Pickles are an integral part of a meal in most households in India. Made from fruits or vegetables and cured in oil, bursting with flavor from infusion of various spices and herbs, pickle (fondly called as ’achaar’ in hindi) is undoubtedly the country’s most favorite condiment. Thanks to an organization called Rural Roots, households in urban India can now enjoy exotic pickles such as jackfruit, mango and garlic made using traditional, age-old recipes and have them delivered at their doorstep too through online platforms. Founded by the entrepreneur duo, Shagun Setia and Keshav Parthasarathy, Rural Roots is a food processing enterprise which is bringing 100% natural, hand-made pickles prepared by women living in remote parts of Uttar Pradesh straight to the urban kitchens.
Life in the villages of Deoria, a district in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the most backward regions of India, is hard. The households not only have to put up with polluted drinking water, unusable sanitation facilities and erratic electricity supply, but also have highly limited opportunities for gainful employment. The average per capita income is less than Rs.10,000 per annum*. This amount is one-fourth the national average and much lower than the World Bank’s income benchmark for extreme poverty.
Shagun and Keshav’s research indicated that the abject poverty in Deoria could be attributed to limited value addition across sectors at the local level and an abysmally low participation rate for women in a male-dominated employment scenario. They noted that while up to 60% of the population was employed in agriculture, the sector contributed only 17% to local GDP. Looking at the grim development scenario in the region, the duo who had stable corporate jobs and advanced degrees in economics and management, decided to launch Rural Roots in 2016, along with their day jobs. Incubated by Jagriti Enterprise Network and a recipient of Unltd India Fellowship, Rural Roots is providing the needed fillip to Deoria’s economy through a model that harnesses the skills and energy of rural women while using local resources. Over 1000 kilograms of pickle have been sold so far to wholesale and retail customers in major cities of India.
Shagun and Keshav hope that with stable and higher incomes, the families in Deoria would be able to spend more on food, build a personal toilet and send their children to school, breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. Identifying opportunities for boosting sales is what keeps the team at Rural Roots awake at night. Enthused by positive customer response, they aim to scale production of pickles to employ close to 300-500 marginalised women over the next five years and launch new products representing traditional foods from around rural India.
In a candid chat with Upaya team, Shagun Setia, the co-founder of Rural Roots and a participant in Upaya’s 2018 Agribusiness Accelerator, shared more of the back story and his learnings at Rural Roots.
Q: How does Rural Roots support women living in extreme poverty?
“Rural roots is a food processing social enterprise. We are currently manufacturing 10 varieties of pickles (including exotic pickles such as stuffed red chilli, jackfruit). All the pickles are hand-made with utmost focus on producing premium quality and have traditional local taste. All the raw materials are procured locally in Deoria so that they are fresh and best in quality. We train and employ local women who live in extreme poverty (average household salary less than Rs. 3,000 per month for a family of four) to process the raw material to make pickles. They are provided facilities in our processing center for making the food products. We have a production supervisor who ensures quality and consistency of the products. Our team then looks to maximise the sales in order to generate more demand for pickles and more income for our beneficiaries.
The women are paid salaries on an hourly basis for their work. We have trained close to 50 women and currently employ 10 people on an average salary of Rs 1,500 per month (representing an increase of 50% on average household salary).”
Q: What inspired you to start Rural Roots?
“In 2014, Keshav Parthasarathy, one of the co-founders of Rural Roots, went on Jagriti Yatra, a train journey of discovery and transformation for 15 days, 8000 km across smaller towns of India to meet the role models - social and business entrepreneurs - of the country. This was an eye-opening experience for him and the next year, I also went on the journey. Within Jagriti Yatra, there is an incubation program through which we both came together to explore ways to help women in Deoria. After conducting surveys and market research, we realized that the local women earned most of their income by working as laborers with farmers around the area – this income is very seasonal - based on harvesting or sowing season and usually earned over only 2-3 months a year.
To help bring these women out of poverty in a sustainable manner, we started Rural Roots, leveraging their skills and expertise.”
Q: What has been your biggest learning so far?
“Our biggest learning has come from the major change that Rural Roots has undergone in the last six months -- if you have a good quality product, it should appear good too. Branding is key.”
Written by Aparna Arora. Aparna is passionate about sharing stories of social change and strongly supports Upaya's model of ending extreme poverty by harnessing the power of entrepreneurship.
Rural roots is a food processing enterprise, creating large-scale employment for the women below poverty line in and around Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh. They focus on food products (currently pickle / ”aachar”) which are typical of the remote areas of India and/or have an existing comparative advantage due to abundant availability of raw materials.