Let me ask you this. If money weren’t a big factor in the world we live in, what would you do with your life?
If you ask me, I would want a small piece of farmland in the hills with a tiny wooden cottage. I would have a kitchen garden to grow my own food. Sounds like a dream, right? But, not a lot of us would actually take the plunge and make this a reality.
Now, imagine my excitement when I actually spoke to someone who had managed to achieve this kind of bliss!
It all started in 2012 when Rajneesh Chawla, a Mechanical Engineer based out of Gurugram, bought a 10 acre plot of land in Nainital with the hope to practice organic farming.
“The fruits and vegetables that were available in the market were pumped full of chemicals. The main motivation for me to start organic farming was to provide fresh food on the table for people around me,” says 52-year-old Rajneesh.
Along with organic farming, Rajneesh also started developing an interest in Apiculture. “The kind of honey that we find in the market is not pure and this was evident in the taste. So, I decided to start bee farming after getting some locals from that area on board,” he says.
Once his friends and family started using some of the products, they were very impressed. They motivated him to scale up the production process. So, what started out as a wish to eat chemical-free produce is now an enterprise called, ‘Farm Naturelle’ which was officially founded in 2015.
The business enterprise sells ethically-sourced, natural products like honey, oils, vinegar, and juices. Rajneesh also started sourcing different types of honey from across states like Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand.
Currently, Farm Naturelle has a range of 40 products and has sold over 10 lakh units since they started their operations in 2015. Not only that, they have impacted 250+ livelihoods through their operations!
Engineering a Farm Business from Scratch
Rajneesh’s journey from being an engineer to an entrepreneur has been quite interesting. In 1990, he earned his degree in Mechanical Engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Jaipur.
Between 1990 to 1999, he worked in the marketing and sales department across various companies and held positions in companies like HAL Limited, Mekaster Engineering and Bluestar.
Towards the end of 1999, he founded an e-commerce platform named, ‘44°.com’ with his elder brother.
“It was a platform for consumers in the industrial sector to buy equipment like gloves, fasteners, nuts and bolts among others. But, at the time the concept of e-commerce in India was very new and people were very skeptical about making web purchases. This is the reason why we had to shut it down after almost four years of its functioning,” explains Rajneesh.
He then started working with companies that were manufacturing industrial equipment. He helped them market their products in the country and build a customer base.
Once the idea of starting his business of organic food products took root, Rajneesh utilised the money he had saved up all these years to buy the 10 acre farm land in Nainital and rest as we know is history!
Building a Colony of Bees
In 2014, two years after he started his organic farming in Nainital, Rajneesh saw an opportunity in bee farming. He wanted to make pure, wild honey accessible to the people who were otherwise spending big bucks to get their hands on good quality honey.
“Jim Corbett was not located too far away from Nainital and the national park had various flowering trees which is perfect for apiculture. So, once I had all the necessary permissions in place, I employed a few people from the villages there who would manage the movement of boxes where the bees are kept,” he explains.
These boxes are usually placed under flowering trees so that bees can extract the nectar and produce raw, tasty honey devoid of any kind of adulteration. Currently, there are about 300 boxes that are being managed within the Jim Corbett.
“We are very careful with these boxes. We place them under trees like litchi in the months of March and April. We are extremely careful in the monsoon months like July as there are no flowers at the time and rains can spoil the honey. We also move these boxes depending on the flowering density of a particular area.
Now, Farm Naturelle has a range of different types of honey infused with different flavours sourced from local farmers across the country. “The Acacia honey is sourced from J&K, Wild berry honey from Rajasthan and Tulsi honey from Jharkhand,” informs Rajneesh.
In addition to honey, they also have a range of other products like cooking oils, vinegars, and juices. From mustard and sesame seeds grown in their Uttarakhand farm along with products sourced from the local mandi, the cooking oil is manufactured in Ramnagar near Jim Corbett and then transported to Gurgaon where it is packaged and sold.
They also source oils from production units, which have organic certifications, and sell their products under their brand name. The herbal juices are produced and sourced from an AYUSH-certified factory in Jaipur and packaged in Gurugram.
Creating a ‘Buzz’ with Honey
There are a range of organic products that Farm Naturelle manufactures and sources but the most prominent out of them is the honey which has created quite a buzz.
Ask Minakshi Batra, a retired Irish bureaucrat based out of Gurugram. “My husband and I love our honey. We consume it with a glass of hot water with a little bit of lemon juice squeezed in. We wanted our honey to be organic and of good quality which is why we would often buy ones manufactured by trusted foreign brands which were quite expensive,” says the 57-year-old.
But, about four years back, Minakshi’s friends, who were actually Rajneesh’s neighbor, told her about the range of organic honey that he was selling. This is when she, with her husband, decided to pay Rajneesh’s outlet a visit. Upon reaching the destination, the couple asked Rajneesh a bunch of questions about where the honey is sourced from, if it is completely organic and how it was manufactured
This was four years ago and the couple did not have to search for any other brand. “My husband and I are big fans of the jungle honey. I even buy the ginger infused honey that my mother and sister also love. Four years back, I would end up spending Rs. 700 for 250 gms of honey. Now, I spend the same amount for 1kg of organic honey,” she smiles.
In addition to buying the honey, the couple also buys aloe vera gel, amla powder and their cooking oils.
Overcoming Battles and Marching Forward
Every day, Rajneesh wakes up at about 5:30 in the morning and goes for his morning walk. Upon his return, he works till about 10:30 am and plans the agenda for the day.
Although Rajneesh’s story may sound perfect and successful, there were numerous challenges that he tackled to reach this position.
“Since we want our products to be pure, there are several times we change a supplier when the quality is not up to the mark. There is constant pressure to make products of better quality and since we are bootstrapped, cashflow is a little difficult,” explains the entrepreneur. However, with patience and determination, he was able to overcome these challenges during the operations.
From his experiences, Rajneesh has a few words of encouragement for entrepreneurs who are just starting out.
“Always plan your operations and don’t take any decision without thinking it through. Take at least a year in hand and ensure you have enough money to sustain the operations in the initial stages. You may face challenges and failure but they are a part of running a business. Be consistent and persistent,” he says.
So, what does the wise entrepreneur envision for the future?
Rajneesh says that they want to get more buyers on board and also work with newer suppliers. He wants to add at least a few more products to their portfolio which could range from cosmetics to edibles like peanut butter, salts, and jaggery powder, among others.
“The market is quickly moving toward organic products from artificial products. People are getting more and more educated about the goodness of nature and that is a good sign for us. We want to scale our operations and work with more farmers to our ever-growing value chain,” says Rajneesh signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Ratan Tata
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Tech that helps reduce use of water
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: A mix of planning and patience
*Your favourite book
Ans: Rich Dad, Poor Dad
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Love to read
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: Working in my office
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: Social Skills
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: Where do they see themselves after working in the company for over two years.
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: Don’t be over ambitious and never be discouraged by failure
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)