From ripening the ‘King of Fruits’ the natural way and making big bucks to preventing the consumption of adulterated food, this IITan and his brother have come a long way.
All of 21, Shivank Garg the mango entrepreneur has quickly turned the corner to set up a social startup aimed at educating the government and public on the ill effects of consuming adulterated food.
Shivank, a final-year student of IIT Kanpur is a mechanical engineer in the making while his younger brother and Co-founder of Vegley, Shivam S. Garg, is studying electrical engineering from MAIT, Delhi.
Despite a healthy turnover of over Rs 1 crore in a short span, the Garg brothers have decided to turn social entrepreneurs.
“Once we made Rs 1 crore at this age, we could very easily have scaled up our naturally-ripened mango business to reach Rs 100 crore. But this is not our intention. We have realised that the use of adulterants in our food chain is causing much more damage and we want to help the government put a stop to these unethical practices and banish pesticides and insecticides from farms,” says Shivank, CEO and Co-founder of Vegley.
Vegley created ripples in the NCR market last summer when they sold their naturally ripened mangoes in neatly packed boxes and used refrigerated delivery vans. The brothers set up five offices and a 3,600 sqft godown near Azadpur Mandi, Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market. They had 25 people on their payroll.
India is the world’s largest producer of mangoes at 18 million tonnes per annum, and about 98 percent of them are ripened using adulterated methods.
Though their family is from Delhi, they originally belong to Haryana, where their grandfather was a farmer in a village near Sonepat. “We are grateful to our father, Sanjeev Garg, for having bootstrapped us. He encouraged us to take risks despite the fact that we were both not even 20 years old.”
Shivank is alarmed that the annual International Mango Festival in Delhi is a hotbed of such adulterated ripening activity. “The government has not taken any action despite ‘masala’ — the Hindi slang for calcium carbide — being used on the very premises. I have even written to the Delhi CM and the health minister, but no action seems to be forthcoming.”
Traditionally, mangoes are ripened using calcium carbide, which is a strong reactive chemical that contains traces of arsenic and phosphorous. It has carcinogenic properties and is used in gas welding. It can cause kidney and liver damage, neurological disorders, ulcers, and other health hazards. “Sometimes, if you eat a mango, you may feel uneasy. This is a sure sign of calcium carbide-ripened mangoes. Such fruits are especially dangerous to pregnant women, as babies can develop abnormalities, a reason why it’s banned in many developed countries,” says Shivank.
Fruits are generally divided into climacteric and non-climacteric varieties. Fruits such as banana, papaya, sapota, mango, guava, and apple are climacteric, meaning they need to be ripened post harvest while non-climacteric fruits such as grapes and strawberries can be eaten directly after plucking.
Following extensive research and meetings with experts, Shivank and Shivam decided to ripen mangoes in controlled atmospheric chambers in which they deployed optimum temperature, humidity, and controlled composition of different gases such as carbon dioxide and ethylene. These fruits also secrete ethylene naturally and are suitable for human consumption.
This way, they built a capacity to ripen five metric tonnes per day.
When used, calcium carbide releases acetylene, which has properties similar to ethylene and ripens the mango, but deteriorates the taste and quality of the fruit. Black hole-like spots appear in calcium carbide-ripened mangoes.
After this experience, the brothers have now turned their attention to educating the government and raising awareness among the public. Shivank says people are forced to consume these poisonous fruits due to non-availability of naturally ripened fruits.
In fact, the use of calcium carbide has been banned for use in food substances and ripening processes by the Food Safety and Standards Regulations Act 2011, Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, and Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1955, but it is still rampantly used.
The Garg brothers have already reached out to the president, prime minister, governors, several state chief ministers and their health ministers. The UP Governor, Ram Naik, has appreciated their efforts and recommended that the state ban these substances, especially as the Saharanpur–Lucknow–Meerut belt contains major mango-producing areas.
Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, PJ Kurien, appreciated their efforts and forwarded the letter to the union health minister for action. In that letter, he has said: “I am forwarding a very interesting letter…I would therefore appreciate if you kindly see if these new initiatives of these two young students could be utilised on a larger scale to prevent adulteration in our food chain.”
Health Minister JP Nadda has appreciated the students’ cause and promised to look into the matter with all seriousness.
Shivank says their focus is on such poisoning affecting the entire food chain, where fruits, vegetables, and pulses are hastened to reach the end user. “It is a major health concern which affects a large number of Indians who spend a good part of their salaries on food. This is a heavy price to pay. I am now inclined to take this up in a big way as a social movement to keep the people of our nation healthy.”
Vegley is now a social startup aimed at preventing the consumption of adulterated food by citizens and is not in the business of selling mangoes this year.
So why would the brothers invest their precious student hours for this?
“Someone has to address this problem. How can we continue to let this happen, especially when the world is looking up to India? We have to find a solution to give everyone a healthy choice. It is high time we stopped those who are keen to take us for a ride to make a few quick bucks,” says the plucky Shivank.