Six years ago, in the mountains of Uttarakhand, Vishal Bhandari started working with a small group of organic farmers. The primary outcome of this was a brand of organic beauty products.
In the larger space of premium Ayurvedic cosmetics, Soul Tree is pitched against brands like Kama and Forest Essentials. Soul Tree Organics biggest differentiator is that its claim of natural and organic is backed by a third party certification BDIH – Germany, an association for pharmaceuticals, health care products, food supplements and personal hygiene product.
“Being free from synthetic & harmful ingredients like SLS/SLES, parabens and artificial colours/fragrances, these herbs deliver their full benefit, and there are no side-effects. Consumers have our word, as well as the assurance of BDIH Germany’s seal on this,” says Bhandari.
They work very closely with women farmers and small not-for-profit organisations to promote organic farming, and generate sustainable livelihoods in the rural communities.
The starting point
Working as a Merchant Navy officer, Bhandari felt the need to do something more meaningful. He quit his job, and using his meagre savings, began to dabble in various businesses. One of these dealings brought him close to artisans and weavers. Through his numerous journeys to remote villages in Uttarakhand, he realised he wanted to build a business connecting small organic farmers to the I=international market.
The first steps
Thanks to the support from entrepreneur friends and family, his lack of knowledge was not an impediment in starting up.
Since there was no manufacturer of certified natural cosmetics in India, Bhandari started from scratch.
He set up a small lab in a refurbished shed in Delhi, brought in a 75-year-old vaidya as an advisor and a 25-year-old chemist, not yet programmed with the chemistry of conventional cosmetics, who was willing to experiment. Bhandari says, “Our motley crew explored the concepts of natural cosmetics, scoured the internet and talked to some seniors in the industry, finally coming up with the initial range of natural and organic cosmetics, which met BDIH standards.”
The manufacturing commenced in mid-2010, and a seed capital of around Rs 15 lakhs came from his family savings.
“Realising that the awareness levels in India were very low, I understood that we would have to tap the mature international markets first to stay afloat. Our unique combination of Ayurveda and organic standards was a novel offering for these markets. I envisioned an Indian brand with an international feel, and meeting the highest standards,” says Bhandari.
The BDIH certification was acquired in 2010 along with the turnover of Rs. 1 crore in 2012. The launch of Soul Tree products in Japan at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo in November 2013 was another feather in Bhandari’s cap.
“Our core team is still in its formative years, with mostly young people who are drawn to the field of organic products. While a young team has a high passion quotient and provides for out-of-the-box thinking, sometimes we feel challenged from lack of experience in terms of processes and market insight. At present, we’re getting support on that front from our advisors, who are veterans in their fields.”
Soul Tree generates its revenues through sale of products. While exports are a major contributor, domestic sales are also steadily growing. Bhandari claims that a “wide range of products enables cross-selling, as once a customer tries one Soul Tree product and is happy with it, he or she goes on to buy other products. We also have a healthy rate of customers returning to buy the same product. However, we will raise capital from external sources at the appropriate time to fund our larger expansion plans.”
Soul Tree retails through organic and lifestyle stores across metros, Tier-I cities, as well as Tier-II cities. Their products are available on online portals and at many tourist hotspots across India.
Bhandari says, “As a young brand without deep pockets, we’re always trying to be innovative. Social media channels and participation in important fairs like the India International Organic Fair (also known as Biofach) helped us acquire retail partners. Now, we’re working on expanding this channel, and at the same time increasing brand awareness through panel discussions highlighting the emergence of a growing trend towards natural and organic lifestyle. We’re planning to take this forward and hold similar events in other cities. We’re already present in avant garde markets like Japan and EU, and there is immense scope for expansion.
“On the operations side, we have recently implemented an ERP to bring together all our operations on one platform,” says Bhandari.
He adds, “I believe leveraging technology is very important for an enterprise like ours, which straddles the value chain from soil to the shelf. On one end it’s helping us give better demand projections to the farmers growing organic herbs, and at the other end it’s helping us track sales at each location.”
Giving back to the community
Bhandari shares how on World Environment Day they seized the opportunity to spread awareness about family farming & sustainable growth. They shared with customers the story of Smt Tulsi Devi, a farmer’s wife from Nainital district,Uttrakhand, who plays a vital role in the making of cold-pressed apricot oil, an important ingredient of Soul Tree® products, and have their retailers/customers write her a message on a postcard to thank her for her contribution.