Greenikk cofounders Previn Jacob (left) and Fariq Naushad hope to revolutionise banana trade in India.
Talk to Fariq Naushad and Previn Jacob Varghese, and you’ll see the duo overflowing with ideas to revolutionise banana trading in India. Then, delve a little deeper; you’ll learn that the co-founders of Greenikk, an agritech startup based in Trivandrum, had a rollercoaster journey before they secured 5.3-crore-rupee (some 643,000 US dollars) funding to pursue their vision.
Months went by as they experimented with different options, leading to difficult times. Their families, relatives, and former classmates became disenchanted with their idealistic dream. They even rented a place to avoid going home and facing sceptics, confesses Jacob.
The scepticism over their new passion was understandable. Naushad and Varghese had spent months developing environmentally-friendly straws made from papaya stems. The project won them an award at the Tata Social Enterprise Challenge in 2020, but turning it into a commercial success proved difficult due to the challenges in securing a steady supply of raw materials.
“We tried different things and realised that our path wouldn’t lead to our goal of making a profound change in the Indian agriculture scene,” says Jacob.
The two engineering graduates from Trivandrum were driven by a desire to make a significant impact through sustainable agriculture and eco-friendly ventures.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they quickly adapted their projects to overcome the pandemic restrictions and ventured into bringing vegetables directly from farms to apartment buildings. It was a successful operation. However, as restrictions eased and direct sales to consumers decreased, the B2C model shifted to a B2B venture.
But the duo still felt something was missing. They were making only minor changes to an established trade, not the profound impact they sought. So, they decided to refocus on their original dream plans.
“We were making a daily turnover of 65,000 rupees by supplying farm produce directly to restaurants, but we decided to end it because it was not what we wanted,” says Jacob.
Nonetheless, the vegetable supply operation opened their eyes to the potential of the banana trade and the problems the unorganised sector was experiencing. It marked the beginning of a steep learning curve for Greenik.
The banana trade was a decades-old system with multiple components, and even after spending days at the Trivandrum market, the duo still felt clueless. So, they decided to drive down to major banana-producing areas in Tamil Nadu, like Theni and Dindigul, to learn the ropes there.
As newbies in the trade, the Greenikk co-founders experienced some financial losses.
“We were learning the trade the hard way. IT startups often launch an app and try to convince farmers to change their traditional practices, but that usually fails. We didn’t want to fall into that trap. We wanted to learn from the ground up and establish a physical presence first. We needed to gain the trust of farmers and traders,” says Jacob.
Before introducing high-tech solutions, Greenikk focused on helping banana farmers increase their revenue.
They noticed that nearly 20 crore banana stems were burned after harvest. So they offered to buy it for fiber-making companies that needed a steady supply of such materials. This idea soon developed into a new business line for Greenikk as bags and mats made of biodegradable material were gaining popularity in the environmentally conscious Western markets.
Jacob says the firm recently received an unexpected order for 15,000 bags made with banana fibre from a French company and is in the process of sending out the first batch soon.
But Greenikk’s primary focus is still revamping the banana trade in India. They are establishing enabling centres where farmers can get help across the entire gamut of banana trade. “Technology we can bring in any time. But we need to establish ourselves as a trusted platform,” the co-founders point out.
As they were fine-tuning the business plan last year, the co-founders came close to running out of funds more than once last year. “We were down to the last dollar two or three times,” recalls Jacob. But finally, a group of angel investors stepped in to stop them from going under.
The funds Greenikk raised recently will be used to strengthen its presence in key banana-producing areas. It will be achieved through physical centres that provide farmers with various services, including seed procurement, financing, insurance, and market networking.
The startup aims to expand its team to 20 members by the end of the year to support these efforts. The co-founders say their team is slowly evolving. “More than expertise, what we are looking for is passion and interest in the job—people who do not mind getting their hands dirty,” say the duo.
Under their brand name Ohkela, the company is spreading its roots in the banana trade with a focus on steady growth. Its annual turnover for the current financial year is expected to reach six crores.
Greenikk is also entering the banana chips market and has already received orders from several dealers in the United States. It also aims to crack the markets in Europe and East Asia. Besides, it has plans to explore the market for other varieties of bananas like Nenthran.
A second round of funding is aimed for next year after expansion plans into other areas are settled.
The company has been trading bananas seriously for only two years, but it has already become a multi-crore turnover venture. It gives Jacob and Naushad the energy and enthusiasm to aim to drive the turnover toward the 100-crore mark in the next financial year.
Naushad and Varghese have been pursuing their dream for some time. Finally, they now seem to be on course to realise it.
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