Outlets selling organic food products are still few

Farmers are willing. Buyers are too. Yet, organic food shops are pitiably unusual in Kozhikode. For a city that flaunts its love of good food, this deficit should pinch. As more drawing room conversations veer towards safe food, as neo-converts scout the cityscape for vegetables and lentils grown healthy, they draw a near blank.

Tomy Mathew, owner of Elements Homestead Products Pvt Ltd., probably the only full-fledged organic store stocking everything from jaggery and pumpkins to books and toiletries, puts the blame squarely on poor entrepreneurship. In a city known for its businesses, few brave hearts have ventured into the organic market perceived to be a finger-burning exercise. With “risk-takers” scarce, those like Tomy have no competition. Those like Rejul Kumar M.P., an organic farmer left with no outlet for his produce, has combed in similar-minded farmers to form ‘Green View’, a mobile van that travels around the city selling vegetables grown in the district. Organic pockets are small. At Niravu in Vengeri customers can buy organic veggies grown there.

“There is a growing body of farmers who give organic produce. There is a set of conscious consumers. But there is nobody in between to bridge the physical and emotional distance between them,” says Tomy. “There is huge mistrust. The farmer did not believe for long that the urban consumer is on his side. Mainstream farmer badly needs market,” he adds. He pitched in to this vacuum with his wife after bidding adieu to corporate life. Elements started 14 years ago when organic food was not mainstream conversation. They walked into it clear-eyed. Romanticism did not guide business, nor did charity. “We burnt every bridge to get here. It is our bread and butter and we had to break even. We gave ourselves five years,” says Tomy.

It is the search for market that brought Rejul to the idea of selling directly. “Ours is a farmer’s initiative. Those like us who produce organic vegetables could not sell it at a fair price. It was often sold with inorganic produce,” he says. Green View is still young; the van was launched two months ago. In its ambit are about 100 farmers from across Kozhikode who sell their produce to Rejul who in turn in his van takes it to different localities in the city each day of the week. He is buoyed by the response. “We are already finding it hard to reach so many points,” he says.

Though he still calls Elements a mixed bag, Tomy has two outlets in the city and more are being contemplated. Through the years, patience and perseverance have paid off. If other entities came and went, his enterprise fought and stayed. Tomy reasons why. “Those who came driven by enthusiasm and by corporate clout have beaten a hasty retreat. Organic business cannot be fuelled by artificial stimuli. It has to be fair to the farmer. I make no bones about the fact that we do not come cheap,” he says.

Most goods at Elements come at a higher market price. But his niche customers, which have been a surprise, have stayed put. “We made a mistake in gauging our customers. Those who talk platitudes on environment were not our real buyers. It is the middle and the lower middle class—the lower division clerks, school teachers and municipal employees who buy. Rice costs double the market rate here, but when you break it up, the increase in the cost per meal is 50 paise,” he insists.

Matter of choice

Price has not been a hurdle for Rejul either. Though the organic vegetables in the van cost Rs. 5 to 6 more than the market rate, it has not driven away buyers. Testimony is the steady stream of home makers at Bilathikulam who pick and choose vegetables as the van parks at the colony.

Logistics continue to niggle. It is the small timers who bear the brunt. A reason why Rejul cannot market Green View as a wholesome organic initiative.

Though most vegetables in his van are organic, collected from farmers in Vengeri, Balussery and Mukkam, a small segment of it continues to be inorganic. “Those like onion, potato, cauliflower and cabbage are not produced here organically. Getting it from outside is not economically viable for us. So we have to sell inorganic stuff. All the traditional vegetables — yam, pumpkin, tapioca, plantain and others here are organic. We also sell products like the nourishing palm powder,” he adds.

Since Elements works at bigger level, Tomy has to face the logistical nightmare head-on. “Our jaggery comes from Haryana, potatoes from Kolhapur, vegetables, spices and coffee from Wayanad and milk from Yechur,” he reels out as fresh bread from Mysore settles into the display basket. “Logistics can be dealt with only by scaling up the volume. If you have 10 more competitors the price would naturally come down,” he says. Elements go all the way with its organic stock with milk and eggs being the latest entrant. “Some keep the safe products, those with long shelf life. But until you keep grains, pulses and vegetables it is a disservice to organic retailing,” he says.

Authenticity is a key area for the sellers. “Authenticity is a minefield,” Tomy is cryptic. “International organic certification is not acclimatised to the Indian farmer,” he asserts. So he goes the conventional route, tying up with local initiatives and conducting inspections himself.

For Rejul too, strong local network comes to aid. “Once we visit the farm, we make the farmer sign a stamp paper asserting that all his produce are organic and he will be responsible for it.” Rejul wants to go completely organic soon.

His biggest confidence booster is the customer. “The other day, I gave organic curry leaves to a lady and she asked me why I am giving her shrivelled ones when I stock immaculate ones. I convinced her to use it once and the next week she was waiting for me asking for the not-so-nice-looking leaves,” says Rejul. “If a customer sees a shrivelled vegetable, they will surely pick it up. They are now absolutely okay with it,” concurs Tomy.