— Jasmeen Dugal (click here to know more about this blogger)
'Corporate rat turned farm rodent' is how Kavita Bagga describes herself. An understatement. The lady donned stellar corporate hats — Former VP, SABMiller; Former Sr. VP, Bennett Coleman [The Times Group]; Former Brand Manager Marketing, PepsiCo — before going the entrepreneurial way with Kara Organics. In conversation with her.
Kavita you've had a successful corporate career. What made you put it on 'pause'?
I've had some fun exciting years in both the worlds of media and FMCG. Apart from working for the largest advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, I've also had the opportunity to work with FMCG companies Unilever, PepsiCo India and SABMiller. I don't think I've really put anything on pause as much as I have taken my learnings and moved on to apply them to a different field, as an entrepreneur. I've been a work horse for half my life so the concept of pause is alien. I believe you only pause once in life and until then you keep moving, learning, innovating, evolving…
Where did the idea of launching Kara Organics take seed?
Kara Organics came into being as a natural progression of a phase of my life and career, when I was spending three days a week at airports, changing flights, check-in, check-out, room service, shuttling between meetings, juggling deadlines, reviews, market visits and more! It was like a crescendo building up… like a storm before the calm! You can say the orgasm was great but the sex was tiring! And I think I had reached a point where I was willing to put in the effort but towards something new and challenging, something of my own. I was interviewed by a global GMO giant and was asked to come on board as Marketing Director… and while I prepared for the interview I started reading about the Indian agricultural landscape. How we grew our food, what were the challenges faced by farmers, how we were abusing the soil to increase the yield, how the farmer was driven to the desperation of seeking loans and if he couldn't pay up because of a failed crop or depleting soil and resources, he ended his life over a loan of a few thousands. I also realised how naive and callous we were when we came to our lowest common denominator of sustenance i.e. food! I realised that we lived in a fool's paradise where we thought fresh means good, greens meant healthy, chemical free meant guilt free! I realised what a misnomer the word 'Organic' was and how it is the most loosely used word after LOL!! That said, our family business is about manufacturing and supplying bio inputs for farming and we live at a farm which has been organic for twenty years now, so given the above, with my desire to do something of my own and more meaningful to self and world at large, Organic Farming was the lowest hanging fruit… quite a natural progression. My husband is my biggest supporter, he is an impatient creature! Left to me, I would still be reading about farmer suicides and fantasising about making a difference but he's been instrumental in translating my intent to action. He said, 'if we're doing the input why can't you do the output and complete the circle.' This is how Kara Organics was born. Kavita's intent and Ravi's call for action, hence Ka-Ra. It also means 'pure' in Greek. Today not only do I grow seasonal crops at our farm but we also educate farmers on long term sustainable benefits of organic farming, facilitating certification and shall soon be helping them market their produce under the brand umbrella of Kara Organics.
What were the challenges and roadblocks when launching this new concept and how did you overcome it?
Honestly I had no idea about launching a company, the technicalities involved and I think I'm still learning while my husband and his office handles most of it. I focus on planning, managing and marketing the crops. My experience of building brands, using tools to generate word of mouth, contacts in the retail and hospitality industry are what I bring to the table. The challenges were to familiarise myself with how to grow organic food, how to work with the weather and available resources, how to understand what my soil likes and dislikes, and most of all how to work with uneducated albeit evolved farm staff. M team… these people are real, they work with their heart and work is their life so they give it their all. Today I can imagine that a failed crop for a farmer is more than a commercial set back… it's soul breaking. The challenge was to ensure that crop planning was meticulous as per season and to create enough demand to ensure that our inputs and effort in growing crops paid off with maximum sale, at the same time ensuring I could make as many as possible seasonal food available and accessible for consistent orders. The challenge that persists is increasing awareness about the organic way of life and food, getting people to understand that organic has to be a lifestyle and not a whim, getting them to realise that the incremental cost of grocery by moving to organic food is a fraction of medical expenses we incur due to deteriorating health. Eating organic is a long term investment…returns are assured… but because we have been subjecting ourselves to chemicals and impurities, the gain can't be overnight. That's why recruiting people into the buying set is easy but the challenge is keeping them committed to it. Going organic has to be a commitment to self, not a fashion statement. Strangely, contrary to what I had expected that it's the affluent who would buy into an organic lifestyle, it's the younger generation and the young working couples who are aware and discerning. The Luis Vuitton crowd somehow still believes that a designer handbag is a better investment than their own health!!
Did organic farming come to you naturally? Did you learn 'on the ground'?
