Currently working with tribals in the Western Ghats, Auctorem Solutions aims to become a sustainable venture with the philosophy of creating social, economic and ecological value while nurturing the concept of healthy living using technology.
Nestled in the thick forests of the Western Ghats, a variety of horticulture crops provide pollen and nectar to both wild and domesticated bees. The pollination activities by bees, in turn, increase the crop yields. Until 1985, beekeeping was a lucrative business opportunity for the tribals in the region and the Western Ghats produced approximately 7.5 lakh kg of honey and 6,000 kg of beeswax, the highest quantity in India. The once-flourishing business, however, fell prey to the Thai sacbrood virus that crippled the industry.
This state drove Kolhapur-based Chaitanya Powar to do something about the situation, and he set up Auctorem Solutions. The for-profit sustainable venture works with the indigenous tribes to facilitate the collection, purification, processing, and sale of various organic products procured from the forests.
Although Chaitanya started working with the tribal farmers in 2013 while he was completing his undergraduate studies, he formally founded his startup in 2017. From working with two villages and 35 families, today, the social enterprise works in nine villages and has impacted 257 families.
To begin with, he started taking stock of the challenges. He says:
“Lack of market knowledge, access to technology, infrastructure, market linkages, and failure to maintain the quality of honey were challenges faced by the tribals who were involved in beekeeping.”
It was only recently, in 2000, that the State and Central government launched several schemes to revive and promote beekeeping activities. Auctorem Solutions aims to empower the indigenous tribal communities of the Western Ghats and provide them with a sustainable livelihood by engaging in a variety of beekeeping activities that go beyond the production of honey.
“We view the tribals as the entrepreneurs and Auctorem the enterprise,” the 25-year-old adds.
Hailing from a family of civil servants, Chaitanya wanted to create an impact and work for rural welfare. However, since his school days, he was inclined towards business rather than studying for the UPSC exams. In 2010, at the age of 17, Chaitanya embarked on his first entrepreneurial journey of selling Kolhapuri chappals. While on morning walks, he would pass by local cobblers who sold handcrafted chappals for much less than what they are worth due to low demand.
“I didn’t know anything about business at that time, but I had the idea. The designs of Kohlapuri chappals were intricate and I knew that people outside the city would be interested in them. Hence I started to sell these chappals online to reach more consumers. I connected with a few more cobblers and formed a network,” Chaitanya says.
While Chaitanya’s initiative was met with success initially, it was not sustainable as he did not have the access to a permanent set of skilled craftsmen and could not meet large orders efficiently. Moreover, the business started to impact his studies. Hence he downed the shutters within months. However, Chaitanya maintains that this failure was the stepping stone for Auctorem.
While studying at the Institute of Rural Management Anand, a friend of Chaitanya’s sought his help to aid the tribal community engaged in the honey collection in the Western Ghats. When he travelled to the forest area and began to work with tribes to collect, process, and sell natural honey from the forests, he noticed that the honey collected by them went bad quickly.
This was because the tribals practised the generations-old method of extracting and collecting honey. This undermined the potential of tribes to produce high-quality honey while causing total destruction of hives, and causing a negative impact on the forests itself. The unsafe collection also increased risks to the lives of the collectors while the inefficient extraction methods produced unhygienic honey.
“Not only has the once dense forest cover in the Western Ghats been lost and livelihoods of the tribes in the area rendered unsustainable, but the collection also remains scattered and exceedingly damaging. The honey collected using the traditional methods has a high moisture content, beeswax, and other impurities,” he adds.
Hence Chaitanya began to explore safe ways of extracting honey using technology, which not only reduced the risks involved but would also lead to a high-quality yield. He visited the College of Agriculture, Kolhapur, and Khadi and Village Industries Commission centre in Mahabaleshwar to learn more about apiculture.
Commercial establishments, Chaitanya explains, use exotic bee species like Apis mellifera to produce more honey and feed them antibiotics to aid growth and to protect them from diseases. This leads to contamination of the honey. To combat this, in 2013, Chaitanya began to work in two villages with 35 families and employed modern honey extraction, collection and storage methods in the region. This included moving away from the apiary box collection method.
He partnered with local NGO Youth Pioneer Foundation and provided the tribal farmers with modern equipment and safety gears. Further, he trained the tribals to harvest only those parts of the honeycomb that held nectar to avoid wastage and killing of bees. By 2016, his startup managed to produce 25 tonnes of multi-flora honey.
Today, over 250 tribal families are earning double the price through the sale of honey. This was possible due to a marketing strategy where Chaitanya positioned the product as organic and unadulterated; with the honey being drawn from the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned for its rich flora that have medicinal properties.
‘Auctorem’ means pathfinder in Latin, indicating the organisation’s mission of providing indigenous tribes a sustainable livelihood and a brighter future.
To create an emotional connection and share the experience of honey collection, each product is embedded with a QR code that provides information about the tribals and the geographic location of the product as well. Further, Auctorem Solutions was also successful in the conservation of honey bees as no bees are killed during the honey extraction, collection, and storage methods.
“In fact, we ensure the beehive is not completely damaged and that 20 percent of honey is retained in the honeycomb,” he adds.
Presently their product range includes multiple honey variants including multiflora, jamun, and karri.
“To ensure the regular sales so as to maintain the revenue stream was our biggest challenge as we were new in the market, but now we have recorded sales of nearly 20 tonnes of honey in 2016-17,” he says.
Initially bootstrapped, the startup is presently funded by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). Chaitanya also won the Young Social Entrepreneurship challenge hosted by SIF and received financial aid of 20,000 SGD in 2017. While presently his company is supplying honey in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, Chaitanya hopes to start a processing unit and sell honey under his own brand, ‘Greenville’. This year, they also plan to increase the product portfolio, targeting 35 tonnes - 40 tonnes of honey and extract other by-products like royal jelly, pollen, and beeswax.