In Conversation with Anju C Srivastava
Could you share with us the Wingreens Farms’ story? You identified a gap in the highly fragmented and neglected agriculture industry and created not just a business venture but also gave sustainability to several farmers. How did you identify the opportunity in the area?
Wingreens is a venture that is not just about business. I was living in the US for the longest time and in 2006, I decided to come back. My husband and I had our families here and we wanted to come back to India. Once we made the decision, we wanted to create a business that could add value to the society, allow us to do meaningful work that could positively impact everyone who worked with us. I wanted to work closely with women who came from lesser privileged backgrounds, who were not allowed to step out of homes. I was aware of the talent that many of the women in Indian villages had but weren’t allowed to showcase. However, my aim was not philanthropy alone. I had to strike a balance between business and philanthropy.
There was another observation I had about business in India. From a marketing standpoint, agriculture was a highly neglected business category in India despite its potential. Farmers were struggling, resources were being neglected or dwindled through middlemen and the sector, on the whole, struggled to cope. I decided to tap my previous years of working experience and marry marketing insight with what I thought was an idea in future business potential that could use the skills of women and agricultural land.
The challenge was that no one in my family, or that of my husband’s, understood agriculture. We came from professional backgrounds but gradually, I began learning everything about farming. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, I actually learnt everything that I could about farming – from the land, the soil, the potential of what could grow, temperature control, quality checks… I became hands-on for the business that I was prepared to launch. In fact, I realised then that experts have done a lot of urban planning but not enough agricultural planning.
It was through my research and learning, I realised that there was a potential to grow roughly 150 types of herbs, vegetables, and flowers in Gurgaon. In fact, we even managed to grow tulips on our farms! The model I created was simple – I ‘rented’ the land from farmers but allowed them to manage their land and the herbs that grew on it. I also encouraged them not to fire their labour. This is how I created confidence in them – they were assured of a monthly income, they were in-charge of what grew on their land, and no one was fired. When I began my business, I saw the trend of several farmers selling their land for quick money to real estate companies. Once the money finished, they had no idea what to do! It was heartbreaking to witness the social and cultural issues that seeped in this particular society because of money. To make them ‘farm managers’ while also paying for rent on the land, I gradually built trust and confidence in them. They were planning their expenditure well, they were no longer taking loans… it was a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. This is how we began selling our branded potted herb plants in retail stores.
Even today, our business model operates on getting small pockets of land through a rental arrangement with the owner of the land while also giving them benefits. I’m happy to report that our business model is now a case study in IIMs, Harvard university and another management institute in Canada. I strongly believe that a good business model should yield profits but that shouldn’t be the only reason to be in business. My aim was not to get profits alone in the business. My aim was to make everyone realise that the right model, when executed with care and thought, can work.
How interesting. How did the transition from potted plants to ready-to-eat dips happen?
Wingreens didn’t happen overnight. We began by selling potted herb plants, a business that was very new for consumers. At one point, I realised that basil herb was growing in abundance. I went to Spencers, the branded grocery store, where our potted plants were already on sale, and asked them if I could make basil pesto. I had, by then, approached local milkmen to supply fresh milk and cream. I remember creating an entire batch of basil pesto in Spencers which was an overnight success. There was no market of ready-to-consume dips till then. We became pioneers in creating a fresh, new segment for the brand. Once we identified the area of dips through basil pesto (our signature dip), we decided to create more product offerings. We created dips such as dill tzatziki, peri peri garlic, garlic dip, hummus, jalapeno cheese, among several others. While we continued being in the business of potted plants, the ready-to-eat market was an opportunity for us to make use of surplus produce effectively.
The first centralised kitchen for dips was my own personal kitchen. But I understood quickly that we had the potential to grow the brand even more, given the increasing demand from consumers for our dips. I found my opportunity to work with women from lesser privileged backgrounds. I approached the women in Fazilpur, a village in Gurgaon, encouraged them to work for me and prepare dips as per the recipe I gave them. The challenge was that initially a lot of women in this village were discouraged from getting out, their skill set relegated into the kitchens of their respective homes. I decided to pay them to get trained. This became a useful tool because they understood that I was a serious businesswoman who could empower the women in several families of this village. The training was important because at no point could I compromise on the quality of the product. In fact, all the dips of Wingreens, which you see on the retail store shelves are not made through machines, they are handmade by an immensely workforce of talented, very hardworking women of villages such as Fazilpur.
What were the challenges that you faced? How were you tweaking the marketing and other strategies?
Though my dips were reaching the market successfully, I realised that I needed to create better infrastructure in terms of storage, distribution, etc. Till then the market only had cold storage units (something that was not needed for my products); we were among the first ones to bring out a chilling storage so our dips and other products could be stored better till it found its way to the retail shelves.
Though I come from an advertising background, I realised that the advertising strategy for Wingreens had to be different. My business was a new market segment – no one had heard of selling branded potted herb plants or ready-to-eat dips and I felt merely bringing out print ads would be futile. My products had to reach out to my consumers – with my potted plants, too, I encouraged consumers to taste the herbs. Many people had no idea that peppermint was actually a plant! With Wingreens, I took the strategy further – while my tryst with the women of Fazilpur was successful, I thought of engaging young men to help me with the sampling strategy at retail stores. You will, therefore, see smiling faces of young men who will happily encourage you to buy our brand’s dips after you have sampled an array of our products.
What has been your overall business strategy? At the heart of any business, what will be your guidelines for budding entrepreneurs?
My business strategy is simple – I work to engage as many people as possible. My business should genuinely help in shaping the society better. It’s a nice feeling to bring out quality products with the knowledge that you have somewhere empowered young boys and girls whose talent would have been neglected otherwise. Wingreens is not about buying or selling or profit-making alone. We grew organically, we kept enabling our partners and stakeholders and that’s why we have been successful. As an entrepreneur, it’s my strong belief that any work done with a lot of love, with the mission of helping the society on the whole, will be successful. Eventually, the best of businesses have to be grown with the aim of becoming a channel of joy, hope and happiness for others.
What are the growth plans for Wingreens in 2018?
In 2018, I am starting a Sales Institute to train young boys and girls from villages in our business. We will provide modular courses in sales and on-the-job training will continue to happen. From grooming to confidence building to speaking English correctly for easier, more effective communication, this will be opening in 30 cities in India. I genuinely believe there is a workforce waiting to be tapped in sales and marketing, especially for brands such as Wingreens. We will expand our product categories and offerings further, getting into sauces and healthy beverages in a big way. Our distribution and supply chain will continue to strengthen – we have our warehouses in 10 cities at the moment but we can easily double our capacity in 15 days.
What do you like doing in your free time?
I love to work, I love to study. I have been studying the Vedas, the Quran since I was 12 years old. I love to read about astrology, I practice homeopathy, acupressure with the belief that all illnesses have solutions, especially in alternate therapy. I also love dogs. I am in the process of creating a big shelter home and devising ways to create more awareness among people for our Indian pariah dogs.