When Ashmeet Kapoor came back to Delhi from the US, he didn’t spend much time questioning whether or not he should dedicate his working life to what most interested him. Livelihoods, environment, sustainable living, agriculture, food, and nutrition fascinated him for the vast network that they created joining the human and the environmental spheres.
In 2011, Ashmeet started I Say Organic, which delivers fresh food directly from farmers’ groups to customers across Delhi/NCR. “Initially my plan was to work in clean energy for rural markets, but that changed as soon as I started travelling across the country,” Ashmeet recalls, adding, “To me, there was no point in pursuing development or bringing services to the rural markets until we can create lucrative opportunities for the people living there.”India has experienced in recent years the emergence of different organisations and individuals committed to eliminate the use of chemicals in farming. Some have developed farms like Carmel Organics and Daksh Farm; others have introduced innovative means to promote organic farming, like Bee The Change; while others work to develop distribution networks for organic products like Daana Network. A proper ecosystem is taken shape to promote more sustainable cultivation methods in a country with 264 million hectares of cultivable land.
According to Ashmeet, agriculture is currently unable to meet the basic economic requirements of farming households. “The answer,” he says, “lies in changing the agriculture and food systems, and that’s the thought we got started with.” I Say Organic wanted sustainable production and responsible consumption to be the core principles society would live by and he argues that “food is probably the best way to bring about that shift. The day majority of us begin thinking consciously about the food we eat, from how it’s grown to how the distribution systems ensure the producers also benefit, majority of the present day social, economic and environmental problems would vanish.”
I Say Organic sources its products from several states in India, working with over 3,000 farmers in seven farmer groups. “We receive all our produce straight from the farmers, and fresh fruits and vegetables are delivered with minimal packaging in paper bags. Our dry goods and sweeteners are vacuum-sealed and then flushed with nitrogen to guarantee freshness,” he explains.
The company delivers seven days a week and allows customers to pay either online or at the time of delivery by cash or credit card. “We want to make it even easier for consumers to access convenient, affordable, authentic organic food as it is to pick up food from their local shop or subziwallah,” says Ashmeet. “That’s why we offer home delivery every day, orders online or by phone, and a range of delivery times. No other player at the moment offers this level of convenience for organic fresh produce; as for regular stores, they provide fresh products only two days a week.”
He continues that so far, “the main challenge has not been as much to find the right partner farmer groups who grow genuine products, but to create a full portfolio of vegetables and fruits. We have to source from across agro-climatic regions in the country. For instance, our papayas come from Maharasthra, exotics come from Himachal, and other seasonal vegetables come from Haryana. To make such an operation when volumes are limited is a big challenge. Now that demand for our products has built up, it is manageable even if still a while to go until we reach economies of scale!”
The trickiest part of the venture so far, however, has probably been building a good team. “There was a lot of energy when I started the company, and I thought the team will just happen itself,” says Ashmeet, adding, “But it was not like that. Moreover, once you get operationally involved, it becomes very hard to invest time in team building – which is a job 10 times harder than what I had expected. So, if I could do things differently again, I would spend time to find the right set of people for the founding team right at the beginning.”
One of the things I Say Organic likes most is to speak about the farmers they work with. “We are fully transparent, we talk about who they are and where food comes from because that is intrinsically part of the quality we provide,” says Ashmeet. The most striking element for him is that “most farmers have a deep understanding of the devastation caused by industrial agriculture, and many consistently try to convince their peers to shift their methods of cultivation.” To give them more visibility, the team has created a section on their website specifically dedicated to display relevant information about farmers which is soon going to be updated.
The general demand for organic food as well as farmers’ enthusiasm are growing and are motivating I Say Organic to double its efforts. However, Ashmeet adds that “inspiration comes also from meeting new people everyday who are similarly working towards the vision of a more equitable and sustainable society through their own initiatives. This makes us feel like we have a ‘tribe’ and gives us confidence that we’ll be able to create the change we want to.”
Going forward, Ashmeet says that the main challenge will be building a system to ensure their authenticity of products to be consistently certified. “At the moment we are small enough, we know the farmers personally, we visit them regularly, and are assured of their practices,” he says, but acknowledges that, “as the number of farmers working with us grows, these processes will have to take over, as personal touch in itself won’t be sufficient. Yet, with the right team, systems and checks, and motivation and incentives for the farmers, this is quite a manageable task!”
When asked about how big I Say Organic is dreaming, Asmeet replies that their ambition is to “grow safe and healthy food to feed everyone in the country.” They want majority of farmers to grow organic food and majority of consumers to demand healthy products. “To that end,” he concludes, “our goal is to eventually expand our delivery services across India, to partner with hotels, restaurants and companies for bulk orders, serve as the go-to retailer for online organic food orders, and to make dry and packaged organic produce available everywhere. In five years, we see ourselves present in 10 cities and in 50 years we hope that the word organic in itself would cease to exist as everything will be organic by default!”
For more information about I Say Organic check their website