Kiwis from New Zealand, Cattley guavas from Colombia, Chinese mulberries – exotic fruits that S. Madhusudhan was told would not survive in Bengaluru. But, they did not just survive but thrived in his organic farm in suburban Bengaluru.
Prior to starting up back2basics, Madhusudhan, an IIM-B alumnus, served three decades in advertising and marketing at Bharti Airtel (South India) and at Manipal Group, where he was a Senior VP of Global Marketing. Recalling the day he collapsed in the office, 55-year-old Madhusudhan says, “This incident forced me to re-evaluate my lifestyle and food habits.” While recuperating, he was advised to take up activities for rest and relaxation and found himself drawn to gardening. On a small plot he owned, he began chemical-free cultivation of greens, soon producing far more than his family could consume. He distributed the produce among friends and family, whose encouragement led him to turn to full-time farming.
In 2010, Madhusudhan began researching organic cultivation and studying the Indian organic produce market. He found that the level of ignorance about the source of food in India is extremely high and the inclination to find out about it is low, owing to low ticket size and repetitive, high frequency of purchase.
Organic retailers preyed on this, making specious claims about the exotic provenance of produce to quote premium prices. “The lettuce you eat in Bengaluru came not from Ooty or the Garhwal mountains, but most likely from a farm irrigated by one of Bengaluru’s polluted lakes,” he adds, offering an eyewitness account of carrots being washed in toxic Varthur Lake. He also learnt that organic retailers are largely distributors, not growers of the produce they sell, making them equally unaware of how and where it is grown.
In 2011, Madhusudan started back2basics farm, a unique Bengaluru-based farm-to-fork company that supplies locally grown organic food with same-day-as-harvest doorstep delivery.
Spread over 100 acres, the company practises chemical-free agriculture, selling 90 varieties of seasonal produce in four categories – fruits, vegetables, greens, exotics to clients that include large corporates, retail chains, independent organic suppliers. Its EU certified products are exported to Europe and Singapore.
Madhusudhan is part of a small but expanding breed who’ve left successful careers to start organic agri-businesses like First Agro, Lumiere, and Akshayakalpa Farms. Organic farming received a boost with the latest budgetary allocation of Rs 412 crore and a promise to bring five lakh acres under organic farming in the next three years. State governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Kerala have pioneered programmes promoting food self-sufficiency and safe agriculture, and a growing wave of citizens practise organic terrace farming in cities. Estimates that India’s market for organic food will grow at a CAGR of over 25–30 per cent between 2015 and 2020 are an indication that the organic movement is not a fad, but a sign of better awareness of the right to safe, healthy food.
In late 2015, with growing production and a loyal clientele, all looked great for back2basics. But, on her annual visit home, Bhairavi, Madhusudhan’s daughter, realised that while it ran a successful B2B operation, there were gaps in how back2basics’ produce was reaching end consumers and thereby in the perception they had of it. Consumers were either unaware that the produce they bought came from back2basics or were doubtful about the benefits of organic produce. A graduate of the Huntsman Programme at Wharton School of Business, 25-year-old Bhairavi is the first Indian girl admitted to the programme. In January 2016, she resigned her job in private equity and joined back2basics to launch its consumer focussed operation. “Just 45 days post launch, we are fulfilling over 200 orders a day with 60 per cent repeat customers”, she gleams.
To meet this growing response, Back2Basics reorganised its delivery schedule from twice a week to six days of the week and supplies produce across Bengaluru. Currently, orders are taken only on their website, but a mobile app is in the offing.
Back2basics entered the B2C market to change the perception around organic produce, take people closer to the source of their food, and make organic produce available at a lower price point by going directly to customers. She adds,
We started the back2basics experiential farm that people can visit, see how organic farming is done, even pick and eat food off the plants.
Back2basics uses natural farm-based fertilisers such as cattle and poultry manure, neem and oilseed cakes. Each farm is a raised unit surrounded by a moat that harvests the surface runoff from irrigation or rain. This raises the water table and reduces the frequency of irrigation to once a week. A borewell recharge system ensures water supply even in the dry season and all farm waste is composted. Stems and leaves of its sweet corn crop, known to enhance milk production in cows, are donated to an organisation rearing 5,000 heads of indigenous cattle and in turn gobar slurry, the chief fertiliser in organic farming is received. “Their waste is our wealth and vice versa”, explains Madhusudhan, alluding to an ancient farming practice that gives the brand its name.
Crops are grown in batches to stagger harvest over the month and avail fresh produce daily. Those not harvested on the day of delivery remains on the plant so it does not deteriorate. This explains why back2basics operates no storage facilities or chilling plants.
However, Madhusudhan realised that it was not enough to just grow quality produce, but to ensure it reached end consumers as fresh as it was when harvested. With this, back2basics launched its own logistics operations with staff and a fleet of delivery vans.
B2C and B2B orders are consolidated at the end of every day and sent to farm supervisors. Harvesting begins at 1.30 a.m. so that produce can reach the hub by dawn, where it is cleaned, sorted, segregated, and sorted client wise. It is then colour coded and loaded into GPS-enabled vans for delivery.
Controlling the supply chain from seed to last-mile delivery gives back2basics the distinctive advantage of being able to maintain uniformity and consistency in taste, colour, texture, and finish of its produce while reducing cycle time.
“Organic produce in India changes many hands, each adding their own markup, ultimately making it prohibitively expensive for the consumer, who often pays up to 200–300 per cent premium for it,” says Bhairavi. This bootstrapped venture sells its produce for a little over input cost.
In a country with low awareness of organic farming and a highly unorganised fragmented organic food market, businesses like back2basics help in educating farmers and consumers about sustainable farming and healthy food. “We are at the cusp something wonderful,” says Madhusudhan. He quotes an Assocham study that states raising awareness could boost the growth of India's organic food market by more than 25 per cent annually to touch $1.36 billion by 2020. Back2basics occupies a unique position in this growth story with its experience with both ends of the organic food spectrum – quality production at scale and effective marketing to a growing, informed customer base.