Sunday's Grammy Award night gave a huge surprise for Kerala. The official gift suite, comprising PETA-approved vegan and wellness products, had a package of golden turmeric wrapped cashews of 'Karma Nuts', a brand owned by Keralite Ganesh Nair.
This year, the Grammys selection committee decided to include vegan and wellness-oriented items in the gift bags handed to presenters and performers, including Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Demi Lovato and Alicia Keys, and Karma Nuts appears to be a natural choice.
Ganesh has this much to say about his product's inclusion in the gift bag. “Grammys have a selection committee which curates what they think is 'cool' for the celebrities. They reached out to our agents,” he said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Ganesh, who hails from Kollam - the cashew capital of India - founded Karma Nuts in California in 2014. He built the delicious seed into a popular snack brand in the US, where almonds and pistachios ruled the market till then.
Hailing from a family that has been into cashew business for about 90 years, Ganesh introduced a unique cashew brand to the market, He retained the skin of cashews to add to its nutritive quality. It was a risky move, but the idea of shelled cashews hit the jackpot, becoming a healthy snack endorsed by nutritionists, clinicians, and now, the who’s who of the showbiz.
In an e-mail interview with Onmanorama, Ganesh recalled that all his life has been amidst cashews, “For generations, my family has been processing and exporting cashews in India. I guess you could say I grew up on cashews.”
“My grandfather, the late ‘Vendor’ Krishna Pillai, was one of the pioneers of the cashew industry in Kollam. As a child, I remember being fascinated with the thick shell that covered the kernel, the first astringent taste of the cashew apple, and the visits of overseas customers from the Soviet Union, Japan and America.”
Ganesh completed his schooling from Infant Jesus, Tangasseri and did his engineering graduation (Bachelor of Technology) from the TKM College of Engineering, Kollam. He moved to the US in 1998 and earned an MBA degree from the University of California Los Angeles, and an MS in Health Sciences and Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Soon, he joined Johnson & Johnson in its diabetes care division, working in multiple functions including setting up a not-for-profit diabetes institute training centre for health care professionals in Paris.
Ten years later, Ganesh joined his brother Hari Krishnan Nair to manage their family business Western India Cashew Company in Kollam in 2010. He realised that the tastier nutrient powerhouse cashews had no goodness value brand in the US, unlike its cousins, almonds and pistachios.
And he decided to act, “After decades of proliferation in highly refined snacks and fried junk food, I saw an opportunity to develop an alternative to the oil-fried cashews that were normally seen on American supermarket shelves. Leveraging our experience in the business, my family had developed a process to keep the skins of the cashews after making it edible. Over 10 years, we perfected the process with significant R&D investments, launched the most delectable, crunchy and nutritionally-dense wrapped cashew as Karma Nuts.”
Karma Nuts, a homage to father
The name ‘Karma’ was a homage to his family and his late father Rajendranathan Nair, a Gandhian and naturopath, who was a firm believer in the philosophy of Karma. Ganesh points out, “I too believe in Karma in the sense that we need to focus on the action required of us at each moment. This inspiration is further reflected in our motto ‘Do Good. Eat Good. Feel Good.’ Karma Nuts was my attempt to bring together my expertise developed in corporate healthcare and my deep legacy.”
Unlike conventional cashews, wrapped cashews, dry roasted in their natural skin after making it edible, was unique in processing, antioxidant properties as high as blueberries, increased fibre, and delivering more crunch, freshness and taste.
“Convincing the consumers was definitely hard, but as the saying goes, so is anything worth doing. So, we worked on building a world-class product quality at our factories in India, honing our marketing and packaging to match our brand promise and working with key nutritionists, opinion leaders and other channels to help spread the message to our consumers.”
In 2016, the wrapped cashew was recognised as the 'best new snack’ at the world’s largest natural products show Expo West. Wrapped cashew is the most nutrient-dense and lowest net carb cashew, suitable for vegan, paleo, keto and Whole30 diets.
From Kollam to the US
Procured from Kollam, and making use of the land of spices, Ganesh has been able to deliver the freshest quality supply of natural spice ingredients to the Karma varieties. “Cashew,” he says, “is a great vegan source of protein and essential nutrients. Its link to improved metabolic markers is backed by new studies including the one by the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation on Asian Indians.”
He also observes that India was slow to embrace the possibilities of the cashew manufacturing industry. “The reason why we in Kerala pioneered the world’s cashew processing industry back in the 1920s was of our ability to innovate plan and organise a large workforce necessary for the manual processing of cashews, no mean feat given the state of our colonised nation back then.”
“But the processing centres in India were slow to embrace advance mechanisation due to various socio-political factors. I am glad that there is growing recognition for a restructuring of legacy operations and the adoption of new technology in cashew processing. In future, our competitive advantage will rely on our ability to innovate in technology in a timely manner.”
His wife Archana hails from Kerala but she grew up in Kuwait. The couple has a 10-year-old son Tej. The family flies down to Kollam during summer holidays and frequently for business.
The Grammys has been a gratifying moment for Ganesh. “While our champions are usually nutritionists and clinicians, we are very happy to get the endorsement of the entertainment industry titans,” he said.
(Vandana Mohandas is a freelance journalist based in Kochi)