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From IAS officer to Sabziwala!

December 08, 2017 07:45 IST

Pravesh Sharma quit the IAS just 4 years short of retirement and turned entrepreneur.
Aditi Phadnis reports.

Sabziwaala Vegetable vendor

Why should cold chains be necessary when farmers are growing vegetables within 50 and 80 km of the nearest city?
Photograph: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters.

 

Not many have opted to become sabziwallas after three decades in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), India's steel frame. But, Pravesh Sharma is not your ordinary IAS officer -- he is both idealistic and brave.

Few in the Indian executive today know as much about agriculture as he does.

Just four years short of retirement in June 2016, he decided he'd banged his head against the wall enough. He quit the IAS after a five-year stint as managing director of the Small Farmers' Agri-business Consortium (SFAC), to start Sabziwala, a start-up that is as unpretentious as he is.

It is a venture that wants to do right by all: using sensible pricing and right economics, it seeks to sell quality vegetables to consumers while organising farmers and advising them on best marketing practices and smart forecasting.

It puts into practice all that he learnt and wanted to do as managing director of SFAC, which is mandated with encouraging farmers to set up producer companies with guidance and grants.

Marketing fruit and vegetable (F&V, in industry jargon) is incredibly difficult if you don't know your way around.

First off, there is all the wastage.

Then everyone wants the best items of the lot.

The suppliers want to maximise their profits by spending as little as possible on transportation and packaging.

The consumer, canny and thrifty housewives, want the most for their rupee and are not beyond surreptitiously tearing off the leaves of mooli and breaking off the stalks of gobi so that they don't have to pay for what they don't use.

The trade is dominated by pushcart vendors.

 

Pravesh Sharma

Pravesh Sharma quit the IAS after a five-year stint as managing director of the Small Farmers' Agri-business Consortium to start Sabziwala.
Photograph: Courtesy Pravesh Sharma/LinkedIn.

 

Sabziwala procures produce from farmers -- not mandis -- at the crack of dawn and offers perfectly graded, pre-weighed and packaged vegetable and fruit to franchisees so that everyone down the line gets a fair price.

"I will not accept produce that is brought to me in bori (jute bags). I offer farmers advances to buy crates so that the quality is not affected in transit," Sharma says.

He speaks scathingly about the wastage involved in pyramids of cauliflowers that are loaded on to trucks that trundle through north India uncovered to carry the vegetable to marketplaces: they look perfectly symmetrical, but no one can even guess how much of the vegetable turns to pulp. Sharma sees this order of waste as a personal affront.

Franchises have the option of selling vegetables alongside groceries, stationery, anything really, on a scale they decide upon.

The F&V markup can go to up to 50 per cent as the seller has to factor in losses on account of wastage. Sharma reckons a 20 per cent markup is reasonable -- as long as you have a strategy for the perishable and the extremely perishable.

Dhabas and small restaurants buy leftover vegetables at the end of the working day. Those vegetables that can still be sold are pushed out the next day.

Sharma reckons India has got it all wrong.

This country has the largest vegetarian population in the world. Why should cold chains be necessary when farmers are growing vegetables within 50 and 80 km of the nearest city?

All you need is marketing and rudimentary education about growing quality vegetable. And a little bit of forecasting.

Sabziwala is getting some venture funding.

It wants to grow but not too fast. It is handling upwards of 9 tonnes of fresh produce every day.

Its ambition is to be present all over India one day -- through a model that is inclusive as well as fair.

Aditi Phadnis in Delhi
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