Loss of traditional agriculture and indigenous food has been reported as causes, combined with others, for malnutrition among the adivasis of Attappady. They used to cultivate, among other things, ragi, which formed part of their staple, well-balanced diet. But ragi has been ignored and it is fast disappearing here even as it has become a much sought after cereal across the world. Ragi is a wholegrain that has proven qualities to lower cholesterol, is good for weight loss, improves bone health and is good for diabetics….
If this reads as an ode to good old ragi, it is deliberate.
Prashant Paramewaran, a young, Kochi entrepreneur has successfully packaged ragi into tasty, delicious, healthy, breakfast options. “Please talk more about ragi and not about me,” says Prashant, the man who successfully launched Soulfull, a year back. Created by Kottaram Agro Foods, based out of Bangalore, the food brand focuses on two categories—breakfast cereals and instant dosa mixes.
Work with potatoes
Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering Prashant was all set to travel to Babson College, Boston, for his MBA. He had a few months before flying out. “That’s when K.V. Iyer, a family friend, and CEO, Chambal Agritech, Limited, asked me to come over to Chandigarh. They were into production of high-yielding, early generation of seed potatoes. The six months I spent there, travelling to villages in the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, visiting famers, understanding contract farming business, the multiplication technology in potato business, got engraved in my mind. It was something I would never have been doing in my life,” says Prashant, who did his schooling at Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Vadhuthala and his engineering from PSG College of Science and Technology, Coimbatore.
This was his first brush with agriculture and agro products. It triggered an interest that Prashant had pushed back into the recesses of his mind during his Boston days. “Maybe yes, for sometime it was on the backburner. But Babson was an amazing experience. It was not like one of those regular management colleges. There were around 100 to 150 students, all with a single focus on entrepreneurship. By two years I could put a finger firmly on something concrete. I loved food, and agriculture returned.”
For nearly two years Prashant worked for Information Resource Inc. (IRI) in Chicago. “This is a market research company that provides consumer, shopper, retail market intelligence and analysis focused on consumer packaged goods to its clients. For those two-odd years I was with them I must have tracked the data of nearly 20 categories of food products, a whole variety of them. This was real learning on so many aspects like store tracking data, predictive analytical techniques, even strategic pricing, growth and innovation.”
Returning home, knowing that if things did not work out he could always return to IRI, Prashant had to make the choice. “I needed to re-establish myself. There were a lot of options that I looked at, like snacks, frozen food, fresh vegetables. The easiest would have been a contract business, like making biscuits for a corporate, or pizza sauce, or tomato puree. With IRI, I had also worked on functional health foods. The decision was made to start with this.”
Prashant was by now getting deep into investigation and research into a lot of agricultural produces. He associated himself with institutes like International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Directorate of Sorghum Research (DSR) and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in order to find his way to something new. “We did a lot of research and development work on sorghum jowar. But it had a lot of issues like shelf-life. Somehow we were not getting anywhere.”
That’s when Prashant met Dr. MNG Malleshi, former Head of Grain Technology, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. “I have been fortunate to have these good Samaritans leading my way whenever I was in doubt. He had specialised in ragi and asked me if I could think of it as an option. That was the moment. He now works intensely with us and spearheads a couple of our products. Things moved fast. We drew up a product portfolio; decided to go ahead with Indian and Western breakfast food. We have now some interesting stuff like ragi flakes, 100 per cent ragi, with no fortification.”
Sourcing the grain from farmers and traders the products come out of three factories located in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The product range now includes the original ragi flakes, flavoured flakes, vanilla and choco-filled ‘ragi bites,’ idli and dosa mixes. “It took us almost two years to bring these products to the breakfast table. In the future we plan to offer cereals with fruits, muesli, and masala upma to name a few.”
And does he plan to send Soulfull abroad? “Let’s get the India story going first. We are looking at various other categories, on researched products that are deliciously healthy,” says Prashant.