The western belt of Maharashtra is famously known as the sugar bowl of the state. Kolhapur district, located in this belt, is also famous for its jaggery, footwear and tourist attractions. But this region may soon also be popular for growing organic exotic vegetables.
The reason behind this is the aquaponic and hydroponic farms that have sprung up in a small patch of 50-acre land for growing exotic vegetables. About 40 varieties of exotic plants like kale, lettuce, Pak Choi, mushrooms, and other vegetables are grown here and sent across to other cities in India.
Interestingly, it is not the natives who have changed the cropping pattern, but IIT-Bombay alumni with no farming background. The initiative is called LandCraft Agro.
Mayank Gupta and Lalit Jhawar became friends while pursuing engineering at IIT. Mayank launched a start-up called Zilingo and travelled across Southeast Asia between 2012 to 2018, while Lalit joined his family business in the textile and real estate industry back in 2011.
From sellers to growers of vegetables
In early 2018, Mayank quit his job and returned home for good. “I became homesick and felt the need to work in a sustainable food space in India. I discussed the idea of launching an e-commerce platform for organic and fresh vegetables with Lalit,” he says.
However, after some research, Lalit and Mayank soon realised their venture would not materialise. “We had planned to become a channel to access fresh, organic and exotic vegetables from growers and provide them to customers. But to our disappointment, there were very few who grew good quality organic produce in the exotic vegetable space,” he says. The two then decided to consider growing the produce themselves and selling it.
“Nashik is the vegetable capital of Maharashtra and it seemed difficult to comprehend that we could not have a good range of exotic vegetables growing here.
There is always inhibition in such varieties growing well in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and other Northern states with cooler weather conditions,” Mayank says.
After some research, the duo shortlisted Kolhapur as the ideal place to set up the farm. “Kolhapur is best for agriculture due to its soil, water availability and farmer presence. The geographic location also makes it possible to send the produce to potential markets. Places like Pune, Goa, Mumbai and Bangalore are within a 12-hour drive, making it possible for the vegetables to reach customers within hours of harvest. This will ensure freshness,” Mayank says.
“Neither of us had any experience in farming.”
In April 2019, Mayank and Lalit set up LandCraft Agro in Ichalkaranji, about 30 km away from Kolhapur city.
Changing consumer mindset
LandCraft grows 40 types of vegetables on 20-acre hydroponics and 3-acre aquaponics farms. Lalit and Mayank trained about 150 farmers to convert 100 acres of land into poly houses for vegetable cultivation. The produce is sold under the brand name Trueganic.
The vegetables are sent to Hyderabad and Chennai, and flown to Delhi, in addition to cities in Maharashtra. The one-year-old start-up is churning a turnover of Rs 80 lakh a month. While the earnings look promising, entering a niche market by growing organic food was a challenge.
“Neither of us had any experience in farming. I had never grown a plant in my life before. So we made many mistakes in the beginning, but quickly learned from them,” says Mayank.
Lalit, the co-founder, says the duo accessed a lot of research work and contacted technical experts and advisers to get things straightened out. “After we learned how to grow organic food, marketing and convincing customers became a bigger challenge,” he tells The Better India.
Lalit says that the average consumer saw the same vegetables available at cheaper costs, but convincing them to try the product for its superior quality and freshness became a task. “Repeat orders faced lesser friction. It’s more of a psychological challenge to change mindsets for buying better. However, the COVID-19 pandemic helped customers make healthier choices,” he adds.
The agri-entrepreneurs say the next plan is to get farmers to sign up for contract farming and extend the supply chain to multiple cities.
“We wish to reach out to more cities and increase our customer base,” Lalit says, adding that more farmers are being trained to grow exotic crops—in addition to conventional ones grown in the area—which will help them earn better.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)