Farmers Fresh Zone – Thrissur techie’s agri startup yields safe food & success

Farmers Fresh Zone co-founders Ranjith Balan, Pradeep and Sujith Sudhakaran. Photo: Special Arrangement

Kochi: A few years ago, a young engineering graduate in Kerala’s Thrissur cultivated some vegetables in a 40-cent land and the yield was a startup. That is the fairy tale version of the origins of Farmers Fresh Zone (FFZ), the Kochi-based Agri startup that has been winning recognition one after another.

Pradeep P S, the 31-year-old CEO of FFZ, launched the startup in 2015 on a pilot basis while he was still working as a software engineer. His brief stint in farming was around 2013, soon after his college. It was this ‘internship on the ground’ that taught him the difficulties farmers face when it comes to selling their produce. This realisation led him to the idea of a web platform that frees selling and buying fresh vegetables from the clutches of the middlemen.

Seven years after the launch, FFZ has grown to be a full-fledged company with a customer base of 3-lakh. The company is now looking for an aggressive scale-up.

“I belong to an agrarian family. My father was in the military and my mother was a teacher. After retirement, my father and his brothers got active in farming. I grew up seeing them work in the field. I also used to help them occasionally. After finishing my BTech, I tried my hands at farming in a 40-cent land for a year. The yield was very good but selling the produce was difficult. That was when I learned about the challenges that farmers face,” Pradeep told Onmanorama at his office on the Kerala Startup Mission’s Kalamassery campus in Kochi.

Opening and shutting shop

Pradeep launched a website for procuring and selling fresh vegetables as part-time work in 2015. He continued to run it for two years. During that period, he could see the impact such an intervention made on the life of small-scale farmers. In 2017, he made it full-time, hiring staff and opening a shop. The next year, he went on to raise some initial investments with which he opened a few more shops.

But Covid hit just as the business was gaining strength. “With the pandemic, we had to shut all our shops but it prompted us to shift online completely. Before the pandemic, only 20 per cent of our sales were online. After that, 90 per cent of the sales went online,” Pradeep said. Post-pandemic, the company clocked a record turnover of around Rs 9 crore.

Pradeep receives the FICCI award for Most Innovative Agri Startup In India from Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare Kailash Chaudary. Photo: Special arrangement

FFZ is now one of the leading fresh produce D2C brands that make better quality and safe food available to more people at affordable prices. Their products are sourced directly from local farmers within 16 hours of harvest by giving them a fair price. They eliminate the middlemen from the food supply chain. The products include residue-free vegetables and fruit cuts, salads and milk. The company operates in five cities – Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Kottayam, and Coimbatore.

The company has around 3 lakh registered customers and a network of 2,200 farmers. It records a monthly engagement of around 15,000 customers, according to the CEO. The sales are done through two apps. FFZ recorded a milestone earlier this year when it acquired milk delivery platform AM Needs for a reported $2 million (Rs 15.95 crore) in cash and stock deal.

The acquisition added country milk and value-added products to FFZ’s product category. AM Needs’ Ranjith Balan and Sujith Sudhakaran are the other co-founders of FFZ.

Ensuring quality

FFZ engages a farmer only after ensuring some safe practices are in place. FFZ team trains farmers in its network about the farming models to keep their crops toxic-free. The company studies the practices a farmer follows and does necessary interventions if some unhealthy practices are found. It also does a random quality test of the crops.

“Our biggest strength is that we make maximum procurement from our dedicated farmers. It was difficult to get the farmers' onboard initially because they have had bad experiences with procurers. We adopted the ‘listen and respect’ policy to convince them about our project and the benefits they would get,” Pradeep said.

FFZ recently introduced 'trust box', an initiative aimed at making healthy salads a part of their daily diet. Photo: Special arrangement

For the customers, one unique feature the company has is is ‘know your farmer’ feature on the booking apps. The first-of-its-kind system enables the consumer to detect the origin of the branded vegetables in the market.

Funding and expansion

The company has raised around Rs 11 crore in angel and pre-series round fundings. The funders include Indian Angel Network, Malabar Angels and Tamil Nadu based- Native Angels. It’s also eyeing another round of funding with an aggressive push for a rapid expansion in tier-3 cities of Kerala. It’s opening a franchise model which one can join without any working capital. The company also has plans to expand its business to the US. The company’s target is an ambitious Rs 1,000 crore in the next five years.

Awards galore

The agri-tech enterprise has won various recognitions from inside and outside the state. It recently received “The Most Innovative Agri Startup” award at the 5th edition of the FICCI Agri startup awards that took place in New Delhi. It is the first time a Kerala-based startup was chosen for such a prestigious award from FICCI.

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