Employing 63 adivasi women, Sugandham Organics is charting a new course in the aroma product space.
A chance encounter with tribal women during a trek in the Yeoor Hills in Thane, Maharashtra and a surge of empathy to better their lot led the husband-wife duo of Punit (30) and Ekta Thakker (29) to start Sugandham Organics, one of the top five producers and suppliers of aromatic products in the country today, and boasting an exclusive clientele that includes Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan and the royal families of Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
Recounting the beginnings of his entrepreneurial journey, Punit, the chief promoter of Sugandham Organics, says,
In 2014, we went on a trek to Yeoor Hills in Thane, Maharashtra. On our way, we stopped for a break and saw a bunch of women working with some sticks. Dressed in boho outfits, these women were from the nearby adivasi tribe. Intrigued, we approached them.
The women Ekta and Punit saw hard at work in Yeoor Hills had a sorry tale to tell. They were at the mercy of an intermediary between these tribes and the market, who paid them a meagre Rs 60 for an entire day's work of making raw incense sticks. Since what they earned by making incense sticks was not enough, these women sought to supplement their income by selling incense sticks discarded due to quality issues in the local market. Their ordeal had the Thakkers thinking.
Not only did they realise that these workers were underpaid but also discovered a promising market to tap. Ekta quit her job to spearhead this project while Punit continued his job at a leading payment gateway.
After quitting her job as a school teacher, Ekta took a sabbatical to research the space as well as the potential of aroma products. Convinced that this was a tangible idea, in March 2016 she got 25 skilled women from the tribal group to join her new venture. From physically handicapped individuals to women, the venture saw an array of employees. Today the company takes pride in employing 63 women from the adivasi tribe.
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Building your own tribe
With a core team of seven, Sugandham Organics is now based out of its warehouse-cum-office in Bhandup, Mumbai. While Ekta took a leap of faith in quitting her job, Punit continues to be employed by other organisations — after a stint at PayPal, he now works with Dubai-based Telr as the country manager. Other team members include Srithi Das, Head of Marketing; Aman Maheshwari, Head of Designing and International Business; Maalav Thakker, Head of Strategy; Jagjit Singh, Head of Sales; and Nekzad Malegamwalla, Head of Compliance.
Within seven months of existence, the team has clocked Rs 12 lakh in revenues. Today, they have a promising clientele of 150 spas, more than 40 hotels, and over 1,600 happy customers including superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Calling the moment an ecstatic one, Ekta says,
"Last Diwali, we got a client order of 500 aroma gift products only to realise that the order had been placed by Bachchanji. It was easily one of our best days and we personally delivered him the boxes and took his blessings."
Another such proud moment was when they signed a few deals to customise a certain fragrance for the royal families from Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Says Ekta,
"Considering security reasons, we can’t share more details but with a clientele like this, we are quite pepped about our future, she happily informs us."
Sugandham Organics today takes pride in hundreds of signature products, including incense sticks, 570 types of essential oils, soaps, bakhoor (an Arabic incense stick), diffuse pots, candles, ikhtar, and air and car fresheners, among others.
Talking about their market presence, Punit says that their oil diffusers and incense sticks are the fastest selling products. When asked about the raw materials, he adds,
Most of our raw materials are from India and some are international, sourced from France and Italy.
Entering a market that is ruled by veterans presented Ekta and Punit with its difficulties. In 2014, when they started up, it took them over a year and a half to make the right collaborations and source the raw materials. Talking about those days, Punit says,
"The rainy season has always been our tricky phase. In July 2016, we received an order for 4 kg of essential oil from a client in the UK. Due to the rains, our entire lot of essential oils was attacked by fungus and we had to bear a loss of over Rs 12 lakh. That has so far been our biggest loss."
From incubating with 25 adivasi women to building the present team of 63, the core team had a hard time communicating with the tribals. Says Ekta,
Once we had to share pictures of our warehouse and workforce with a client. When I walked to these adivasi people to click a picture of them making the products, one of them angrily walked up to me and threw my phone away. Gaining their confidence was one of our biggest challenges. Language has always been a barrier as well but we have reached an understanding.
In a constantly evolving market with new players entering at a drop of a hat, Sugandham has managed to chart its own course in spite of the reluctance of new buyers. From packaging to marketing, the hurdles of starting up were many. But amid all these, what has stood out is the courage to jump into an uncharted market and emerge with a trophy, just like Sugandham Organics has.