It was a gamble for Ambika Somasundaran when she resigned from her well-paid job and became an entrepreneur in 2017. However, it has paid off. Today, she runs Kariat Dry Foods, a business venture at Marottichal in the Puthur panchayat of Thrissur district. In addition to flours, curry masalas and powders under the brand name, Dry Mix, the company sells value-added products from moringa (drumstick).
“I worked with ESAF Small Finance Bank for 17 years and as part of my job, I used to conduct and coordinate entrepreneurship development, skill development and awareness programmes. Eventually, I developed an interest to become an entrepreneur. So I chose to resign and pursue my dream,” she says.
When it came to zeroing in on a business idea, Ambika says that she had several options. “Ours is a hilly terrain where there are enough raw materials in the form of vegetables, turmeric, nendran bananas and jackfruit. With the guidance of District Industrial Centre I took a subsidy under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme [PMEGP] to start the venture,” she says.
Her objective was to make “safe-to-eat products” made from locally-available produce and employ women in her neighbourhood. “These women wanted to become economically independent. But because of the restrictions in a patriarchal set-up, they were not in a position to do anything on their own. They told me that if I started something, they would come to work for me,” recalls Ambika.
Kickstarting the venture
She launched her enterprise by selling curry powders, and flours to make breakfast dishes such as idiyappam, idli, dosa and puttu as well as different varieties of sun-dried wafers (kondattams). “But it is an immensely competitive field and I had to come up with something new. That’s how I ended up experimenting with different kinds of flour to make puttu and products made from drumsticks,” she explains.
Puttu, a breakfast staple, is usually made with rice flour. Dry Mix has 10 types of puttu flour with rice flour as a base. There is flour with carrot, beetroot, banana, green gram, jackfruit, jackfruit seed, corn, peanut, ragi and njavara rice.
As for drumstick products, there is powder, rice flour and soup mix made from drumstick leaves. They were launched in August 2021 by Minister for Agriculture P Prasad. “A customer had asked for drumstick leaves powder. Around the same time, a friend had inquired if I could help with making a dish in the colours of our National Flag for a competition in his ward’s school. By then I was already experimenting with manufacturing drumstick powder. Once I tested it with my regular customers, I was confident about launching it. My friend’s child made puttu in the colours of the flag and won first prize as well!” she says.
Her venture is supported by Ollur Krishi Samridhi (OKS), a farmer producer organisation (FPO), which falls in the constituency of Ollur MLA and Minister for Revenue, K Rajan. The FPO launched a programme to propagate drumstick cultivation in January 2020 under which 10,000 drumstick saplings were distributed to four panchayats.
P. Anitha, professor, Department of Vegetable Science at College of Agriculture, Kerala Agricultural University, had taken awareness classes in these panchayats on planting the saplings and taking care of them. She, along with her student, Anitta Judy Kurian, had conducted a study in 2018-19 to evaluate nutrient composition in different varieties of drumsticks as part of a “plant project” funded by the Government of Kerala. “We collected 25 drumstick varieties that were in the fifth year of planting. Drumstick is a reservoir of nutrients, ranging from proteins, vitamin C and A, minerals such as calcium, iron and potassium, antioxidant compounds and the like. Countries such as Thailand and Malaysia are far ahead in manufacturing value-added products from drumstick; Kerala is taking baby steps in this direction,” says Dr Anitha.
Ambika is currently sourcing leaves from households in her neighbourhood. “We give ₹30 per kilogram of leaves. They have to remove the main stem only. The leaves are thoroughly cleaned in turmeric water to remove insects/worms and dirt. They are put in the drier the same day itself and the dried leaves are packed in air-tight containers. We powder them as needed. To get one kilogram of dry leaves, we need at least eight kilograms of fresh leaves. And when the dry leaves are made into powder, another 100 grams or so are lost,” she says.
The drumstick powder can be used in curries. It can also be had with water or buttermilk. “The ready-to-mix soup powder has cumin, pepper, shallots and garlic. Mix it in water and boil. Shallots sauteed in oil or ghee can be added for flavour. The drumstick rice flour can be used to make dishes such as puttu or idiyappam or can be added to idli/dosa dough,” Ambika explains.
Drumstick millet mix, chutney powder and rasam mix from drumstick leaves are some of the other products. There is a payasam mix as well, with drumstick flesh and manicholam (Sorghum). She also plans to manufacture oil from drumstick seeds. “We have purchased the machinery to make drumstick powder capsules. Meanwhile, Ollur Krishi Samridhi has initiated steps to export drumstick products, puttu flours and millet mix, which come in three varieties. We are looking at the West Asia market initially,” she says.
Drumstick products are available at SARAS Mela currently on at Kanakakkunnu grounds in Thiruvananthapuram. They can be bought online as well. Contact: 9539731501.