When it comes to vegetables, the more perfect and shinier, the better. Isn’t that how you choose bell peppers, tomatoes and brinjals? Why would anyone choose something that looks bruised and is smaller, or has an insect or two in it, right?
And Akshay Omprakash Agarwal was no different. Luckily for him, a chance visit to a farmer’s field in Kolhapur district changed how he looked at vegetables.
“I was visiting a farmer who was growing okra and brinjal in his fields. All the vegetables in his field looked so fresh and delicious. However, there were about two rows of vegetables that didn’t look as healthy as the rest,” recalls the 27-year-old.
Imagine Akshay’s surprise when the farmer told him that those two rows of vegetables were the only ones that were safe for consumption. The rest of the farm produce was pumped with dangerous chemicals like Calcium Carbide that help in artificial ripening of fruits and vegetables.
“We first eat with our eyes and then our mouths,” the farmer told Akshay and that stuck with him. For Akshay, this incident which took place in November 2015, was enough to drill the point home that eating healthy, fresh food free from adulteration was important. Additionally, he also felt that farmers who took the extra effort in practising organic farming must get their due.
Akshay shared his inferences with his friend Gajendra Raghunathram Choudhury, a native of his hometown, Ichalkaranji. Gajendra had already seen farmer’s woes by looking at his uncle, a farmer based in Rajasthan.
The friends joined forces and founded Satvyk, their social enterprise, in February, 2016. Satvyk is a platform which procures organic produce from farmers directly and also provides them with technical know-how on organic farming. the duo launched their online store with 35 farmers and 10 products.
Currently, Satvyk sells 250+ products along with perishables like fruits and vegetables. They have also scaled operations to over 15 states where they work with 8000+ farmers!
Want to by Satvyk’s organic products? Check out their collection by clicking on this link.
Re-connecting With One’s Roots
Akshay and Gajendra both grew up in Kolhapur district’s Ichalkaranji, which is located about 200 KM from Pune.
After Akshay finished schooling, he pursued B.Com in The Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce. Later, he cleared his Chartered Accountancy exam and worked with Edelweiss as an Investment Analyst for a year in 2015.
Gajendra also finished his B.Com degree and MBA from Pune University. His family ran a textile business in his hometown and he began managing the family business after his studies.
Sometime in early 2015, Akshay attended an event called the ‘Bhartiya Sanskriti Utsav’, organised by Siddhagiri Gurukul Foundation, an NGO working at the grassroots.
“In this event, a lot of farmers had come and there was a lot of discussion on organic farming. The seven day festival also spoke about indigenous (desi) seeds and how they were much better than the Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds that a lot of farmers are using these days,” recalls Akshay.
This is what pushed the then 22-year-old to travel across farms especially in his district whenever he would get holidays. Working closely with the NGO, he would travel to farms in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
“After visiting several farms, I realised that we are not eating food but something like food,” he emphasises. He continues, “In the market, there is a demand for organic food and although there were a lot of farmers growing it, there weren’t any good linkages due to supply chain inefficiency,” explains Akshay.
This is where Akshay saw an opportunity and decided to start a business that benefited farmers who were going the extra mile to make organic and nutritious food available, whilst, also catering to consumers who wanted to eat clean food.
Building An Empire from An Idea
The procurement process is a major aspect of Satvyk’s operations. All the produce that they use is locally cultivated using non-GMO seeds. Gajendra has a big role to play in the process where he visits the farms and speaks to the farmers.
A team of at least five people regularly visit the farms to see if a farmer’s field is organic certified or not.
“A lot of times farmers don’t know about the processes involved or have very little money to get their fields certified. So, we get lab tests done on the soil and check it for heavy metals, pesticides, and chemicals to make the process easier,” he explains.
As for the collection and assembly of the products, it happens in their warehouses in Pune, Delhi and Kolhapur.
Starting out with just one store in Kolhapur district and 35 farmers on board, the operations for Satvyk have scaled massively. Satvyk currently has about 18 stores across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
It is undeniable that having 8000+ happy farmers practising organic agriculture is no small feat. Take for example, Abasaheb Nathojirao Salunkhe, a farmer based out of Sangli in Maharashtra.
The 57-year-old has a six-acre farm where he grows wheat, jowar, gram and vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, capsicum and carrots. Though he had been practising farming for as long as he can remember, he made the painstaking switch from conventional agriculture to organic farming eight years back. Yet, he wasn’t getting any dues for the extra effort.
