Ayesha Grewal, 36, worked as a consultant with a bank in the US after doing her master’s in global finance from the University of Denver. Her first job was to evaluate fraudulent earnings announcements. A year and a half later, Grewal quit and returned to India in 2000 with the idea of setting up two dot-com ventures. Neither concept worked out. Grewal ended up working with Winrock International India, a non-profit organization, managing the finance portfolio for its renewable energy group. Again, within a year and a half, she “realized that she had philosophical issues with the job”; in 2003 she quit to set up a consulting company—Environment Energy and Enterprise Ventures (e3V). This was the first entrepreneurial venture she set up with two partners, taking on assignments in countries such as China and Brazil, apart from India, to work on renewable energy resource projects.
Farm-fresh, chemical-free: Grewal divides her time between the hills and Delhi to oversee both arms of her venture--procurement and sales. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
It was during one such assignment in Uttarakhand in 2005 that she got the idea for her second venture—Kurmanchal Organic Ventures—which works in the field of processing organic fruits. “I started working with a farmers’ federation and realized that I need to look for income-enhancement opportunities for the farmer. Since apple was the No. 1 crop, I decided to create products that would generate such revenue, and that’s how I started making organic apple juice.” But since the apple season lasts only three weeks in a year, it did not make sense to concentrate only on one fruit. Grewal started to expand the product range and sourced other fruits—plums, peaches, apricots—to make juices, butter, syrups and jams, and now even vegetables for pickles.
The farmers in the hills grow “wonderful products organically and most of these end up in the mandi (wholesale market) where they get no premium for growing organic foodstuff or for the variety of products they offer,” says Grewal. As Kurmanchal Organic Ventures’ organic apple juice gained popularity in select circles in the Capital, Grewal started getting feedback that people wanted more organic food items. “Delhi was clamouring for organic produce. Besides, the farmers often wondered if there was a way they could sell their other produce at prices that were better than the mandi.” It all came together for Grewal and in 2009 she decided to set up The Altitude Store online (it was a part of e3V till February, but is now a private limited company).
At first, she planned to concentrate on dried herbs, pulses, rice varieties, juices and jams, among other things, but with word-of-mouth publicity, more orders started coming. Grewal set up a store in Delhi’s Shanti Niketan market and started participating in local events to popularize the concept.
From 108 products in 2009, The Altitude Store stocks and sells close to 500 products today, besides organizing weekly fresh organic vegetables and fruits delivery. “I was getting disenchanted with the consulting work. I never saw the projects to fruition stage. Most projects take a couple of years to show results and I hardly ever went back to see them. I wanted to work on a project or venture where I would be present from start to finish.” Now, she divides her time between the hills and Delhi to oversees both arms of her venture—procurement and sales.
Reducing the influence of the middlemen is still a challenge. “This is mostly because for the farmers, the aarats (middlemen) are there 12 months in a year and hence supplying to them remains a priority.” To break the dependency of the farmer on the aarat, Grewal knows that she has to be there for farmers for the whole year and be able to advance small loans when they need help in case of sickness, crop failure or weddings, among other things. “Currently, only 30% of our stuff comes directly from the farmer. I want to increase that in the coming years.”
Go back to consulting or become a full-time cheese maker, for which Grewal has done a course.
Keeping the business plan flexible, including more ideas and services as she goes along and adding a personal touch by interacting with customers as closely as she can. Though she is not able to do it for all customers, Grewal says she still tries to deliver apple juices or veggies to her first-time clients herself. “Also, I keep a track of all emails that come in personally and ask for suggestions from clients on how we can improve our delivery systems.”