaon but decided this was too restrictive and didn't allow for growth. Now she sells only organically certified dry products — but all over the country. Says Dholi: "I found it limiting because I wanted to reach out to more families and spread the organic awareness. That's when I thought of expanding Farm2Kitchen to other cities across India."

  • Some of the fast movers at Seema Dholi's online store, Farm2Kitchen, include an array of organic teas and dry fruits; Pic by Jagan Negi

Each online store has its own customer favourites. The hotsellers at the Altitude store are the apple juices and also the meat. And at Deokule's items like pink mustard and peanut butter are popular favourites. For the Bhansalis, seasonal vegetables like cauliflower and lettuce are much in demand.

The men and women behind the online counter have expanded their repertoire in another way too. They are stocking products aimed specifically at people with allergies and other niche groups. So, Farm2Kitchen sells gluten-free products and several types of herb-based teas, including exotic varieties like the organic tea for pregnant women. Another offering is the Organic Female Toner Tea. Farm2Kitchen also has other health-oriented offerings like its rice soya cinnamon cookies and its candied ginger ragi milk cookies.

The tough part about running an online store is always the logistics of the game. Says Ganesh Eashwar:"The challenge is to deliver the orders on time. There is lack of supply-chain infrastructure for transport and storage."

So, while Kapoor delivers in 500 households in Delhi and Gurgaon, Lumiere delivers to close to 300 homes in Bangalore. Grewal invites her customers to visit her physical stores in Delhi to check out her range of products.

  • (From left to right) Manjunath Pankkaparambil, Ashok Arokiasamy and Ambrose Koociyath set up their organic restaurant-cum-online store, Lumiere, dedicated to retailing organic products in Bangalore; Pic by Jagadeesh NV

Some online stores ask prospective customers to register as members before they can place orders. At one needs to be registered as a member first to order fresh organic fruits and vegetables whereas non-members can order only dry food stuff. "This is because we need to tell our farmer networks to grow more vegetables and fruits so that there is a steady supply," says Eashwar.

For most of these sites, delivery is done at doorstep as soon as the order is placed online. For instance, does deliveries seven days a week free of cost in south and central Delhi while in other parts like in Gurgaon and Noida customers pay a delivery charge of Rs 30. Customers can order online or via phone and the minimum order amount is Rs 250.

I Say Organic sources its vegetables, pulses, rice and fruits from groups of farmers in the north. They then pack, brand and deliver goods from the company's office in Okhla, Delhi, which also has a cold storage facility.

By contrast, Grewal delivers four days a week (Tuesday to Saturday) in Delhi. "However, customers outside Delhi have to pay courier charges for products below Rs 5,000," she says.

For, deliveries are bi-weekly in Delhi with a delivery fee of Rs 50 and outside Delhi customers pay for the courier cost.

  • Rashmi Bhansali of Ehsaas Organic personally supervises her farm in Manesar and invites her customers to visit it as well; Pic by Jagan Negi

Many of these entrepreneurs are looking at expanding in a big way. The Eashwars are in the process of starting deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables in Bangalore also. Apart from her online business, Grewal is looking to set up a conventional store in Noida at the end of the year and also in several other cities across the country.

Dholi, wants to expand in a different way and says she aims to come out with her own label and not just source organic food stuff from other farmers.

Pankkaparambil, though, strikes an entirely contrary note and says, "small is good and I don't want to expand in multiple cities".

Chef Shaun Kenworthy is one person who has watched the growth of the organic and health food sectors in recent years and believes the sky's the limit. Says Kenworthy: "Given the health benefits in organic food, there's no stopping this market in India."