While working at ESAF Small Finance Bank in Thrissur district, Ambika Somasundaram would guide self-help groups (SHG) to promote their small businesses. This was the fuel for her interest in entrepreneurship, which took shape as Kariat Dry Foods in 2018.
After working in the banking sector for 17 years, Ambika quit her job to begin her agripreneurship journey. Her motive was not simply profit. She wanted to lend a helping hand to neighbourhood women and local farmers. Also, given the availability of traditional food crops in the hilly area of Marottichal, she did not have to think twice before opting for the dry food business.
“There were several women in my locality who needed a stable income but were unable to start anything of their own. My foremost priority was to employ at least a few of them. The hilly terrain and vast agricultural area of the place made agripreneurship an easy option for me. Kariat Dry Foods is, thus, the baby of many hard-working women and farmers,” says the 52-year-old.
The business began with two varieties of products – curry powders and kondattam (sun-dried wafers). Ambika sources spices and other crops directly from farmers in Thrissur, which are then processed in their factory where seven women are employed.
Steaming success with puttu
“Two years ago, we sold around two tonnes of banana chips, and some of the raw material was leftover. We didn’t want to waste it. The banana was turned into powder form and mixed with rice powder to make puttu podi, which is used to prepare Kerala’s traditional breakfast– puttu (steam cake),” she explains.
This became a success point and the agripreneur experimented the same way with several other food items like carrot, beetroot, jackfruit, jackfruit seed, ragi, corn, green gram, peanut and navara rice. These 10 varieties of puttu podi were sold as combo packs, which had high demand till the coming of the pandemic.
Furthermore, a multi-millet powder is also a star product of the company. It is available in three varieties – nutri millet, moringa millet and choco millet.
Another popular ingredient in Ambika’s factory is moringa (drumstick), which was introduced when they received an order for a customised product. Powder, rice flour and soup mix are made from drumstick leaves. In 2020, the company received an export order for a tonne of moringa powder. But as Ambika is stern about using naturally grown leaves without compromising quality, she asked for some time to arrange saplings, distribute them among people and collect the produce. State revenue minister K Rajan was informed about this move and arranged 10,000 free saplings, as well as training for farmers of Ambika’s block panchayat.
P Anitha, professor, Department of Vegetable Science at College of Agriculture, Kerala Agricultural University led the awareness classes to plant and take care of the saplings. Today, most of the houses of Ollur block panchayat have at least one drumstick plant.
“The order is not yet met as the moringa saplings need more time to grow. We are confident about getting them together and providing export quality products. We collect the leaves for Rs 30 per kg,” she says.
Ambika says her business is backed by Ollur Krishi Samridhi (OKS), a farmer producer organisation (FPO) in Thrissur. Kudumbashree, a community organisation of Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) of women in Kerala is the support system of this venture. The majority of the sales are done by Kudumbasree members. In addition to this, the products are sold in Home Shops, Agro Bazaars and Horticorp. Ambika has got customers from different parts of the country as she has attended some exhibitions in Delhi, Surat and Bhubaneswar.
“People have been more conscious about their health since COVID-19. For me, these are just products I developed. But the customers refer to them as items that help control diabetes, acidity and manage weight loss. These are not differentiated and scientifically proven. But receiving such feedback makes all of us satisfied,” shares Ambika.
The price of products ranges from Rs 90-200. At present, the company’s average income is Rs 1 lakh per month. “Before the advent of COVID-19, our monthly sales reached around Rs 2 lakh. It fell to less than Rs 50,000 but we are getting better now,” she notes.
Ambika’s daughter helps with the marketing and managing online orders. The agripreneur is now busy with renovation works at the factory. She is hoping to get into exporting soon with the help of new machinery. “Via the agricultural infrastructure fund, I got the machinery worth Rs 8 lakh for 50 per cent subsidy.” Capsule moringa is the top item in the upcoming product list.
After sorting everything out, Ambika wishes to study new things and enrol for courses. “My interest is always in social work. I consider this business as a part of it and will continue to do this ethically,” she says.
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Edited by Divya Sethu