“I would go to the local fruits and vegetable mandi (market) and get the same amount as those who were selling produce with pesticides and chemical fertilisers. So, a market for organic produce did not really exist and hence, farmers continued to use chemicals as it kept the cost of production low while yields were higher,” says Salunkhe.
However, about four years ago, the farmer spotted a Satvyk store on a visit to Kolhapur. He was immediately drawn to enter as the store was completely organic.
“Upon entering the store, I told them that I was a farmer. They explained to me how chemical fertilisers are not good for the crops. They also told me that they source the produce in the shop from farmers who practise organic farming. Hearing that I immediately got on board,” he says.
Now, Satvyk procures 20 quintals each of gram, jowar and wheat from his farm. Salunkhe also works with Satvyk as a farmer leader and trainer for other farmers who have recently started organic farming.
“The best part was that when I first associated with them, they gave me so much knowledge on desi (indigenous) seeds and chemical-free agriculture. I make almost 40 percent more than what I used to in the local mandis,” says Salunke.
Fresh Food with an Experience
Utkarsh Saraph, an IT professional at Wipro, Bengaluru, has always preferred naturally grown food, free of chemicals.
“About three and a half years back, I was browsing through the internet for places where I can buy organic groceries. That is when I came across Satvyk. So, I placed my order and they soon delivered the groceries at my doorstep,” recalls the 35-year-old.
Now, he is a frequent buyer. Of all the products, he especially loves the jaggery sugar and the groundnut oil.
“The groundnut oil is cold pressed and you can even taste the groundnut. It tastes so natural and pure. I have even told my friends and relatives to buy from Satvyk as they sell products of really good quality,” he says.
Satvyk has since then elevated the shopping experience for their customers. In 2018, they launched a new range of stores called the, ‘Adrish Zero-waste Organic Store’. As the name suggests, the store is completely zero-waste and does away with any kind of packaging. Here, one has to bring their own containers and bags to buy grains, pulses, fruits or vegetables.
“In case one forgets to get their own containers or bags, we rent out containers and paper bags that can be returned to us. We realised that as a business, we do not want to contribute to environmental pollution,” says Akshay. There are three Adrish stores in Pune, one in Delhi and one store would be launched in Mumbai on 15 March.
Apart from food products, Satvyk has launched a range of other products. They sell cleaning solutions which are free of chemicals and are made with bio-enzymes prepared by women’s SHGs based in the Himalayan region. Their skincare products like soaps, body washes, moisturisers, shampoos are paraben-free and contain natural coconut oil. These are again made by women SHGs in Auroville.
Overcoming Rough Patches for a Brighter Future
Scaling operations and having so many people on board is impossible without facing any challenges.
Akshay says that since agriculture can be really unpredictable due to dependence on weather conditions, they have to keep their stores well stocked at all times to serve their customers. They also have to ensure that there is no involvement of chemicals in the storage process and preserving grains in an authentic way can be challenging. Thus, they store all their produce in airtight containers as opposed to fumigating as it affects the nutritional value.
“However, the biggest challenge we face is that people are often skeptical when we tell them that we are completely organic. We then have to patiently explain to them how we work, the processes involved and how Satvyk was actually founded,” explains Akshay.
Learning from his experiences, Akshay has a few wise words for budding entrepreneurs.
“Everyone gets attracted to the idea of becoming an entrepreneur because it’s really glamorous. But, this entails a lot of ups and downs. One has to persevere through these challenges and, in the end, you’ll always emerge as a winner,” he says.
So, what’s in store for Satvyk in the future?
The startup is working on expanding the number of stores and aims to open about 15 stores in the next 18 months. It also wants to launch sustainable clothing in their stores which are handwoven and handspun by local artisans. Launching an official website for Adrish is also on the cards, informs Akshay.
“Our overall vision is to make good food and a holistic lifestyle easy for people. We want to work with more farmers and provide them with sustainable livelihood, while ensuring our customers are healthy. We want to develop and nurture a sense of purpose which is greener and more sustainable,” says Akshay signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Steve Jobs
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: AI used the right way
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: Patience and Perseverance
*Your favourite book
Ans: Connecting the Dots by Rashmi Bansal
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Read books on finance and autobiographies
* Before this interview I was ____…
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: It is equally difficult to manage a small business viz-a-viz large businesses
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: What would they do differently if they were me
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: My father always tells me that one should keep moving ahead, come what may.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)