Superplum, a Noida-based startup, has a unique and innovative cold chain solution for fresh fruit produce called the Fresherator. This container, which can attach itself to any 24-feet truck, has the ability to transport four to seven tonnes of fruit from the farm and keep it fresh up to four weeks at a stretch. In other words, Fresharator offers a unique cold chain storage and transport solution for India’s underserved fresh fruit market.
“The Fresherator container converts any truck into a state-of-the-art Reefer vehicle with remote management of temperature, oxygen, humidity, and ethylene levels of fresh produce. The solution can also automatically adjust ideal settings, depending on the fruits being carried from point A to point B. It drastically increases the availability of refrigerated transport and lowers costs as well. The company has successfully carried fresh produce across over 1,50,000 km over the last year and will be scaling up its network over the next few years. The system is integrated with the company’s software management system to provide reliability and predictability. Therefore, it provides better quality and fresh fruits to the consumer,” Shobhit Gupta, who launched Superplum in February 2020, a month before the first COVID-19 lockdown in India, tells The Better India.
Why is this necessary for India’s fresh fruit produce market?
While India is blessed with many farmlands that produce different varieties of fruits, the country is still a net importer. Compared to vegetables, spices and other produce that travels reasonably well, fruits are far more perishable. The lack of a robust cold chain delivery system means that a large chunk of India’s fresh fruit produce ripen quickly and spoil long before they reach consumers.
The lack of farm-level infrastructure, a modern supply chain, and cold chain transport leads to 25% to 30% food wastage and overall low quality. In fact, according to Shobhit, less than 2% of the fresh produce sold is transported in a cold chain, decreasing the overall efficiency of the sector. Equipment such as the Fresharator helps in reducing this sort of wastage and generating more demand for locally produced fresh produce.
“Custom engineered from scratch, the Fresharator works like any refrigerated container. Fruits generate ethylene which can accelerate ripening if they’re left too long out in the open. With a standard IoT (Internet of Things) system, which we operate through our cellular network, we can remotely control temperature, humidity, oxygen and ethylene levels. Our team can update and send commands to the system quite proactively. For example, the Fresherator can facilitate ethylene extraction and create a zero-oxygen environment for some fruits. The major function is that we attach it to the vehicle. Based on the load and type of fruit, the system can set the temperature, humidity levels, etc. The Fresharator does not require an external power source to operate it. That’s what makes this equipment so flexible. It can keep fruits like cherry fresh upto two weeks, a month for apples, and upto three weeks for mangoes. We are in the process of applying for a patent,” explains Shobhit, whose organisation is backed by some of Silicon Valley’s most notable names, including Dan Rose (Coatue Ventures), Steve Jurvetson (Future Ventures) and Binny Bansal (Co-Founder at Flipkart).
The startup began developing the container in June 2019 and it was up and running by February 2020, although they are still making improvements on it along the way.
From farm to consumer
Currently, the venture works with approximately 230 farms and orchards, where they test the soil, fruit and water for over 80 product-specific pesticides and contaminants. Right upto the distribution level, the venture claims that their entire transport system is refrigerated to ensure freshness and quality.
They supply their produce to about 320 stores in the Delhi-NCR region and Bengaluru, including the likes of Spar, Natures Basket, Reliance, and local retail stores. Consumers can also buy online from their website, their app, or sites such as Amazon, and check what fruits are in stock at local stores.
“We tend to pay farmers and orchard owners above market prices because of the quality we desire, and to foster stronger relationships with them. Our focus at this moment is entirely on fresh fruit farmers. Our venture procures about 20 types of fresh fruits. We primarily procure whichever fruit is in season. All produce is carried from farms to retail stores in our innovative custom-designed temperature and humidity-controlled supply chain. Having created a fully-digitised farm-to-store supply chain, we can provide farm-fresh cherries and lychees in Bangalore and Karnataka and Badami mangoes in Delhi. The past year has been a huge learning experience for us about how each fruit has its own supply chain and handling methods that are specific to India,” says Shobhit.
For example, they found that while cherries and strawberries are known to be the most perishable, mangoes are possibly the hardest to transport because they keep ripening. The venture has to manage the process right until delivery to their retail partners.
Essentially, farmers are looking for more reliable sources of income. Under the current system, the offtake of produce can be quite haphazard for them. About eight months before the launch of Superplum, Shobhit and his team organised reecee trips to farm clusters, building relationships with individual farmers and orchard owners. During this time, both Superplum and their prospective farmer partners discussed the needs and requirements of each party and ways in which they could build this relationship moving forward.
“Today, we have set up procurement centres where they grow their crops. Once the produce comes there, we weigh, sort and grade it as per international standards. It is then properly packaged and dispatched in our vehicles which hold our Fresherator containers. Testing of the produce happens before, during and after harvest. After all, pesticides and chemicals are a function of what goes into growing these crops. We have teams monitoring how these crops are being grown on almost all our farms, which is how we ensure basic level of safety. We also test our produce, which is outsourced to third-party accredited laboratories,” he explains.
The venture also operates a comprehensive technology platform, FreshManager, which they claim ensures traceability of every fruit right to the farm.
“The platform enables full transparency and allows consumers to check lab-test reports and other product parameters at their fingertips. FreshManager is uniquely designed for Indian conditions. It allows the company’s QC teams to track more than 10 fruit parameters through the supply chain and also track fruit maturity through its lifecycle,” he adds.
While COVID-19 has put a small dent in their operations early on, they have now picked up the pace and are looking to ramp up their distribution network, while also looking to help other local fresh food stores to build an online presence. Over the next three years, Superplum is looking to build a presence in 10 Indian major cities, alongside Delhi-NCR and Bengaluru.
(For orders, you can visit their website here.)
(Edited by Divya Sethu)