Anything that allows or propels me to learn something new comes naturally to me. But yes, I love being outdoors, I love food and I don't mind getting my hands dirty, literally, so growing food sort of ticked many boxes and has been a comfortable calling. I'm learning on the ground… that's the beauty of farming; learning never ends… there will always be a new crop to experiment with, a new pest to deal with, unpredictable weather, evolving market dynamics to cater to and an ignorant consumer to educate and convert!
Tell me about the long-term vision of Kara Organics.
To be the answer for organic food needs. Currently we're working with our own produce, mostly seasonal greens; however, as we go along, work is on to convert a vast number of farmers to organic farming and facilitate certification for them, so not only can we better the life of their soil and their own, but also ensure organic food becomes accessible and affordable for a larger set of people. Simultaneously the vision is also to increase awareness and grow the category by increasing demand for organic food so that the farmers we have converted are confident of selling food they have toiled to grow naturally and at a justifiable price.
What organic crops do you grow? What is your favourite way to prepare those crops in your home?
I grow almost 25-30 seasonal vegetables each season that practically covers everything that can be possibly grown in Delhi weather conditions and my soil… I do a large number of regular daily consumption of greens as well as exotic vegetables, salads and herbs. Because I have access to fresh produce, I dabble with multiple cuisines in my kitchen. However, what I try is to move away from shelf buying to a made-at-home pantry… so you will find a large number of pickles, jams, sauces, dips, spreads, all seasonal, without artificial preservatives, made fresh! I try to encourage people to do this too not just because it's the right thing to do but it's so easy provided one has the inclination and a little time.
Where can consumers buy Kara Organics? What are the hot-sellers?
I have a personalised way of making my produce available to people… I keep a network of buyers on my email database and personally send out weekly mails on what is ready for harvesting in a week…. this keeps me involved with what I grow and opens up interesting discussions on how something can be prepared, daily menus, kid’s recipes etc. I love being in touch with our customers; I learn so much from them and their direct feedback. It also gives me an opportunity to dispel misconceptions about organic food, widen the base and retain people in the organic set. Other than this, I also supply to hotels and speciality restaurants where Chefs have an organic menu and want fresh greens. Unfortunately we are still a fair distance away from the time when people will go out to dine and insist on being served organic food and the hospitality establishments will start emphasising more on quality of food vs. margins! I also supply to shops that sell organic food, however, I'm particular that they sell only certified produce and products. What I don't do is set stall at Farmers' Markets as most have a mix of certified and non-certified sellers and farmers claiming to be organic whereas they could be just chemical free. Certification is a diligent expensive process and it takes effort to make sure that one is compliant with organic guidelines, which is why I don't feel comfortable sharing space with sellers- farmers- aggregators who only have verbal claims and no tangible credibility. I have, however, suggested to various market organisers that they should have a segregated space for certified farmers within the market so people can use their discretion while buying and sellers can be more transparent… but I think that may impact stall sales as there aren't as many genuinely certified farmers as there are vendors claiming to organic!!
Are Indians evolving and appreciating organic produce or are they still in the dark?
Oh… the organic community is like a flash in the pan and knowledge is abysmal. The intent to eat pure food is there but little of it translates into sustained action. There is also lack of awareness on how toxic our daily food consumption is and how we are slowly eating our way into deteriorating health and depleting natural resources. Unfortunately, for many, the wakeup call comes late. I have a few customers who have been diagnosed with cancer and been advised to eat organic; it's sad because the choice of what we consume was always ours, if only the choice was made well and well in time. The second deterrent is the cost of organic food… it's more expensive than a local grocery store or mandi…but then it's a matter of value over volume. Of course the cost of organic food will see some rationalising once the demand grows and more and more farmers move to organic farming, but because one can't use chemical inputs, the yield of a crop will be less than that which has been grown using artificial inputs or genetically modified seeds. In the absence of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, until the crops develop immunity to bugs and weeds, you will have pest issues, your germination may not be robust, and your fruiting may not be as abundant but the quality of food that you produce and supply will be immaculate and hence you should be paid a fair price for it. People need to wake up to this realisation and believe that eating organic food is like medical insurance… it's important and your best safety net.
Today, your life is a contrast from the 9-to-5 routine to working hands-on in a farm. How challenging did the change prove to be? Was there a time when you just wanted to return to the corporate life?
I want to return to the corporate life every day! But I also don't want to, or rather, can't leave this farmers life! I miss the outward interaction, the conference room bloodbaths, the travel, the buzz…the salary of course! But do I miss it enough to make a U turn… no, I don't think so. Instead, I do consultancy so I get my fix and stay content to be a happy farmer. The change was not difficult. I had achieved what one strives to do in the corporate world… senior positions, good salary, big teams, goals, friends etc so it was easy transition to a lifestyle that allows me to learn something new while applying what I had learnt all these years. I don't have privileged leave now, I have rainy day holidays!!
