From the days where she had to hear arguments that revolved around “you are a girl, business is not for you” to silently yet stunningly running her revolution of healthy and organic food in India, Likitha Bhanu has come a long way. Co-founder and CEO, Terragreens Organic, Likitha calls herself a girl who just wanted to solve every problem that was thrown at her. Her quest is to see a better world and for that, better-eating habits have to become the new normal. Her company, Terragreens Organic with its line of organic products does just that. Something that started from a farm in Assam is today being sold in over a thousand outlets. Only exceptional qualities and perseverance could have led to such success.
Growing up around farms in Assam with a foodie mom who has a thing for food products that are grown all by herself, it seemed Likitha’s interest would have also been agriculture at first. She clarifies, “Honestly, I was never into farming. My mother and I co-founded this company together, and she was a farmer. She wanted us to taste all the stuff that she grew in the farm. It was freshly produced organic produce. Once when it was in excess and we couldn’t give it anymore to friends and family, we asked a local shopkeeper if he wanted to buy our stuff. That day, I came back and I got some labels printed for us and then we started packaging our produce, me and my Mom. From there on, I kept on going every day to the shop to fill stock and take stock of the situation.”
Likitha fondly and deservedly credits her Mom when she explains how the name and the spirit of business came to life, “It was my Mom’s idea. I was just a facilitator for her passion. She has always been the spirit behind the business. She was the farmer in our work, in fact, she is still a farmer. After our initial product started selling, we thought it was a good business. We started our small packaging unit and started with a subscription delivery service. Back in 2012, subscription delivery service meant nothing. We tried sales but then we were stuck with inventory, then we entered the retail space.”
For me people who buy organic food, have to see a value in it. I constantly strive to create value in the work and product. Our customer needs to see that in our product. Value for their health, family’s health, farmers health and planet’s health.
Humble Start And Challenges In Business
Terragreens was running in an ecosystem that did not have many options or alternatives established back in the early 2010s. However, it proved to be a silver lining for Likitha’s business. As there were no organic brands back in those days, Terragreens Organic got picked up by national chains. Within 6 months they got catapulted to the national market. This led to a whooping growth of 300% in her first year of business. Since then, there has been no looking back for her.
Likitha remembers Terragreen’s humble start very well, “We started with a 400 sq. ft. warehouse and today it is a 40,000 sq. ft. packaging unit. Today there are 12,000 farmers with us, the product line is about 60 scales. We are also the backend for one of the largest companies. We do everything now, from bulk trading, packaging, distribution to retail.”
Likitha’s involvement with nature, surroundings, life and sustainable culture is forming the backbone of the company. For an industry that revolves around growing crops, money cannot be the sole motive. More so, when the talk is of organic growth, it becomes a mission. Entrepreneurship with a vision and mission is more fruitful in the longer run. Likitha puts light on this, “In this space, we need to have that mindset, more so because we are in the long-term game. When we started, the questions were, ‘What is organic?’. Today we are being asked different questions. The increasing awareness makes our customers wonder, what am I eating, where is my food coming from, is this food really good for me. At least, with time, the conversation about organic has opened.”
Entrepreneurship is about starting something new. It is about taking the step which was either avoided, neglected or left unexplored. And in these times, building a name and trust amongst masses is crucial to surviving. As per Likitha, Indians have a rule of precedence, “It is like somebody always needs to show proof. That is the mindset in India. We start or fund businesses at times only when the world has shown some kind of precedence before. The difficulty for us is in carrying out a business model that has not been tried and tested before. In the FMCG space, companies are either involved in production or marketing or packaging or do trading. No one can do it all. Especially start-ups. Now, when you are in organic space. It is important for you to have control over the complete supply chain. This is because you don’t know what you are buying. If your farmers are actually supplying you with organic food. So, there is no other way to do it than to have your foot in every step.”
When a business model requires a company’s engagement from A-to-Z steps, the scaling is bound to get hit, on which Likitha continues, “It becomes equally harder to scale. You have 100 rupees and all your money gets divided into ten different verticals over putting the whole focus of resources on one area. So, a lot of companies are there struggling with this new model. We constantly have to work around our ways but in the organic sector, this is how things go, yes.”
The Idea Of Organic
The notion of healthy food and the whole organic industry got itself naturally hyphenated with luxury or a premium way of life. However, with perils of life at our doorsteps now, the idea of health has to change. Likitha explains it her way, “You need to listen to your body. We need to eat clean. We need to eat local food. We need to eat food that feels good for our body. Health is both mental and physical for me. Health has to be holistic.” Often organic food products get questioned about the trustworthiness of its originality, naturality of source. On this Likitha clarifies, “We need to understand what organic is. While growing a crop if no use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is involved, then the produce is called organic. Still, after that, it goes through a three-year time period. In the third year, by which time any residue or chemical that could be present gets washed off. Then only it is called certified organic. So, when we talk about organic, there are guidelines in place which act as a benchmark for the product to be given that certification of quality. It is also a matter of education when it comes to organic products. For example, on our products, you’ll find a barcode, by which you could tell the geographical location of the farm and farmer.”
