How I Launched: Zama Organics

An illustrated interpretation of a woman holding a plant in soil in her large hands.

Shriya Naheta, founder and CEO of Zama Organics, shares how she brought her organic food brand to the forefront of the ‘buy local, eat local’ movement in India

By Praachi Raniwala   Friday 13 March, 2020

The big idea: ‘After studying international relations and business at the University of Southern California in LA, I returned to India in 2015. Around the same time, my sister, Aditi [Dugar] and her business partner Prateek [Sadhu] were travelling around the country to source foraged products for their upcoming [and now award-winning] ingredient-driven restaurant, Masque. I joined them on their trips across Maharashtra in south India and Himachal Pradesh in north India. What I saw was phenomenal; villagers were eating black rice, pink rice and chia seeds. Each journey was an eye-opener. Why were we desperate for imported produce when we could have seasonal, local and organic instead?’

The breakthrough: ‘My lightbulb moment was in Himachal Pradesh around four years ago. I witnessed first hand how the region’s apples were transported to different parts of the country. I also got access to almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, which I was shocked to see, because I had no idea they grew in India. Then, there was my visit to the vegetable market in Almora, Uttarakhand. Since the climate there is so good, most of the produce is organic, even though it may not be certified. I realised that with our vast topography, there’s very little that doesn’t grow in India. It was clear that I shouldn’t focus on just one region, but bring the best from all of them to my market.’

The plan: ‘I spent 2016 doing research and went all the way into the back end to learn everything from scratch. I wanted to fully understand the certification process. If you are organic, what are you not using? What are you using instead? I also spent time in each area to see where my produce was coming from. We’ve had a stringent process from day one and mainly work with farmer collectives. For instance, some of our ginger and capsicum is grown by a former doctor who now runs a farm that’s part of our Nashik collective. We officially launched in the spring of 2017, followed by the website later that year.’

Launching to market: ‘Our premise has been to help people understand the origins of their food – where it’s grown, how it got to them and when the ideal season is to eat it. We started small, with orders from friends and family via WhatsAppThe produce was delivered to their homes within 24 to 30 hours of harvest. Quality was always [and still is] our top priority, so if something didn’t meet our standards, we simply didn’t send it. Our clients understood and appreciated that.’

Building the brand: ‘We’ve managed to create an online marketplace, which is your one-stop shop for all the organic produce your kitchen needs, from grains and spices to seasonal vegetables. Today, we service about 200 homes regularly. We’re not a luxury brand for exotic food – wheat, tomatoes and turmeric are some of our bestsellers. Last October, we decided to curate some Diwali gift hampers. I expected about 100 orders, but we ended up with 800. Although that meant two weeks of long nights in the warehouse, it was so fulfilling. We also found a sweet spot with local restaurants striving to create sustainable menus; it was a chance to collaborate with like-minded partners. We were already supplying to Masque, and also started working with popular eateries, plus home chefs in 2018.’

Facing challenges: ‘When I started travelling with Aditi and Prateek, I also tried my hand at selling cheese from Puttaparthi, a village in south India, to hotels in Mumbai. It turned out to be such a testing experience. Everything went kaput, but that failure built the foundation for Zama Organics. We were all over the place for a year. I realised we couldn’t do everything, from supplying hotels to dealing with end consumers, so that eventually led to streamlining our mindset and audience.’

Money matters: ‘The company has been entirely self-funded. We have a lean [business] model, so were able to sustain ourselves. The investment has not yet allowed for heavy spends on marketing, therefore we focus on collaborations with Instagram influencers and chefs instead.’

Staying motivated: ‘I love everything about what I do. There’s creative flexibility, travel, the chance to meet cool people and build a larger community. In fact, we’ve received a letter of appreciation from the agricultural department for helping uplift the farming community in Kopargaon.’

Eye on the future: ‘We will launch in Pune and ship our packaged products nationwide soon. They’ll come with a QR code, which will give our customers detailed provenance of their purchases. Our app is also going live, so that will enable real-time updates. Plus, I’m setting up a foundation, where one per cent of the proceeds from Zama Organics sales will go towards disaster relief and training for farmers.’

​Illustration courtesy of Alva Skog
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