Archana Stalin is a born fighter. Many would have buried their entrepreneurial dreams after failing in their first venture at a young age of 22, but not Archana, who treated the experience as a practical MBA, learned her lessons, and bided her time to launch her second enterprise.
She started myHarvest Farms, a company that delivers fresh, organic produce to more than 800 customers in Chennai, about six years after shutting her first business.
This time she appears to have cracked the success formula. Starting small with terrace gardening, she and her husband later leased a two-acre farmland in 2018 at Sembedu village in Tiruvallur district, about 40 km from Chennai.
They named it Vembu Farms, which would evolve into a community of organic farmers and consumers.
The company’s turnover in the first year (2018-19) was Rs 8 lakh. It jumped to Rs 44 lakh in the second year and shot up to Rs one crore during the last year.
“In the next three years, we are looking at reaching 10,000 families and working with more than 500 farmers,” says Archana.
Even before starting her first enterprise at age 22, she took a major decision in her life.
Archana married her college classmate Stalin Kalidoss, soon after graduating in Geoinformatics from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai, amidst stiff opposition from her family. She was just 21 years then.
“My marriage was a turning point in my life,” says Archana. “Everyone from my family got married within the (extended) family. I broke that chain and married Stalin despite opposition from family members.”
Three years later, in January 2012, the couple founded Geoverge, a geospatial company, at Stalin’s hometown Virudhanagar, in south Tamil Nadu.
They invested about Rs 10 lakh in the bootstrapped venture, dipping into their savings and borrowing from friends and family members. “All that went down the drain when we shut shop within two years,” shares Archana.
“Looking back, I think we should have done some more research and market analysis before starting up. It was a big learning. But we were mature enough to understand that ideas fail but efforts don’t.”
For the next few years, Archana worked at different places, before teaming up with her husband in 2018 again to take a second shot at entrepreneurship.
She joined NativeLead Foundation in Madurai, an organisation which promotes entrepreneurship in Tier II and Tier III cities in Tamil Nadu in 2013 as their Head of Programs.
The same year Archana went on Jagriti Yatra, where people in the age group of 20-27 go on a train journey for 15 days visiting 15 role models at 12 destinations covering the various Indian States.
“I met people I had read so much about during the Yatra, which added a new layer to my thoughts. I now wanted to build a social enterprise,” she says.
Archana quit NativeLead in 2015 and joined Naturals Salon in Chennai as their Head of Strategic Marketing. Back home in Virudhanagar, Stalin got involved in kitchen gardening.
A year and a half later, Archana quit Naturals in 2016 to pursue her interest in organic farming. She met organic farmers and experts in terrace gardening to enhance her knowledge in the field.
Archana and Stalin set up myHarvest in November 2016. Initially, they helped people grow their own greens and vegetables in urban spaces like balconies or terraces.
myHarvest also worked with schools to provide hands-on learning in gardening by creating school gardens. They also sold gift boxes which had a pot, soil and seeds.
“Terrace gardening was good, but we realised it had its own limitations. That’s when we realised that if we do organic farming in a larger area, we can supply chemicals-free, healthy, organic food to the people,” says Archana.
The couple leased a two-acre land in Tiruvallur district for an annual fee of Rs 25,000 and incorporated myHarvest Farms as a private limited company.
In the first year, the couple harvested organic vegetables and supplied them to five organic shops in Chennai.
“This one year gave a lot of insights for us. As a farmer, from growing to selling to storing, everything was a challenge,” she explains.
After about six months of brainstorming and strategising, they decided to build a community involving both farmers and the consumers.
The Vembu Farm became the first pilot, and they started with 18 families from Chennai on a subscription model.
Each family paid a three-month subscription fee at Rs. 3,000 per month. With this, they got the required capital to run their operations. The first harvest was delivered after six weeks.
Every week the subscribers got around 10 kilograms of vegetables which had a mix of 8 to 10 varieties of vegetables including two to three bunches of greens and country chicken eggs.
“The 18 families came to the farm and sowed the seeds, got all the information about the vegetables that would be grown there,” says Archana, who delivered the supplies to all the families every week herself, initially.
“These families were a mix of known and unknown people from whom I got validation and positive feedback about our organic produce,” she adds.
While most vegetables were grown at Vembu Farm, they procured carrots and a few other vegetables from a farm in Ooty.
“The lesson we learned was that we cannot grow everything in one farm, and that we needed to tie up with farmers across the state. Since we had prepaid customers from day one, we added more farms in phases,” says Archana.
“We are proud of the fact that our farmers are young, clad in jeans, in the age group of 26 to 27 and they are keen on reviving their land. In the first year, we took it slow as we wanted to establish a solid model.”
Until the pandemic hit, they were delivering fresh produce to 200 families with a range of 60 varieties of vegetables and fruits.
With the outbreak of Covid pandemic, the team at myHarvest Farms became warriors overnight.
“We saw that the supply chain of every e-commerce player had crumbled, but thanks to the local, fresh, organic, no-stock model that we had, we were able to run the show,” says Archana.
“We didn’t default our customers even for a week and won their loyalty. We had more families looking for naturally grown produce. In a way, the pandemic was a blessing for us, and our team ramped up quickly.”
From April 2020, they changed their delivery model from subscription to order-based, cash-on-delivery model.
“Initially, we were skeptical in going with the order-based model as were also not sure if people would come back to order again. Luckily, people came back to us,” shares Archana.
“With an average ticket size of around Rs 1,000 per customer, we saw families asking for things beyond vegetables such as oil, rice, millet-based snacks and so on and we started delivering them as well.”
When their customer base reached 200, Archana organised a get-together at Vembu Farm where both the farmers and consumers met with their families and got to know each other. Around 89 families participated.
Most of their customers also visit the various myHarvest Farms with families on Sundays.
They spend the whole day going around the farms, watching how the farmers make their own fertilizers, showing the children how farming is done, taking bath under the pump set, and even enjoying a bullock cart ride.
“This is the community that I am aspiring to build,” says Archana. “We want to bring people closer to nature, closer to good food. Importantly, we want to build a healthier community.”