Just like Likitha quashes every doubt with a thorough understanding of her industry, it is imperative for an entrepreneur to be aware and updated about his or her field, all the time. This becomes instrumental in niche sectors which are trying to raise awareness for recognition.
Marketability of a product is an essential factor. FMCG products do well in terms of advertising and have devised a number of ways to get their products to the kitchen. While for an organic food product, marketing even now is much more conditional to customer awareness and needs. For Likitha, value is above all, “For me people who buy organic food, have to see a value in it. I constantly strive to create value in our work and product. Our customer needs to see that in our product. Value for their health, family’s health, farmers health and planet’s health. We try to build a conversation around that.” In entrepreneurship, the confident face of the brand goes a long way in the market as well. An entrepreneur has to be a leader who leads from the front. Likitha despite being an introvert understands the need to be out there and present her business. She calls it doing “justice” to business by representing it at every stage.
We Are Different
Role of women in the growth of entrepreneurship in India is slowly cementing its footing. It is only fair to expect more and more women joining this long yet exciting journey of entrepreneurship. However, as society goes, there are limitations, hurdles and challenges that are thrown at them at every step. Likitha, who believed in the teachings she received on gender equality, slowly got exposed to the harsher practicalities of this society. “As I got into the business, I tried to scale, I tried to present myself in a certain fashion, I got reminded more often that I was a woman. I am not talking about opportunities. The other gender needs to really accept the fact that we are ‘different’. We are not males. We bring something different to the table, that is different and is valuable. My biggest challenge was, I was required to act like a man! I refuse to act like a man because I’m not one.” While there was a time such nuisance would irritate Likitha Bhanu, today she tells herself, “They are uncomfortable because you are different. I will have to make them comfortable about the fact that a woman is dealing with them and it is okay. I feel like we stick out like sore thumbs to them at times, in my sector the representation of women is quite low anyway. So, now I do act like the situation demands and I try to be myself. Today I’m like, ‘you got me! Deal with it’, however things have improved for all since 2012.”
The Co-founder Fortune
It is always beneficial for the synergy of the team if the co-founders go along well. Though, it cannot get better than Likitha’s case either. Her Co-founder is her mother, her mentor, Padmaja Bhanu. Likitha’s experience of working with her mother has been a guiding force for her throughout her journey, on which she adds, “She has shaped me as a human being. As a business person too. She taught me the principle of turning up for the people who work for us. For their families and for our customers too. We have our moments of arguments too but then I’m the closest to my Mom.” I ask her, if in a hypothetical situation, would she would want to work with someone else. To this, she assertively declares, “No! I will work on my own rather.”
The other gender needs to really accept the fact that we are ‘different’. We are not them. We bring something different to the table, that is different and is valuable.
Likitha wasn’t always interested in agriculture led organic products business. She amusingly admits while talking to Dutch Uncles, “I had no background that way at all. I couldn’t tell the difference between Toor Dal and Chana Dal. I had no interest or inclination toward farming at that time. Today, I’m super passionate about it.” She further reveals that intent to learn and create an impact in society will eventually build your interest around something, “Be unapologetic about whatever that drives you. If it is money then money it is. Choose a field that suits your interests. Though quick advice, if money is the only purpose for you-don’t choose organic farming space.”
The Temptation Of Expansion
Over-diversification at an early stage often leads to complications in focusing on the key offering of a business. However, for entrepreneurs, it is the toughest truth to gulp down. Per Likitha, the limitation of time, energy and resources with an entrepreneur is something to take timely cognizance of. She agrees that it is difficult to let go of certain opportunities at times but then the final intent should be kept in mind first.
“In fact, I also committed this mistake once. I got involved in a lot of activities from different product launches, marketing, and new product development for our other brands. When I think about it now, that only weakened the company. Had I concentrated on one thing, maybe we would have been even bigger,” she adds.
Message, Hope and Future
Despite Likitha’s phenomenal success by her work in the organic space that has added prosperity to the lives of thousands of farmers over the years, she humbly rejects the tag of ‘successful’. She humorously justifies with, “I don’t know. In our space, nobody would agree they are successful.” She believes that failures on the other hand are opportunities for learning and an entrepreneur must get used to it. As per her, almost all successful entrepreneurs say one thing, “Don’t let failures bog you down at all.”
Likitha hopes that in the coming years the talk around the entrepreneur will lessen and it will more be about the vision, the idea and the company. “Organisations work with a team. Not always there is a family business. Today, we see most of the conversations revolving around the co-founders, their lives and what they do. Every team member is important as it is a teamwork.”
Does one have to cut corners to get quickly to the destination? Lithika unequivocally negates this idea, “No, you don’t have to. You just have to know from the heart what you are doing and stick to it and go to sleep in the night, peacefully. That is the biggest success one can get. I’m extremely grateful that unknowingly or say unwillingly I’ve come to a sector that allows me to do a business that gives good food to the people. Because of me, my customer’s health is in check. That is very satisfying to know. I’m a lucky girl.”
In an imaginary yet ideal ‘no work, just leisure’ situation, what would Likitha be doing? “I would be learning, putting myself out there in uncomfortable situations so that I can learn even more.” she muses.
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