Niharika Bhargava’s most cherished childhood memory is the aroma of freshly-pickled mandarin oranges wafting through the air.
Unlike most homes where women were at the helm of the various processes of food preservation, in her home, it was her father, Vikram Bhargava, who took charge. He handmade each batch of pickles and then distributed them to their near and dear ones.
“It wasn’t merely the flavour that made the pickle stand out; it was the effort and love that went into making it. It was the fact that the oranges used, were grown in our backyard,” recalls 26-year-old Niharika in an interview with The Better India (TBI).
So, it was no surprise that when the Delhi-based youngster, who is a postgraduate in Marketing Strategy and Innovation from Cass Business School, London, quit her lucrative marketing job at 23, she decided to go back to her roots and kickstart a farm-to-fork startup!
Today, The Little Farm Co. sells handmade, organic, farm-fresh, artificial preservative-free and additive-free products made using ‘traditional recipes’ right from iconic pickles to dips, chutneys, salad dressings, superfoods and marmalades.
What makes the product unique is that all the ingredients—from veggies, fruits, oils and spices— are grown on a farm that her father, a first-generation farmer, purchased in MP’s Paharapurwa village. The family farm, with 100-acres under cultivation, spreads across 400 acres. Government-owned forestlands border it on two sides and a river on the third which acts as a natural source of water.
Here’s a glimpse into their journey.
After quitting her job, Niharika began by putting things in place including research and development, developing recipes, branding and company registration.
Then, she decided to begin operations by making small batches of homemade preservative-free and additive-free pickles to understand the market.
“I was apprehensive if pickles would work. Because most Indian households follow the culture of pickling at home. But our market research slowly revealed that many people in Tier 1 and 2 cities, despite craving homemade pickles didn’t have the time to make these at home. And even the ones available in the market were filled with artificial preservatives and additives that posed short shelf-life and health risks. When my father and I went to exhibitions and put up small stalls to sell these, the feedback was amazing because people were in search of products that were not riddled in artificial preservatives or additives. We never returned with any leftover stock. That boosted our spirits.”
Knowing that she would eventually have to keep shuttling between Delhi and Paharapurwa, she focussed her energies on building a dream team, with mostly women.
She tied up with a non-governmental organisation (NGO), ASHA, which helped her recruit marginalised and destitute women, single mothers and those in need of employment, who were part of their skilling programme.
Today, out of the 13 people who work on the farm, 10 are women who are not only adept at organic farming but also pickling. Many of the best sellers that the brand has, including their finger-licking jalapeno garlic dip, come are recipes conceived by these women. The dip recipe was created by one of the elderly workers, Champa who despite losing both her legs to amputation, continues to have a rigorous zeal for life and her work.
“Our products are all handmade at our farms, while the packaging unit is based out of Gurgaon. We produce most ingredients we need for our products, on our farm itself. And the few ingredients that we cannot grow, we source from organic suppliers,” she explains.
“We use different combinations of natural preservatives for all our recipes. We do not add any artificial sweeteners. The only form of sugar we use is khand and jaggery powder. Our pickles and preserves do not have any synthetic vinegar or white salt. We use sugarcane vinegar, freshly cold-pressed mustard or sesame oil and pink salt.”
The fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen naturally and plucked only two hours before the pickling process begins. Drying, too, isn’t mechanised—the produce is sun-dried.
Apart from the mixer-grinder, the women do not use any electronic gadget in the manufacturing unit. However, as the production is expanding, Niharika is slowly trying to mechanise a few of the processes like chopping, etc.
It is this dedication to topnotch quality ingredients that helped Niharika develop her business from just finished products (pickles) to raw ingredients including superfoods such as trail mixes, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, spices, sugarcane vinegar, and oil.
Since the products are organic, do they have a shorter shelf life?
“We use natural preservatives, so most pickles don’t get spoilt. But the oil-free ones have a shorter shelf-life. All of our bottles also have strict instructions that mention that one must not use a wet spoon and keep the bottle away from water.”
They currently sell over 70 products, and although bootstrapped, the company that was started on a budget of Rs 3 lakh is now making a turnover of Rs 7 lakh.
“We continue to be bootstrapped family-run company because any profit or part of the revenue we are earning is reinvested back into the company to help it grow.”
Many of these women working at the farm are smashing glass ceilings in their villages where it is uncommon for women with a ghoonghat over their head step out to work.
40-year-old Shyam bai, who has been working with The Little Farm for almost three years now is one among the only two working women in her family.
“I like working for The Little Farm Co., not just because it is a source of my livelihood, but because it makes me independent. Even if I have to continue to do this every single day of my life, I will.”
Yashodha, 35, who works at the unit with her daughter, says, “My daughter and I can lead better lives, thanks to the work we do here. Our household is running smoothly, we have a square meal to put on to the table, and my children are studying well. What more could I ask for?”
Similarly, Balkumari, who has worked with the startup for two years, says, “My husband, a farmer, toils hard in the soil to sustain our family. By working here, I can alleviate some of the financial burdens on his shoulders and bring home additional income.”
Niharika concludes our conversation with a message for women entrepreneurs.
“I often meet women who have good ideas for startups but also have 20 excuses on why it won’t work. But you wouldn’t know until you start. Once you do your market research and start working, you will find 99 reasons why it will work. One push is all it requires. So if you have an idea, just start working on it.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)