Twenty-eight-year-old Divya Shetty is Co-founder of Indian Superheroes, which works towards eliminating middlemen, and ensuring a fair price to farmers. The company also manufactures sustainable stationery out of recycled paper that can be grown into plants after use.Rekha Balakrishnan
Divya Shetty was a young girl in Class II when her maternal grandfather passed away. His was not an ordinary death. A farmer hailing from Udupi district in Karnataka, he was already into a lot of debt when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Not wanting his family to suffer, he hung himself in the their farmhouse.
It’s 2019 and the Indian farmer is far from happy - reeling under debt, facing the vagaries of the monsoon, exploitation by middlemen, and broken credit markets, farmer suicides are still rampant in many regions. It’s no wonder, then, that a report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) says 76 percent of farmers in India want to give up farming.
In the light of the tragic incident in the family, Divya was discouraged from having to do anything with farming. She went on to do engineering in software at NMNIT College and was then recruited by MindTree.
During this time, the story of her grandfather’s life and death fully hit her, when her family explained it to her in detail. It was 2015, and nothing had changed, with farmers continuing to reel under mounting debt, and she was horrified and saddened by farmers’ suicides in Mandya.
That was the turning point, explains Divya.
“I decided something had to be done. And I had to give back to the farming community I came from. I quit my job and along with my friend Vishnu Vardhan, I decided to set up Indian Superheroes to help farmers. We began with two families, mine and another, and slowly grew the network.”
The aim of Indian Superheroes was simple - build a network of organic farmers who grow a wide range of crops and ensure that no middlemen are involved during the farm-to-customer process. The outcome was simple, get better deals, and in turn better incomes for farmers than before.
The duo started an online portal for this purpose and partnered with NGOs who directly handled the farmers all over south India. Divya explains, “It was not feasible for us to manage and monitor 800 farmers directly, the NGOs helped with the coordination and data. They were either sold on the portal, though a major part of it was sold online.”
In addition, Indian Superheroes also conducts various farming masterclasses, where city dwellers get an opportunity to learn organic farming directly from the farmers themselves, by renting or leasing portions of farmland.
Not content with just eliminating middlemen and securing a good income for farmers, Indian Superheroes continued its research on what more could be done. A big challenge was the availability of water for cultivation.
“Deforestation and rampant digging of bore wells had depleted the groundwater to a large extent. The big question was how could we, at least in a small way, combat deforestation, especially when all around we were using wood, especially for little things like stationery?” Divya says.
This led to the invention of Plantcil (now called Pepaa), a pencil made of recycled paper, which, after use, can be grown into a plant. Plantcil was the beginning of an innovative stationery range, all made of the same recycled paper, and that is now sold to 250 corporate organisations all over India. Their manufacturing plant is located at Avinashi, 40 km from Coimbatore.
Sustainability did not just stop there for Indian Superheroes.
“We work with rural women to handcraft products like pens, notebooks, coasters, bags, wedding cards, cloth bags, and even sustainable box packaging from 100 percent handmade paper that otherwise end up in landfills - textile waste, flowers, banana, jute husk waste, shredded currency, and even manure. The stationery is embedded with native organic seeds (saved from previous harvests) and after usage, these can be planted and grown into vegetables, flowers and even trees - ensuring increased vegetation,” Divya says.
The company was started with an investment of Rs 40 lakh and recorded 1.5 crore in profits in the last fiscal. Currently bootstrapped, they are looking to raise funding to scale the business.
Being a first-generation woman entrepreneur is tough, agrees Divya. “The farming and manufacturing sectors are largely male-dominated and when they see a woman venturing into this field, they feel I am not trustworthy just because I am a woman. The farmers were doubtful in the beginning, but once they started earning well, their mindsets changed.”
The future looks promising for Divya and she hopes more people will join the organic and sustainable movement she has begun.
“My goal for the next three years is to expand my company, find markets all over India and abroad, and empower at least 2,000 farmers and their families and 5,000 women to earn a dignified income every month. On the other side, I want to enable at least a thousand brands and a million consumers to transition to an organic, sustainable lifestyle,” she adds.