How this entrepreneur found his calling in the humble jackfruit

Wakao Foods was launched in October 2020 by lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Sairaj Dhond. It offers jackfruit-based ready-to-eat products such as burger patties, mince and more.
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The focus on health has never been more underlined than in the last year or so, with a large section of the population reassessing what they eat and its impact on the body. A growing trend seen in India is the popularity of plant-based diets, while veganism, as a concept, has been on the rise from pre-pandemic days. 

Such is the popularity of plant-based diets now that jackfruit, a long underrated mighty summer fruit, has recently turned into a meat alternative in the country. Apart from being packed full of fiber, jackfruit is low in calories, fat and carbs, making it an easy and sustainable superfood.

However, despite India being one of its biggest producers, it is surprising how enormously under-utilised the fruit is. According to a research report titled Market Feasibility Study For Jackfruit Value Added Products, “Despite the richness, and unlimited benefits that Jackfruit provides, it’s still an unorganised market, thus leaving many opportunities to foray and expand across India and worldwide, with its untapped and innovative products that have a huge market scope and scalability.”

Goa-based Wakao Foods, started by lawyer turned entrepreneur Sairaj Dhond, is one such brand that is tapping into this emerging superfood, and making it easier for Indians to make the switch to plant-based diets. 

Sairaj worked as a criminal lawyer before he realised that he wanted to explore other areas. Hailing from a family of entrepreneurs, Sairaj had joined the family business of running restaurants after his stint as a lawyer, but quit within six months. In 2014, he began his real estate business, which was going well, but came to a grinding halt with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. 

Sairaj, not willing to sit back, was scouting for new opportunities when he came across an article on jackfruit. “This was a turning point for me as I realised that even though I had been consuming jackfruit since childhood, as a business opportunity in India, it had not been explored much.”

Using his own savings, Sairaj launched Wakao Foods in October 2020, and sales started to come calling from December. Currently, the brand offers jackfruit-based ready-to-eat products, that are packaged and marketed imaginatively - Barbeque Jack, Burger Patty, Butter Jack and Teriyaki Jack. 

Jackfruits

Operating amid COVID-19

Although Sairaj had a clear idea of the products he wanted to develop, circumstances around manufacturing were not as straightforward. The fear of COVID-19 was looming large when the company was in its R&D stage. Moreover, production was scheduled to happen in Kerala, one of the worst affected states in the early days of the pandemic outbreak in India. 

Nevertheless, Sairaj managed to find a way, and worked through most of the early details virtually - interacting with distributors, finalising the packaging, and more. He also made sure all operations were conducted under the highest hygiene standards to curb the spread of the virus. Recalling the initial days, he shares how the kitchens from his family's chain of hotels were used to carry out preparation and transformed into warehousing points. 

Between December 2020 to April 2021, the brand was mostly present in Goa with very little D2C traction. However, the B2B side, particularly the HoReCa (hotels, restaurants and cafes) segment, helped push the sales by 20 percent month-on-month.

Having pulled through the initial months and just when sales started gaining momentum, the second wave struck, bringing everything to a complete standstill again. 

“That was a time when we managed only about Rs 1,800 worth of sales a month, that too through our B2B business,” quips Sairaj.

Fortuitously, just when it seemed like the second wave would deal a mighty blow to the brand, the direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel became Wakao’s ally. Sairaj took to running social media campaigns and getting listed on ecommerce sites to help the company gain traction.

Wakao Foods is now present on platforms such as Wellversed, Flipkart and others. The company sells pan-India through its website, and counts Hilton, Oberoi, The Grand Hyatt, Zomato Hyperpure and Ola Foods among its clients in the B2B space.

Sairaj claims Wakao has since been growing 25 percent month-on-month, with 60 percent of the sales coming from online routes. 

Sairaj Dhund

Going global

While India is well-known for having a large section of traditionally vegetarian population, veganism has caught on because of rising health concerns. Here, the domestic market has very few players dabbling in the segment, and they include the Jackfruit Company, Artocarpus Fruit, Nutritivo Food Products, and a few more upcoming players. 

While Wakao is still establishing its presence in the Indian market, Sairaj aims to focus on the global market soon. The company is slated to enter the US, Mexican and Canadian markets by the end of August, and by the end of this fiscal year, the plan is to enter Dubai and Norway.

On being asked if the products are being customised or altered to suit the international markets, Sairaj says, “Each market has its own challenges and requirements, but right now, we have a good mix of Indian and international flavours.”

Apart from global expansion, Sairaj is also looking at growing the brand’s product line by launching about ten new jackfruit-based products soon. And although there is much to be explored and conquered in the jackfruit world, he adds that diversification is also on the cards, with kokum and mango as new focal points. 

Sairaj also plans to further strengthen the brand’s online and offline presence, looking at a 60:40 ratio. 


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Edited by Anju Narayanan