[Watch] Ninjacart Co-founder Thiru chalks out his journey in inventing the wheel for fresh produce ecommerce
In an exclusive chat, Thirukumaran Nagarajan talks about how he cracked the scale challenge, particularly cracking the fresh produce supply chain, with his sixth venture Ninjacart.
For months, a group of techies camped overnight at the fruit and vegetable market in the outskirts of Bengaluru with only one aim in mind: figuring out the complicated supply chain.
This is what led to the birth of Bengaluru-headquartered B2B agritech startup Ninjacart, which has in four years notched up a delivery accuracy rate of 99.88 percent all year round.
Founded by Thirukumaran Nagarajan and Vasudevan Chinnathambi in 2015, the agritech startup has successfully built a tech-enabled supply chain for fresh farm produce, delivering 1,400 tonnes of fruits and vegetables daily.
I recently spoke to Thirukumaran Nagarajan, fondly known as Thiru, and came out energised by his contagious positive energy, passion, and his straight-talking.
No doubt, Ninjacart is solving an India-specific problem. Thiru tells me,
“We have gone deep to crack the problem from the roots.”
India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables globally, but this is just half the story. Around 10-15 percent of this produce is wasted because of various challenges, especially in effective management in the supply chain.
Over the years, the biggest problem for this segment has been that the actual producer, the farmer, is generally not given a fair price. Blame the ubiquitous middlemen for that.
Over the last four years, Ninjacart has been ardently going about solving this problem. The founding team believes that the core solution lies in the supply chain, from the time a vegetable/fruit leaves the farmer’s land and reaches a shop.
Watch the full interview here:
Cracking the fresh produce supply chain
Today, Ninjacart transacts over 1,400 tonnes of fruits and vegetables daily across seven cities; the produce is moved from the farms to retail stores in a span of 12 hours. Thiru says,
“It has been an incredible journey for us in the last four years. We believe that we are solving an India-specific problem and innovating for India from the grassroots."
To say that the founders of Ninjacart have done it easily, given their tech background and experience of founding startups, will not be fair.
For starters, there is no supply chain software or infrastructure built for Indian conditions of handling fruits and vegetables. In the West, fruits and vegetables are transported in refrigerated conditions, a luxury in a market like India. So, Ninjacart had to build everything from the ground up without any domain expertise.
Thiru strongly believes that not having a background actually benefited the founding team of Ninjacart otherwise “it would have been baggage”.
“It is the best thing that has happened to us as we questioned everything and it helped us sort of build a much more unconventional supply chain,” he says.
Start and scale
Things started in a single city, Bengaluru, where the founders fine-tuned the entire process of sourcing vegetables from the farmers and supplying to shops. Investors like Qualcomm Ventures and Accel bet on them, and Thiru says it was because of the confidence they had in the team.
Thiru adds that they had to fix a number of things in the supply chain before they could show enough growth for the investors to be interested in them. There was no room for error, and Ninjacart took about 18 months to perfect the art and science of the supply chain, which is extremely unlike a typical ecommerce setup.
“The main thing about ecommerce is aggregation, sorting, and searching. In our supply chain, none of these things are actually there,” Thiru says, adding,
“We started from the fundamentals; it's not like we had the money and force-fitted our model into the business. We actually created a natural model. People come with an understanding of how the supply chain works and then they force-fit their model on to it. We went module by module, and that's what helped us scale.”
Today, Ninjacart’s presence in seven cities has a delivery error rate that is almost negligible - 0.2 to 0.3 percent. This is astounding considering that they pick up, sort, and deliver thousands of tonnes every 12 hours.
The farmer stands to benefit greatly from this. “We buy directly from the farmers and they make 15-20 percent more revenue as the inventory risk belongs to Ninjacart once we source the produce from them,” Thiru says.
A focus on quality
When asked what his big vision for the future is, Thiru says this is “just the beginning” and that the processes employed by Ninjacart ensure that a higher level of quality standard is maintained.
“We wanted to increase the standard of the food that an Indian consumes. Right now if you ask an average Indian, s/he does not know the origin of the food. It also boils down to the fact there is no supplier who can supply them that quality of food currently,” Thiru says.
Given the dependence of the Indian economy on the agriculture sector, this is sort of “giving back to society” for Thiru. Coming from a lower-middle-class background and finishing his schooling and engineering at educational institutes heavily subsidised by the government, he has a strong commitment to creating value.
“The biggest value addition that we are doing is aiding the farming community to expand their business,” Thiru says.
Given the scale of operation of Ninjacart, the agritech startup soon started receiving investor interest from biggies in the game. Tiger Global and Steadview Capital are some of the new investors in Ninjacart, and Thiru says there are more people willing to invest.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Through this journey, the founding team of Ninjacart has remained intact.
“I know that if they (team members) put their resume out in the market, they'll be paid two to three times a salary by every competitor who wants to get into this field. However, they have not been able to hire a single person from our team,” Thiru says.
He adds that the bond has been strengthened because of the culture Ninjacart has built over the years, where they strongly believe in solving a bigger problem together.
I asked Thiru about the key ingredients/skillsets a founder needs, and he tells me: “Working through the supply chain helps you understand many problems. Like we understood that loading and unloading are among the most critical pieces of the puzzle....whatever processes we put in place, we made sure these were reduced." His advice is simple:
“Stay close to the ground, do your work, work in your warehouses and trucks; that's where you'll learn the most. This will give you enough learning to build a more robust supply chain.”
Amid all the work, Thiru seems to thrive under pressure. He is known to work even on Sundays and holidays, but does not consider himself a workaholic.
“I love doing what I am doing. So you don't feel the pain of working late or coming early to the office. I come with a lot of happiness to the office because I believe I'm changing something and I'm really excited about it,” he says.
At the same time, he says, he does not miss watching a single movie in a theatre with friends and family.
Thiru remains ambitious about the future and while hiring, looks for people who have a certain ambition.
About his own focus on the journey rather than the goal, he quotes a line from a popular Hindi song, “Safar khoobsurat hai manzil se bhi (the journey is more beautiful than the destination)".
Thiru says, “If you enjoy every moment of the journey it does not matter if you have reached your destination. The destination is but just a mirage. You reach one and the goal post moves to the next.”
For Thiru, clearly he has his next goal post measured.
(Edited by Teja Lele)
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