We all know that the food we eat is loaded with chemicals thanks to the pesticides and fertilizers used to produce them. The alternative is to choose organic foods, but the cost of these products can upset our monthly budgets and there is also the doubt on how genuinely organic they actually are. The alternative would be to look for food products that have been produced using the least amount of pesticides and fertilizers. This is the niche sector Perigreen Foods deals with and in its own way trying to reduce the amount of chemicals people consume through their food.
Perigreen Foods is a Hyderabad based company started by Mohan and Nikhil Kuruganti. Both were troubled by the fact that farmers are exploited by various sections of society and as food producers could not afford a decent lifestyle and were not getting the returns due to them for their labor and hard work. The two of them decided to do something about it and Nikhil even took a yearlong sabbatical from his vocation as a consultant to travel and meet framers and understand the problems they were facing.
The two realized that the maximum problems occur at the farm produce marketing level. They decided to develop a system that would cut out the middle men from the system and help farmers earn some profit from their produce. At the same time they wanted to create a system that would have a social impact and create value for the country, the consumer and most importantly for the farming community. This is when they decided to focus on safe foods. Vyapaari spoke to Nikhil Kuruganti to discover more.
They started Perigreen Safe Foods in 2013 with this intention. Safe foods while helping farmers gives consumers access to moderately better food without having to adopt alternatives like organic foods which are expensive.
Organic food according to Naveen is overpriced and only the top one percent of the population is able to afford it. He says safe foods are foods with lesser amount of chemicals and an alternative option to a consumer who does not want buy normal food because of its high chemical content.
Nikhil feels organic farming is not sustainable because the expenses of organic farming is 2.5 times more when compared to normal farming cost and it takes a lot of time to scale itself and there are fewer number of takers of the organic farming model. As a result the prices of these products are high and the market is small because very few can afford to adopt organic foods completely into their lifestyle.
He says, “We decided to go one step ahead because transforming farm produce from chemical aided to organic will take decades. We decided to do something midway which is producing food using as little chemicals as possible. This is what we call safe farming.”
Elaborating on this further Nikhil says, “Based on the type and amount of chemicals used in a farm for crop production and protection, they are classified into four colors on the basis of their toxicity, in decreasing order, they are red, yellow, blue and green. An average farmer does not understand which chemical to use. So the first step in safe farming is to educate the framers on these chemicals and their hazards and then help them adopt safe farming.”
Helping farmers to adopt safe farming which means educating them on the kind and amount of fertilizers and pesticides to be used involved field work because they had to first identify the places where it could be adopted, The identification had to take it into account factors like the amount of rainfall, the soil characteristics, the land type, vicinity to the city, the crops that can be grown in the soil etc. The next step was to go to the villages and personally speak to the farmers on the benefits of using green chemicals and the steps required to prevent pests at the early stages of crop production. Though the initial reaction of farmers was skeptical, Perigreen with the help of a few farmers showed the villages how this can be done. After they proved their success for a few seasons other farmers started getting convinced of the idea and began to adopt safe farming and today more than 2,500 farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have adopted it. The farmers get to benefit monetarily too because Perigreen buys their produce at five rupees more per kilo then the regular market price.
Perigreen provides technical assistance to the farmers on the use of natural fertilizers and pesticides and the kind of seeds to use and seed treatment, watering of plants etc. A team of scientists talk to the farmers in villages, bringing together larger farmer groups to create more impact.
Besides they also involve elders in the village to educate farmers on these aspects and explain to them in detail the benefits of better farming methods. Weekly updates are provided to farmers over the phone on safe farming. The farmers also keep a check on each other to ensure safe farming practices are followed.
Perigreen also helps the farmers get better loans/ finance by facilitating the process and educates them on government programs aimed at helping them.
Compared to organic players Nikhil claims Perigreen is closer to the farmer. He says very few organic players are actually in touch with the ground realities of farming and are focused more on retailers and distribution of their products. He adds organic farming comes with the risk of saturation because only select produce is grown on these farms and farmers are not given alternatives.
To ensure that farmers reap the benefits of adopting safe farming methods Perigreen directly buys the produce from farmers eliminating middlemen. It has incentive based schemes to encourage more farmers to adopt safe farming methods. To maintain the quality random testing of samples is done to ensure correct farming methods are followed.
Perigreen follows a simple revenue model of selling the produce procured from farmers through their own cost effective retail model which helps them sell these products at competitive prices compared to organic foods. This also allows more customers to buy these products.
Perigreen wants to create more awareness of safe foods by reaching out through various media especially among the educated middle class so that they know about the health benefits of safe foods.
Challenges and plans
Perigreen has been able to make an impact in villages in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana and hopes to reach more villages in these states. “We want to develop at least 25 products, essential ones through safe farming,” says Nikhil. There are also plans to reach more metros through retail outlets. Nikhil wants to improve the supply chain and is looking at funding from like-minded investors so that the model does not get diluted.
Dwelling on the challenges in building his startup, Nikhil shares, “Farming is a business model that requires a lot of patience and agriculture is an open science that is to experimentation and there are no fixed methods one can follow. One needs passion and to gain experience, rolling up your sleeves and getting into the field is the best way.”