Salads are no more the side dishes that complimented the main course. Salads, infact, have undergone the most delicious of makeovers and are now complete meals in themselves. And ruling the roost among the iceberg lettuce leaves, shiny bits of cherry tomatoes and capers are microgreens. Chefs are creating salad recipes to not just fill you up but to also provide you with nutrition and what’s greater than adding microgreens?
These small plant-like additions in your salad are not for the purposes of aesthetics only. More than that, microgreens are a powerhouse rich in iron, zinc, copper, potassium and magnesium. They are basically vegetable greens harvested when the leaves sprout from the seedling.
Though considerably newer veggies on the block, microgreens had already won Vidhyadharan Narayan heart six years ago. The entrepreneur from Chennai had seen potential in growing these nutritious greens as a business. Starting out with an initial investment of Rs. 15,000, the Chennai man now makes about Rs. 80,000 a month only from the sale of micro-greens which he grows in a 10×10 room!
The former social-worker officially founded his business in October 2018, and named it ‘Sakhi Microgreens’. Today, he supplies almost 45 kgs of microgreens per month to restaurants and supermarkets in and around Chennai.
From a Social Worker to an Entrepreneur
Vidhyadharan says that starting the microgreens business in 2014 helped him stabilise his income at a time when he was facing financial issues.
After finishing his schooling from Model Higher Secondary school in Saidapet, he went and taught at a rural informal education centre for dropouts aged between 10 to 15 years.
After working there for close to two years, he joined a local NGO called Tamil Nadu Primary School Improvement Campaign and worked there for almost 10 years. He then joined with the Tamil Nadu Alliance for Right to Education for four years.
So how did the switch over to farming occur?
“Although I did not have a background in agriculture with my father working in the army, I was always interested in farming and wanted to pursue it. With all the savings that I had accumulated over the years, I spent about Rs. 3 lakh and bought a one and a half acre of land in Uthiramerur about 90kms away from Chennai,” he says.
He quit his job and started his own NGO called, ‘Grassroots Foundation Trust’ in 2003 which focussed on child rights. Vidhyadharan would often visit the plot of land over the weekends where he had hired a few farmers to work in his fields. “I started paddy and groundnut cultivation on the land, growing the former in monsoons while the latter in winters,” he says.
However, things did not pan out the way Vidhyadharan had expected and agriculture was doing him no good. He would make about Rs. 30,00 from paddy cultivation while making Rs. 20,000 from groundnut cultivation in a year.
“My net profit from this was only around Rs. 10,000. So, I had to completely give up agriculture in 2011,” he says.
Vidhyadharan’s agricultural losses piled up so much that he had to shut down his NGO in 2013. He later decided to buy a few cars and started a small travels and tours business. This too did not pick up and he ended up selling two out of the three cars that he bought. The one car that remained, he would drive it himself.
“Despite giving up agriculture, I still wanted to grow something and work with plants. So, I ended up researching the market trends and that is when I read up on microgreens in 2014,” recalls the small time entrepreneur.
Microgreens for Macro Gains
Vidhyadharan started out by buying trays, coco peat, vermi-compost and seeds from different stores. He also bought an old unused refrigerator where he could keep the trays where he was growing microgreens.
The entrepreneur does not really have a team. He and his wife, Jayarani, manage all aspects of the operations in a 10×10 room at their home. “It takes about 10 to 15 days for the first cotyledon to appear from the germinating seeds. Once that is done, we pluck it and package it in small boxes that weigh about 100 grams,” says Vidhyadharan.
Vidhyadharan now grows about six to eight varieties of microgreens which also depends on the orders they get.
So far they have grown about 18+ types of microgreens like sunflower, radish, beetroot, amaranth, broccoli, cabbage, alfa-alfa, mustard among others.
How To Grow Microgreens
- Soak the seeds in water for about three days and keep the tray in a dark room.
- After the seeds sprout, transfer the seedlings to a tray with soil and keep it at a place that does not get direct sunlight.
- For the next few days, spray the tray with water until the sixth or the seventh day.
- On the seventh day, place the tray of microgreens on a bigger tray with water for bottom watering.
- A week after that the microgreens are ready to be consumed or sold in the market.
Happily, Vidhyadharan found takers for his product within Chennai. Chef Ravichandran T used microgreens for the first time in 2017. “However, since I couldn’t get a regular supply of fresh microgreens, I did not add any dishes on the menu that incorporated them,” says the 33-year-old chef who works at a Chennai restaurant called, ‘East Coast at Madras Square’.
It has been over a year now since the chef started sourcing microgreens from the entrepreneur. “We use microgreens in almost all our popular salads like the honey citrus salad, Greek feta salad, roasted eggplant salad among others. We source almost 15 kgs of microgreens in a month which include sunflower, radish, mustard, beetroot and broccoli. People have loved our salads and these microgreens packed with flavour and nutrition,” informs Ravichandran.
In addition to chefs and restaurants, Vidhyadharan also supplies to supermarkets like Kalpaviruksha, and Nilgiris among others. With the steady income he makes from his microgreens business, Vidhyadharan has also been able to resume farming on his one and a half acre farmland.
Overcoming Challenges For a Greener Future
Although the microgreens business helped Vidhyadharan stabilise his income, the road so far has not been an easy one.
For after two years of operations, he had to shut it down for the next three years.
“I suffered a stroke in 2016 and it took me a long time to recover from that. But, I took those two years to get better and rebuilt my business from scratch,” says Vidhyadharan.
Other than that, he speaks about operational challenges he has faced. “A lot of places don’t really source microgreens on a regular basis. So, most of the time the supply is purely based on the orders we get. Also, the shelf life of the microgreens is only a few days because of which it needs to be supplied immediately once it is ready,” states Vidhyadharan.
Regardless, the entrepreneur is looking ahead with a fresh perspective and a positive outlook.
Vidhyadharan says that he now wants to start a YouTube channel where he can talk about how to grow microgreens and also inform viewers about their nutritional benefits. In the future, he also hopes to take part in exhibitions and pop-ups where he can speak to prospective customers about micro-greens. In the coming months, he plans to experiment with growing edible flowers and baby spinach.
“At present, I supply about 120 boxes of microgreens in a week weighing about 12 kgs. In the next six months, I want to scale this up to about 50 kgs a week. I also hope to supply my microgreens to cities other than in Chennai,” says Vidhyadharan signing off.
To get in touch with Vidhyadharan, call him on 95140 44663 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)