From being an engineer to co-founding a company with her mom – this is Likitha Bhanu’s journey of turning a hobby into business.
She was 22 and just out of college when Likitha Bhanu got together with her mother Padmaja, and started Terra Greens Organic, a food company based in Hyderabad that aims to revive sustainable agricultural practices in India through organic farming.
This was in 2013. Today, the company has a presence in 16 states and over 650 stores in addition to having engaged about 4,000 farmers across India in organic agriculture.
It all started with a 15-year-old hobby of Likitha’s mother’s – organic farming. She took a 2-acre area on her family’s 127-acre land in Shankarpalli, Telangana, and started farming on it.
Likitha grew up watching her mother lovingly take care of her field. On this land, she would grow as much as she could, with the idea of making the family self-sustainable in a way that they didn’t need to purchase anything from the market. She would also distribute the produce among family and friends.
Over the years, this hobby turned into a passion and Padmaja took over 40 acres of the family land to start organic farming at a larger scale. She grew everything from fruits, and vegetables, to flowers and paddy, and also kept cows and hens.
In 2012, after graduating in Biotechnology from Vellore Institute of Technology, Likitha decided to take a year off and stay at home. That summer there was an excess of five tonnes of mangoes in Padmaja’s field, so much so that the family was left with mangoes even after distributing and eating as much as they could. This was the first time that the mother-daughter duo thought of selling their produce. “We didn’t want the mangoes to go waste,” says Likitha.
They supplied the mangoes to a Nature’s Basket store under the brand name Terra Greens Organic, which instantly turned out to be a huge hit. Many people asked for the mangoes even after the entire supply was sold.
And just like that, accidentally, a surprising turn of events inspired Likitha to transform a hobby into a business.
In January 2013, she and Padmaja officially launched Terra Greens Organic in Hyderabad with two aims – to spread awareness about organic food, and to help farmers across India adopt this method of farming. With their savings and a bank loan, the duo started its first farming project in Rajasthan, followed by Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, because the demand and understanding of organic farming was better in these states at the time.
They tied up with local farmers who grow produce according to their guidelines, and supply to Terra Greens. The company has now tied up with 4,000 farmers. Terra Greens signs contracts with theses farmers, stating that they will receive buyback guarantee if they grow the required produce.
“What we procure from the farmers is cleaned, packed, and sent to distribution points all over India, from where it goes to all other locations,” says Likitha. In the next few years, they are looking to get 7,000 more farmers on board.
“Back then there weren’t as many brands as you would see today, so we had many retailers and models that accepted us,” says Likitha.
The process of on boarding starts with convincing the farmers, who have been used to chemical agriculture, about the importance of organic farming.
“We then write contracts with farmers saying that they will support them in terms of training and paperwork for organic farming registration and certification. We also fund the certification cost for them. If they produce what Terra Greens wants, they get a premium over market price and we buy it. This way we are also ensuring that the supply chain is intact and we are giving farmers a route to the market. Many farmers growing organic crop in India today are forced to sell it in the conventional market because they do not have access to a company that will absorb all their produce,” says Likitha.
Terra Greens produces pulses, spices, honey, tea, etc. – all staple requirements of an Indian kitchen. “We are careful about the quality of our produce and procure different things from places where they originally grow; so basmati comes from Uttarakhand, rice from Kannur, pulses from Maharashtra, and wheat from Rajasthan.”
With a team of 27 people, Terra Greens has a factory situated in Shankarpalli, where they package the produce before delivery.
According the Likitha, organic products are costly because the demand is so low, but once the demand increases, the market will improve. “People need to make that extra effort to lead an organic life. It’s a matter of educating yourself and people around you, to go that extra mile and ensure that your food is safe for consumption,” she concludes.