On any given day, Zama Organics’ warehouse in Mumbai overflows with organic colours and fresh aromas. Freshly ground yellow chilli powder from Uttarakhand is carefully placed next to the pink salt infused with jeera and hing. Meanwhile, assorted orange sweet potatoes, brown gucci mushrooms and Assamese black rice rest in another corner of the room.
These condiments, vegetables, grains and fruits have travelled from the fields of organic farmers across India and are meticulously checked in the warehouse before being delivered to the doorsteps of their customers in Mumbai.
Zama Organics was founded in 2017 by Shriya Naheta with the aim to make diverse foods of India accessible to people at the click of a button. In the process, Shriya has successfully managed to create a network of 50,000 farmers from all over the country and has offered them better margins for their produce.
“The objective behind Zama Organics was to offer healthier lifestyle choices by creating a one-stop-shop for native and indigenous food items of different climatic belts and geographies. This would also mean encouraging more and more farmers to make their food-growing process completely organic,” Shriya, 27, tells The Better India.
This food portal model is also proving to be beneficial in the wake of the pandemic. While farmers across the country are struggling to sell their produce due to movement restrictions, Shriya has managed to help close to 10,000 farmers in her network.
“The demand for organic and healthy food has certainly increased due to COVID-19, so we are striving hard to help as many farmers as possible while meeting the demand by consumers,’ adds Shriya.
How The Organic Farm-To-Fork Model Works
Freshness is of paramount importance at Zama Organics, and the organisation follows a strict harvesting calendar schedule. A list of spices, condiments, vegetables and fruits is prepared in collaboration with the farmers and based on their harvesting cycles, they are listed on the portal.
“All food items on the website are ready-to-be-harvested so as soon as the customer orders, we give a green signal to our farmers. Most of the perishable food items are sourced from within Maharashtra so that they stay fresh until we make the delivery. No food lies on our shelf for more than a day. For non-perishable items, we rely on farmers outside the state,” informs Shriya.
Food items arrive at the warehouse in Mumbai between 1-3 am. Staff the Zama Organics manually check the quality of vegetables as per taste and ripening specifications. The items are then packed and delivered at the customer’s house by evening.
Besides, fresh produce, the firm also sells packaged air-dried herbs, hand-pounded spices and value-added products like pickles, jams, preserves, ghee, and oils. The biggest advantage in sourcing non-perishable items from farmers is the customisation of the products. For example, if some consumers want oil-free pickles, the firm replaces oil with apple cider vinegar. These products are either made by farmers or the firm outsources the production to local Self-Help Groups.
How It All Started
Shriya completed her graduation from the University of South California and returned to India in 2015. The idea of Zama was born during a trip with her friend, Aditi Dugar, who runs the fine-dining restaurant Masque and sources ingredients from indigenous farmers of various regions like Nasik, Coimbatore, Pune, Meghalaya and Kashmir.
That year, Shriya accompanied Aditi to some of these places and got an opportunity to interact with farmers directly, understand their plight and also discover the hidden food gems like wild honey and gucci mushrooms. After learning about their organic methods, Shriya thought it would be a great idea if such food was available in Mumbai.
Two years later, Shriya launched her website and thus began Zama Organics.
“When I was coming up with a plan, I did not expect the supply chain to be challenging. I was proven wrong as the food would perish or spoil due to improper transportation and storage facilities. I even lost some customers after farmers failed to meet the deadlines. I learnt the hard way and decided to diligently follow a pre-order system.”
Building a trusted network of farmers was also difficult as no one took this young woman with no experience in selling vegetables seriously, “It took a while to convince them that their produce would directly be sold to customers and I was not a middle-person.”
Due to fewer deliveries, in the beginning, Shriya also had to spend extra on transportation.
While there were challenges in certain areas, getting customers was probably an easier task. She heavily relied on word of mouth and social media to spread information about Zama. It started with friends and family and in the last three years, Shriya has managed to cater to thousands of Mumbaikars.
Making An Impact
Akash Dongre, a farmer who lives on the outskirts of Pune, shifted to organic farming three years ago after his health deteriorated due to constant spraying of harmful pesticides to fasten the growth, increase the yield and make the vegetables look big and fresh.
But switching to organic farming came at a cost. His overall input cost increased with organic fertilisers and consequently, and the market selling price also saw a rise. Coming from an area where there is absolutely no awareness regarding chemical-free food, he struggled to sell his produce for nearly a year.
“I suffered from skin diseases due to the continuous use of chemicals. After realising the repercussions of conventional farming, I switched. However, since the produce was a little expensive, people were not willing to spend extra so I did not have the right market. All this changed after my association with Zama Organics. They cater to my kind of audience. My overall revenue has increased. Also, they have been extremely helpful in introducing new farming techniques and setting up the harvesting cycle,” Akash tells The Better India.
Like Akash, Shriya and her team assist farmers they work with and help them get organic certification and an appropriate market.
“By growing food sans chemicals and helping consumers eat healthy food, farmers feel happy about themselves and plus their health has also improved, says Shriya. Akash agrees and says that farmers in his village are impressed by his transition.
In terms of revenue, the firm has kept away from giving a fixed percentage of the share as they do not work with all the farmers regularly. At a time, they engage with around 100 farmers.
Shriya has consciously made the revenue model more farmer-centric as the prices of the products are decided based on estimates given by the farmers. On average, the farmers have a 10-15 per cent higher margin than the market rate.
Though this model has affected the prices of the final product that are slightly on the higher side, Shriya does not mind. For her, farmers and customers are equally important.
Fortunately, 2500 health-conscious customers of Zama Organics prefer quality over price.
Edited by Gayatri Mishra