Society

Being the change: Truly farm fresh

An exciting time to sell veggies, says Sanjay Dasari   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

“This was never part of the plan,” smiles Sanjay Dasari, absent-mindedly juggling a hefty pumpkin, as his staff bustle around his cheery vegetable store at Kalakshetra Colony. “I studied in Boston for four years and planned to work with a global consulting firm. I even signed the offer letter.”

Then, he came home to India for what was supposed to be a short holiday last year. “There was so much optimism here. So much potential for growth. I realised this was a ‘now-or-never’ moment. And to be honest — it’s an exciting time to be selling vegetables.”

Vegetables may seem like an odd choice for a 21-year-old. “I realise it’s not a sexy industry,” he laughs, walking between aisles of freshly-stacked produce. “It’s not tech! But this is the oldest industry in the world. And the most important, some would argue.” Discussing how he and his partner Karthik Jayaraman began their company Sunny Bee, Sanjay says, “We deliberately did not launch an app; e-commerce has destroyed the notion of fruits and vegetables. A tomato takes 65 days to grow. If you buy it online, you don’t know where or how it was grown. And you’re never going to bother to find out.”

He launched a “supply chain start-up” instead. It gave him the chance to tackle a problem that had been bothering him for a while: food wastage. Sanjay states that about 35 to 45 per cent of the produce grown in India is wasted. To put this in perspective, according to an article in the World Economic Forum website, Indian farm output increased from 208 million tonnes to 263 million tonnes between 2006 and 2014. However, a lot of this food doesn’t reach consumers. In 2013, Sharad Pawar, former Union Minister for Agriculture, said that Rs. 44,000 crore worth of fruits, grains and vegetables goes to waste every year, because of inadequate storage infrastructure.

“It’s a highly disorganised market. There’s wastage at every level, because of the way produce is stored and transported.” Sanjay explains how a tomato passes through six (or more) sets of people before it reaches you: from farmers to aggregators, transport agencies, distributors with warehouses, grocery stores and finally consumers. “It’s ridiculous: we grow so much food in our country, and there are still hungry people.”

Especially when small, intuitive fixes can significantly reduce wastage. Sanjay says “We move about 10 tonnes of produce a day — that is 0.5 per cent of the Chennai market. We’ve managed to bring wastage down to between 5 and 10 per cent. Just putting paper strips between apples, for instance, brings down contact damage by 50 to 80 per cent.”

Sanjay started experimenting with efficient ways to move produce. “During litchi season, we tied up with a farmer in Muzaffarpur. We transported about 350 kg in refrigerated trucks to various airports through the week, flew the fruit to Chennai and sold it to customers 16 hours after harvest. Our fruit was 45 per cent cheaper than the market rate: that’s how ridiculously inefficient the conventional supply chain (which takes about 76 hours) can be.”

He admits, “This is not a very attractive industry money-wise. After paying for manpower, rent and electricity, we get a one or two per cent net profit. Additionally, with produce, you sell it or you smell it. There’s a 24-hour shelf life. Everything in this industry pushes people to fail.”

Yet, he realised that applying logic tilted the odds in his favour. “The existing chain is hilariously unreliable. I realised the only way to be successful is to handle it from start to finish.”

This begins with finding reliable farmers. “We have a direct tie-up with more than 50 farmers across the country.” Their produce is tested in labs to ensure it meets WHO-prescribed safety standards. “We deliberately don’t say organic, because the word is defined differently by every farmer. And, very often, produce that is sold as organic isn’t organic at all. It’s becoming a term used by people who want to charge high prices. I want to introduce transparency in the industry.”

He’s doing pretty well so far. In under a year, Sunny Bee has opened six stores and seven mobile sale units (trucks selling produce, which he calls ‘Bees.’) Since he buys directly from farmers, he gets produce at better prices, a benefit that is passed on to both farmers and customers.

However, what Sanjay is most proud of is how quickly he can get vegetables from a farm to your plate. He points to a shelf piled high with gleaming brinjal. “This was harvested at a farm in Kalpakkam just two-and-a-half hours ago.”


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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 3:03:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/Being-the-change-Truly-farm-fresh/article14569734.ece

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