A strange crisis
It was not plastic, but another equally alarming environmental crisis, that got scientist Narayan Peesapaty give up his job at the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and focus on starting up. For years the groundwater depletion in India had puzzled him. His research indicated that there was no long term shortage of rainwater. “Something was wrong. On one hand groundwater is depleting. On the other hand, power consumption for agriculture is more than 56%. Excessive use of groundwater would also mean more crops and higher income for farmers. But neither of these things are happening,” he says. It was not long before he zeroed in on the problem: rice.
“There has been no increase in the number of rice eaters in India, yet every year two lakh acres are being added to rice cultivation. It takes 5000 litres of water to cultivate one kilo of rice. For one tonne of rice, you require five million litres of water. Ironically, every year, thousands of tonnes of rice go waste in warehouses across the nation.
And we are talking of power scarcity, water scarcity, and food scarcity,” he fumes. “This is nothing but a manufactured environmental crisis driven by political equations.”
A personal issue
The issue became personal for Narayan. “I could see the dry wells, long queues in villages for a pot of drinking water, starvation of farmers who were marginal and grew millets, and excessive use and wastage of precious power. The soil was degenerating due to pouring of fertilisers and chemicals and over a period of time would become totally dead to grow anything at all. I realised that marginal millet farmers were the worst sufferers due to other cash crops killing their motivation to continue with their crops and also the groundwater levels going down dangerously low to nil level.”
That’s when he decided to come up with a product that would create a large market for millet farmers. “After testing various grain flours, jowar was the best option for my product’s raw material. I hoped that by creating a sustainable market for jowar, I could help the farmers who were looking for more markets on a continuous basis and not shift to rice or water intensive crops for quick returns but long term damage to soil, water bodies, and health of people,” he explains.
Narayan’s reason for producing edible cutlery, as a substitute for plastic ones, is also deep-rooted in environmental preservation. Although the effects of plastic on the environment are well documented, according to Narayan, there is hardly any conversation going on about its consequences on the health of a person.
India’s plastic market is dominated by cheaply produced items teeming with carcinogenic materials that seep into our food, and subsequently our bodies. “The more you rewash and reuse plastic cutlery, the more damage you are doing to your body.” He cites examples of restaurants and canteens serving piping hot food to customers. “Every time you eat hot food off plastic plates and bowls using plastic cutlery, you are not only ingesting harmful carcinogenic pesticides but also the saliva of the last person who ate off those pieces. These, like the chemicals, cling to the material and can’t be washed off,” he says.
At the beginning of our Skype interview, Narayan offers me a steaming cup of tea from his home in Hyderabad. “But since you can’t have it, I will have it for you,” he says cheerfully. “Ah, but first I will stir in the sugar.” Out whips an edible spoon which he dunks in the hot tea. After a few rounds of stirring, he starts crunching on it and exclaims, “Hmm … tasty.” The spoon survived the assault of the hot beverage, not displaying any signs of sogginess.
Financing a dream
Narayan worked as a researcher with Nielsen Org in Baroda, followed by his four-year stint at the ICRISAT. He registered Bakey’s Food Pvt Ltd in 2010 and commenced full time commercial production from December 2014. A prototype of his startup, along with a partner, titled B.K. Environmental Food Solutions had been in the works since 2007. But with Bakey’s, he ventures solo. And the journey, he admits, has been relentless.
“The idea was futuristic when I first innovated. It still remains a product that is too ahead of time. Getting loan from banks/government sources was the biggest challenge I faced as no one believed in the product’s need or success. Even now they do not. Ultimately, I mortgaged my home to be able to finance the dream,” he says.
The other problem was his own limitations: “I am not an engineer and go by my intuition and vision and gut on how best the machines could be that would make the production efficient, use less power, give high quality finish, and taste good too. My mind and brain is too pre-occupied with technicalities, financial constraints and no one to share these.” Narayan understands that good marketing is at the heart of any product’s success, but he is stretched too thin to spare this any thought.
Despite the obstacles, he is gratified by the faith and excitement the millennial generation has shown in his products. “I owe a lot to the children who are my brand ambassadors; they drag their parents to our sales counter to make their parents buy the product. They carry a spoon in their tiffin boxes and eat the food they carry with it or simply munch the tasty spoon as fun. I am sure this younger generation is becoming more aware about environmental problems than we did at their age. They are also likely to face more climate hazards as grave problems related to drinking water, food shortage, infertile soil, and variety of lifestyle disease become more and more common. They will be on mission to bring about a world that will have to be sustainable, healthy, and also austere. Our products will be their lifestyle someday,” he affirms.
Powered by the enthusiasm of the new generation, Bakey’s is transitioning from the present semi-automation to a fully automatic system of production. “The fabrication work is completed, tested and is getting painted and reassembled. Perhaps in next 2 months it will start functioning and increasing the production from 7000 per day to close to 90,000 to one lakh spoons per day per shift of eight hours. We took the risk of expansion despite severe financial crunch as we have been getting enquiries from abroad if we can provide container full load to be shipped every week. We wanted the system to be ready, tested and solve technical hassles if any that can be handled here locally before we scale it up,” Narayan says.
In terms of startup arc it is remarkable how far Bakey’s has progressed, given that the financial burden has only increased with time. He narrates, “We are now getting the kind of response that we expected in 2008. It has tested our patience, integrity, and perseverance. The media has done the best they could to put us on the world map and now the demand is coming from across the globe for our products. We now have inquiries from USA, Canada, EU countries, UAE, Australia where people wish to partner with us to manufacture edible cutlery with our help in their countries.
From a small spoon we designed and tried marketing in 2007 to a lunch spoon shape in 2013 and prototypes of soup spoons, dessert spoons, chop sticks and sporks – we have researched the best shape and sizes that can be made commercially. We have evolved in terms of developing the best blend of flour mixing and patented it. We have overcome difficulties in spoons base that would either crack, swell, shrink, get burnt or remain half-baked to a perfect shape, size, and taste. It will keep evolving as per the demand for variety in market and our research on more types of grain/millets that we may use in the future.”
Narayan adds with grim satisfaction, “We see ourselves growing slowly but steadily in world market as possible leaders till competitors come in picture.”
Fighting for the future
He feels embittered by the sacrifices his family had to make so he could follow his passion. He says, “My only daughter has forgotten her demands and simple needs she would have been showered by me otherwise. I know I cannot give her back her lost childhood or pamper her like teenagers usually are by their fathers. But she prays for me, loves me, and also pokes me when I do wrong things.” But his conscience is soothed by the enormity of the burden he carries. “By the time my daughter is my age, the planet will become uninhabitable. My fight is to give their generation a fighting chance.”