From Kitchen to Supermarket: In the Business of Millets

From Kitchen to Supermarket: In the Business of Millets

Aysha Tanya talks to Shauravi Malik, co-founder of Slurrp Farm, an organic food company that heralded the movement to bring millets back into the limelight.

A cursory glance at a supermarket shelf in any metro in India will show you a number of edible options for children, with flavours ranging from banana to tender beef with vegetable mash. But a closer look will reveal that most of the products, are in fact, more similar than different — they are heavy on either wheat or rice, and contain trans fats and alarming quantities of sugar. For a country that has a history of eating a large variety of grains including millets, this lack of diversity is a gaping hole in our ready-to-eat market.  

This is exactly what prompted Shauravi Malik and Meghana Narayan to start Slurrp Farm, a brand of organic, millet-based products for kids.

Millets are making a come-back in India right now, and with good reason. They are hardy, weather-resistant, and are our best bet for combatting the drastic changes in climate that global warming is bringing about. They require less water to grow, and are highly nutritious. Shauravi explains that one reason we’re seeing an increase in food allergies is because the prevalence of certain ingredients in most of the food consumed — for example, corn, in the United States. “The human body is consuming too much of one ingredient and that’s what has lead to allergies and children being born with an inability to process certain types of food. If you look at it in the Indian context, it’s not dissimilar. We have become grain monocultures, [growing and consuming mostly] wheat and rice.” Millets have played a big role in states like Karnataka, where finger millet (ragi) has been fed to kids for generations. Shauravi herself grew up on with millet playing a substantial role in her diet through dishes like mudde and dosa.

Like many businesses, Slurrp Farm in its present avatar looks different from what they had initially conceptualised. “We went about figuring out how to make an absolutely yummy organic fruit and vegetable purée product for children; we did all the recipes, branding, packaging and legwork, and it was all ready to hit the shelves. Except as we did more market research and tried samples, we realised there was very little demand for it. It would be something we could not scale beyond the affluent Indian parent in the near future.” After 18 months of developing the product and doing comprehensive market research, they found that the Indian market had some key differences from the West, where vegetable purees and fruit purees are popular. “Our competition wasn’t another company, however. It was the fact that anyone who would pay for a product like that had help at home to make it for them.”

Slurrp Farm | Shauravi Malik & Meghana Narayan

The founders went back to the drawing board, and discovered that the answer lay right under their noses, in their grandmothers’ kitchens, in fact. Meghana was trying to wean her daughter at the time, and her grandmother suggested feeding her daughter ragi, which got Meghana thinking. Why don’t we start making this as a product? “Ragi is something you see a lot of in the south, but I bet every region of India has its own way of feeding children, which is not processed wheat. It would be great to go around discovering other food traditions of other communities of India.”

For two people with no previous experience in the food industry, it was trial by fire. “Convincing large manufacturers to work with us in the beginning was challenging. Meghana always says, they took a chance on us. Now there are many startups, and lots of companies are working with startups, but I feel like even 4-5 years ago, nobody even wanted to have a conversation with you because there were only the big companies in India at the time. The market has really changed”.

Between the two founders, they have visited almost 200 factories around the country since they started in 2016. The products offered today include snacks, and meal-time options like chocolate millet pancakes and cereal, and are manufactured across 3 factories. With no background in manufacturing — Shauravi worked at JP Morgan, and Meghana at McKinsey before they quit to start Slurrp Farm — their biggest challenge was learning how to translate a product that tastes good in the kitchen into something delicious when manufactured on a larger scale. A big learning for Shauravi has been how little natural ingredients are used in packaged food. “Butter cookies are made with butter essence, and not actual butter; an orange flavoured cookie will have orange essence and so on. A typical cookie basically, contains a lot of maida, and many things that come in bottles. Finding a manufacturing process that retains the integrity of an ingredient is a challenge. Which is why, as a consumer, learning to read the nutrition label of a product is so important.” The rest of the world has banned dalda [a trans fat]. But we haven’t in India. We don’t cook with dalda in our kitchens anymore, but we don’t realise that our cookies and our breakfast cereals have really bad fats.”

Slurrp Farm has taken a lot of trouble to make sure that their products contain real ingredients like butter, wholegrain, banana and honey. The first time their food technologist helped them develop a batch of cookies without adding preservatives like ammonia was an important moment. “We still remember when the cookies came off the line and they looked absolutely perfect — round — and smelled divine. Both of us just sat down with tears in our eyes. That was an unforgettable moment!”

The starting capital for Slurrp Farm came from Shauravi’s and Meghana’s savings. “Our 20s were for making the money to start the jobs we wanted in our 30s.” Since then, they have raised a round of money from family and friends, but want to grow at a pace that feels right for them. The company however, has been seeing 40% growth every quarter, with 35 employees working out of their Gurgaon office. They are available at 800 stores across 8 cities in India and the UAE, serving close to 5 lakh customers.

The women also care deeply about creating a brand that is meaningful, one that “uses business as a force for good.” “When we start to hit profitability, we want to have an employee share of profits. Companies like Amul and Indian Coffee House famously run on this model.

Getting children to eat healthier is a wonderful mission for a company to have. But does achieving this goal through manufacturing packaged food seem incongruous? Shauravi doesn’t think so. “Most of what we consume comes out of packets. Until we can turn back that reality and grow our own food again, or buy food directly from a farm we know, we need options on a retail shelf which are not filled with harmful ingredients.” With the second highest number of obese children in the world, this is a practical approach to take, one that thoughtfully combines the old with the new. “It is hard to fix our badly broken food system, but innovation lies in simplifying. We all know someone who’s suffering from a lifestyle disease. We can’t control pollution, or water [shortage], but we can control exercise and food. These are the two things that are still in our hands.”