It’s their life
Organic is a passion and a way of life for new entrepreneurs
There certainly is something about organic farming. It gets some people all charged up. So captivated are they by the idea of growing food in a safe and ecologically sound way that they abandon lucrative professions and well-paying jobs abroad to wallow in the good earth and stuff like cow dung, mulch and vermicompost. Nothing, it appears, is so satisfying as returning to farming, the natural way. Lawyers and doctors with a roaring practice, information technology professionals working in the US, coal merchants with a tidy business, management experts employed by multinationals—these are some of the organic buffs we came across as we researched this cover story.
Start with Manjunath Pankkaparambil, an ex-IT professional who runs Lumiere, the landmark organic restaurant in Bengaluru’s Martahalli suburb. A former consultant with Oracle and SAP in the US, Manjunath became acquainted with Ambrose Kooliyath, whom he describes a Gandhian activist and a farmer since 1997, during a visit home (Kerala). They decided to take up organic farming together and bought about four hectares (ha) in Munnar to grow English vegetables. That was in 2003. Then in 2009, the partners opened Lumiere in Kochi and a year later in Bengaluru.
The Kochi restaurant was closed earlier this year because there were not enough footfalls and sourcing was a problem. But the large (8,000 sq feet) Bengaluru restaurant-cum-store with 120 covers is open for business, and doing fairly well, says Manjunath. Clearly, the problems of running a fully organic restaurant—95 per cent of the ingredients are certified—are immense. Logistics of getting in fresh supplies meant that the Munnar farm did not work too well. Besides, it was difficult to get genuinely organic, free-range chicken (not injected with antibiotics and growth hormones) and eggs. So a 0.8 ha farm was bought in Bengaluru itself, one half for rearing chicken and the other for leafy greens. Other items are sourced from nearby farms—one of them run by a doctor in Udhagamandalam. The organic crowd is pretty good at networking and form close alliances both for business and pleasure.
Lumiere tries to get as close to fine dining as possible, although it is primarily a Kerala seafood menu. Is the restaurant bringing in profits. Not yet, although Rs 2 crore was invested in setting it up and regular cash infusions to keep it running. That does not seem to bother Manjunath, 46. “I sat 16 years in an office as a software professional. Now I am doing something that invigorates me, and it is environmentally sustainable.”
That is the usual story with such entrepreneurs, most of whom came into the organic field seven to eight years ago. Hardly any of them are making profits and yet far from being discouraged they intend to keep at it. The intrinsic value of what they are doing is enough recompense for them, they maintain. H R Jayaram, 53, also of Bengaluru, is in a different category because the money he made from his earlier legal profession allows him ample scope for trying out interesting new projects. A lawyer who returned to his roots by taking up farming, Jayaram, founder of Green Path Eco Foundation, started two organics stores, initially called Era Organics, to offload the fresh produce from his farm. That led to sourcing of other items from different sources to give customers a full range of household supplies. The difference is that in Jayaram’s store—one was shut down—customers will chance upon food not found elsewhere: candied papaya, millet sweets and other delicacies prepared at his farm. “I love what one can do with food, naturally grown food, and I like sharing it,” he says with his characteristic wide smile.
A year after the first store opened, Jayaram set up what appears to be the country’s first organic hotel. What makes a hotel organic? “Everything in Green Path is chosen with care. All amenities are green, the food is locally grown organic, the herbs are plucked from the hotel garden and the fabric we use are mostly organic and made with natural dyes. Even our soap and shampoo are organic,” he says with pride. The hotel, in a residential area of Bengaluru, has a soothing green ambience while its special menus are a treat for vegetarian food lovers.
Jayaram’s idea is “to create products and business models that will inspire others to follow the green path”—some of his friends have followed him in running organic farms—and to create strong links between consumers and their food. Organic farming, he firmly believes, changes one’s way of thinking, changes one’s life. “You learn to respect your soil, your water, your seeds. You take a holistic view of nature and life.”
The hotel was started with the idea of becoming a meeting place for like-minded people, and that it certainly has. On any given day, you will find environmentalists holding a meeting there, visitors from abroad apart from the normal complement of hotel guests, “many of whom have become friends.” One such is Martine Dugue from Nantes in France who first came to Jayaram’s Sukrushi farm outside Bengaluru in 2008 as a Woofer or a volunteer with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Usually Woofers go from one part of the globe to another to share sustainable ways of living by working as volunteers on organic farms. They are given hospitality in exchange of labour.
“I was so impressed with the boundless energy and spirit that I return here every year for five months to help Jayaram with his many projects,” says Martine, who cares for mentally challenged persons when she is back home. “Thanks to him I’ve met so many green activists and learned about millets and their wonderful qualities.” Calling it “a food for the future” when climate change will impact production of less durable crops, Martine has set up a Millets Collective to popularise and grow this cereal in Europe. “Woofing is a great way to learn and strengthen the green network,” she says.
Organics hasn’t been such fun for Govind Kabadi, a lawyer-turned-coal merchant who found that farming was all he wanted to do, farming the old way, without chemical pesticides and fertilisers. After his more than 10-ha Gowramma Honnusa Kabadi farms in Uddichikanahalli got going, he opened Simply Organics a store that stocks 250 organic and natural products. Kabadi, 55, travels across the state looking for fresh products to add to his range. Although the store is not making profits, its owner has no intention of downing shutters. Why is that? The answer is predictable: “It’s my passion,” he says.
Kabadi offers an interesting insight. According to him there are two kinds of people in the organics business. “One kind, like me, is in it for the joy of it; the other is for high profits.” But since he needs to make a living he is tying up with Hyderabad-based Sresta to turn Simply Organics into a large, plush shop that will stock the company’s 24 Letter Mantra branded products. It will boast a live kitchen with a graduate chef and offer an organic lunch meal apart from fresh bakery items. Although Rajashekar Reddy Seelam, founder of Sresta and its successful brand, appear to be from different ends of the spectrum, they have something in common. Both share a love of organic farming and the products that come out of it.