Two years ago, Akash K. Sajith’s life turned upside down when both his parents were diagnosed with cancer. Given that both were vegetarian teetotallers who didn’t smoke, Sajith was at a loss about what could have led to this disease. His search for answers led to an academician who had studied soil contamination as well as incidences of cancer in India. Sajith now believes that contaminated food is a major cause for cancer. The 29-year-old is full of facts and figures. “Did you know that India has the largest micronutrient deficiency among all countries? Or that on an average, Indians consume close to 42,000 tonnes of pesticides in a year, including those that are banned in other countries for their carcinogenic effects?" he asks.
Sajith, who until then had worked with companies such as Myntra and McAfee in the area of analytics and customer experience, had found a new goal—to grow clean food that was also high on micro nutrition.
Last September, Sajith along with two partners launched Living Food Co. in Bengaluru which currently sells 22 types of microgreens and eight herbs on a subscription plan through their website. They also supply their produce to 50 restaurants across the city. Microgreens, which are 10 to 12- day-old baby plants, are extremely rich in nutrients, antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals. “They contain up to 40 times the nutrition found in their mature counterparts. We focus on growing highly nutritious microgreens such as kale, broccoli, mizuna (Japanese mustard), pink radish and red chard," Sajith explains.
According to Sajith, microgreens have been scientifically proven to help fight cancer, aid in weight loss, improve cardiovascular health, balance hormones and regulate blood sugar levels. However, there are hardly any players growing these greens in India, especially Bengaluru, since they’re extremely delicate and need particular care. For instance, to avoid contamination through soil, Living Food Co. grows their produce in indoor climate-controlled hydroponic farms.
They also source USDA approved non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds. In fact, prior to their launch last September, the company spent one-and-a-half years experimenting with different growing conditions in order to find the right results. “We did around 450 rounds of farming and our success rate was 10-12% initially. We were constantly failing but we kept at it. After about one-and-a-half years of farming, it was only in March last year that we started getting some part of it right and put in a series of detection mechanisms from humidity levels to light spectrum," Sajith adds. The microgreens are delivered fresh with roots intact on different kinds of bases made out of coir mat, cocoa peat or hemp fibre and can last for three to 10 days depending on the variant.
Once they launched the products though, it was an instant hit. Their subscribers have grown from 700 to 2,000 in the last six months. “70% of our orders come through word of mouth. We have not spent on any paid marketing," says Sajith adding that they’re particularly active on Instagram.
Finding the right customer base took Sajith some time. “Initially, we approached gyms and health clubs thinking that fitness enthusiasts would be interested in our products. Then we approached people in the beauty industry such as models… it took us a while to realize that it was middle class and upper middle class households who were our target audience. About 25-30% of our customers have kids below 15 years and spend more money on microgreens than anyone else," says Sajith .
Scaling has been the other challenge for this bootstrapped company. “In our second month we had to triple our production. Every month there has been a 2X or 3X growth," says Sajith. Last month, they had to stop taking orders from B2B customers (chefs and restaurants) due to this. Currently, they operate out of a 2,000 sq. ft farm in Thanisandra but in a couple of months they will be moving to a bigger farm. A team of eight people, Sajith says, puts in 16-18 hours a day to meet the growing demand.
Apart from microgreens and herbs, Living Food Co. also offers kombucha and sourdough bread on subscription. Sajith, who speaks to six-seven customers a day, tells us that these products were introduced after suggestions from customers. “If we weren’t having these conversations with our customers, we would have only been a farming company which is harder to scale," he adds.
Future of the market
“Last year, in Bengaluru alone, microgreens accounted for ₹4-6 crore business only with hospitality groups and through weddings and parties. People had seen the product being used at five-star hotels or top restaurants and they were willing to try it out," Sajith observes.
Food Files looks at unique food startups and their journey through challenges and learnings.