What are your goals for Kara Organics in the next five years?
The goal is to become one of the most credible and trustworthy brand in the space of nutrition and wellness. I wish Kara Organics inspires and motivates the consumer and farmer alike to make the shift to organic life and cultivation, and never look back. Of course, I intend to make money, and for doing that I have to grow the market, grow good food and grow the trust of my customers in what I bring to the table… from my field!
Speaking of organic farmers... we have heard you counsel and educate them on how organic farming can help them in the long term. What is the response you've received from them?
The response is usually good as one doesn't need to educate the Indian farmer on organic farming. They know it better than us and most farmers will have a patch of land where he grows organic food for his consumption. The challenge comes when you need to reassure them that what they grow will have a relatively lower yield in the first few years but there would be sufficient sale potential at a justifiably better price which will compensate for this low output. More than the education it's the comfort they seek in knowing they will have access to the right market, at a right price. Also the fact that by moving away from chemical inputs, their production costs will come significantly down and the life of their soil shall be enhanced thereby increasing their years of earning a livelihood from the only thing they have i.e. their land!
On a larger scale... Where do you see the future of farming? What do you hope for it? Do you feel the govt can motivate farmers to shift towards organic cultivation?
The future is positive as both the farmer and the consumer are waking up to the benefits of going organic. With increasing pollution and lifestyle-related health issues, people are realising that the one thing they can't take for granted is food. The younger generation is more conscious of this and realises that more than a fancy car, home or holiday it's good health that enhances the quality of life. The govt is working on motivating farmers to shift to organic cultivation however issues need to be addressed which I'm sure are being worked on. The supply chain for organic farming needs to be better so that the farmer selling organic food can achieve better earnings without having to depend on middle men; the govt needs to provide a stable market to sell their produce. Some certification related policy changes need to come into effect so that organic farmers can export their outputs and get premium returns. In the conversion period from conventional farming to organic, a farmer may face loss of yield, lesser output, and it would help if the govt subsidised for this loss so that more farmers make that move. There is a shortage of suppliers of organic inputs for farming and the govt needs to encourage players in this field so that farmers can have better access to good quality bio inputs, natural pesticides and fertilisers and minimise their loss of yield. Lastly, tightening of policies related to labelling of organic produce will help in demarcating the organic from the conventional and help in ensuring people get and pay for organic food and not spurious claims. PS We need to use the word 'Organic' carefully and even more carefully listen when somebody talks of being organic. I hope that more and more people would wake up to this and make attempts to seek information from the right sources!
5 January 2021 10:38 pm IN CONVERSATION WITH RESTAURATEUR YUVRAJ KOHLI
21 July 2020 10:28 am IN CONVERSATION WITH HOTELIER HIMMAT ANAND
18 July 2020 9:19 pm IN CONVERSATION WITH CHEF BAKSHISH DEAN
13 June 2020 11:25 pm IN CONVERSATION WITH CHEF VAIBHAV BHARGAVA
27 May 2020 12:42 pm LEGENDARY RESTAURATEUR AD SINGH
15 June 2019 8:45 pm CHEF AKANKSHA DEAN
4 April 2019 3:41 pm CHEF MASSIMILIANO SPERLI
15 February 2019 8:56 pm Aradhana Lal- VP Sustainability Initiatives- Lemon Tree
6 February 2019 7:16 pm PRIDE PLAZA HOTEL VICE PRESIDENT PANKAJ MATHUR
21 August 2018 1:26 pm IN CONVERSATION WITH CHEF ALEX MOSER
12 July 2018 1:57 pm RADISSON BLU PLAZA DELHI GENERAL MANAGER ASHWANI GOELA
27 May 2018 11:49 am FROM CORPORATE ICON SANGEETA KURIAKOS TO CHEF SANGY
25 May 2018 8:06 am MEET RESTAURATEUR AND CHEF RITU DALMIA
2 May 2018 12:06 pm GAURAV DEB, GM, THE LALIT GRAND PALACE
28 April 2018 7:38 am MEET ITC RAJPUTANA GENERAL MANAGER RISHIRAJ SINGH
27 March 2016 7:41 am MICHELIN STAR CHEF SEBASTIAN SANJOU
20 January 2015 3:35 am IN CONVERSATION WITH RESTAURATEUR RAJIV ANEJA