Food

How this Chennai firm is changing the way we consume food

Akhil Nichani of Sustenance Agrotech

Akhil Nichani of Sustenance Agrotech   | Photo Credit: M Vedhan

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Microgreens pack in a lot of power and flavour, and this year-old startup is tapping into their potential by supplying to restaurants around town

Housed in a bustling commercial complex on GP Road, the Sustenance Agritech office is an oasis of calm.

Akhil Nichani, the 23-year-old founder, inspects rows of greens jostling for space in their plastic containers. As he runs a check on the produce to be shipped the next day, he pulls out a radish microgreen, plucks off the root and proffers it to me. “Go ahead. Try it.”

As I bite into the delicate green, the intensity of flavour in a mere two-inch plant surprises me. The radish green creates an explosion of spiciness; in comparison, a slice of radish itself is much milder.

“That is because microgreens pack in a lot more nutrition and flavour when compared to the actual vegetable,” says Akhil, who supplies to hotels like Crowne Plaza and Radisson Blu Hotel GRT, and a set of restaurants, which include The Summer House Eatery, Patina, Broken Bridge Cafe, Radio Room, Lord of The Drinks and Soul Garden Bistro.

An electronic engineer by qualification, Akhil decided to get into hydroponics and microgreens after stumbling upon the concept in college.

“I read up extensively about microgreens. I then walked into the kitchen and asked my mother for mustard seeds and began experimenting,” he laughs. Once he graduated from SRM University last year, he began seriously working on Sustenance.

Currently, Sustenance offers microgreens in radish (red, white, pink and purple), amaranth (red and green), bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, clover and broccoli. “I have experimented with beetroot, but the weather in Chennai is not conducive to it. Beets need colder climate. I am experimenting with sunflower too.”

Typically, he uses seeds that have a germination rate of 90 to 95%. “At the very least 75%. We also prefer untreated seeds, since seed covers usually linger on microgreens and one doesn’t want to be ingesting chemicals.

Seed growers often use a chemical to coat the seed to protect it from fungus or infection,” he says. His hunt for quality seeds led to a tie-up with Durga Seeds and All That Grows, in Chandigarh.

Micro facts
  • Microgreens are plants that are seven to 10 days old.
  • Once the seeds germinate and grow their first set of leaves, they are harvested and consumed.
  • Seeds usually have enough energy in terms of starch and carbohydrates to germinate and grow the first set of leaves. So microgreens don’t need any growth mixtures.
  • Microgreens offer anywhere between 20% to 40% more nutrition than regular vegetables. The flavour profile is more intense as well.

When they first started, deliveries were done by Akhil and his then business partner. Today, he has a team in place, with one person exclusively handling deliveries.

“I started off by myself, but soon I had two seniors from school join me. One of them moved on, but Maulin Tolia and I are continuing in the business.” Akhil also runs a 300-square-foot hydroponics farm in Kilpauk, where he grows Thai basil, kankong and watercress.

Akhil says that one of the biggest challenges he faced when he first started out was to be taken seriously due to his age.

“Chefs and purchase managers would assume I’d landed up at the wrong place,” he laughs. “But microgreens open a lot of doors. There aren’t many players in Chennai; most of the microgreens used here come from Pune and Bengaluru. I began approaching chefs with samples and they knew I was there to talk business.”

Chennai’s weather also limits variety. “I know people in Mumbai who can offer around 50 varieties, while I offer around 15. Here we keep a watch on temperature and humidity. The air conditioner the humidity in the room at about 40% and we don’t let the temperature go beyond 30°C.”

Akhil adds that microgreens as a concept is still picking up in Chennai. Weather and awareness are major factors, but “it is all about marketing now.”

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 5:24:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/how-this-chennai-firm-is-changing-the-way-we-consume-food/article30149501.ece

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