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Even though Namrata Goenka had started her career as a patent agent and then a patent attorney, she decided to set up her own venture after becoming a mother. “Once my son was born, I found myself looking for good ingredients and reading nutrition labels. Since I had a terrace at my home [in Bengaluru], I also started growing vegetables at home," says the 35-year-old. Soon, she was toying with the idea of using her terrace space to set up a sustainable food venture. In 2016, Goenka attended a weeklong course on mushroom cultivation at the ICAR-Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR) after spotting an advert for it in the newspaper. After two years of experimenting with mushroom farming, Goenka officially launched Green Apron in April 2018. While her focus is on growing exotic varieties of mushrooms such as shiitake, elm and pink oyster, she also sells dried jackfruit, Indian gooseberries as well as black rice, nolen gur and Gobindobhog rice from Bengal.

Why mushrooms?

“Once I did the course [at IIHR], I realized how nutritious mushrooms are and learnt that it grows on agro waste. Plus, it can be grown indoors and vertically, thus, reducing the pressure on land," says Goenka, who wanted to try her hand at cultivating this “healthy and sustainable food option". Instead of growing the readily-available button mushrooms, she focuses on hard-to-find varieties such as elm and pink oyster mushrooms . In a 10x10 feet room on the terrace of her home in north Bengaluru, Goenka has been growing all three varieties of mushrooms on a cyclical basis. While the shiitake takes about three-four months to be ready for harvest, the other two varieties take about one or two months to bear fruit. The spawn (from which the mushroom grows) comes from IIHR and has to be booked a month in advance.

Facing challenges

As a small enterprise and an urban farmer, Goenka often struggles with sourcing raw materials for the substrate on which the mushrooms grow. “Since mushrooms grow on agro waste, which is any kind of biomass such as paddy straw, husk, hull, bran, etc., it’s challenging to source these materials at a low cost and small quantity," she adds. Pretty much a one-woman show, Goenka has had to find innovative ways to ensure that she maintains the optimum conditions (temperature, humidity, aeration and light) during the fruiting stage. “Since I don’t have any automated technology [to manage these factors] like most large scale farms, I need to check on them on regular intervals especially during the hot and dry summer season. For instance, one has to maintain humidity by pouring water on the floors and walls through the day," she explains. And since she’s pretty much self-taught, Goenka has had to deal with her fair share of crop failures.

Low awareness and myths about mushrooms is another impediment. Goenka, who has participated at several farmer’s markets and exhibitions to promote her brand, has encountered many misconceptions about mushrooms. “There are people who think mushrooms are non-vegetarian, then there are those who don’t know how to cook with it and they peel or even boil them," says Goenka, who has often been advised against growing these rarer mushroom varieties as there may not be a market for it.

Learning curve

As an entrepreneur, Goenka believes that she learns something new every day. “If I have to pick a learning, then it would be on adopting a positive attitude. Any new venture or startup is bound to face several hurdles. Keeping a positive attitude through the hurdles helps in staying focused, motivated and above all in finding solutions. I have come to realize the potential within me and that I am no different from anyone else. We are limited by our thoughts and our thoughts define us. So for us at Green Apron the die is cast," says Goenka, who has found unconventional sources of support. Apart from help from the dean at IIHR, she’s also part of online mushroom growers’ communities where she exchanges notes and seeks advice from others like her.

Future of the market

According to Goenka, who connects to her customers via her website and WhatsApp, she’s currently getting more orders than she can meet. “Now, I message my customers whenever I have a harvest ready and then I send the orders via Dunzo [a delivery app]," she reveals. While the pink and elm oyster mushrooms cost approximately 400 per kg, the shiitake comes to about 1,500 per kg. In order to meet growing demand, she has recently taken another place on rent to expand her mushroom cultivation. “As a healthy crop that is sustainable and requires less water and space, I think it has immense potential. Plus, people are more health conscious and open to trying out new things today," she concludes.

Food Files looks at unique food startups and their journey through challenges and learnings.

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