The food industry is an indispensable component in the sustenance of any society. Even in the most tragic of circumstances such as the global pandemic that shook the world to its roots, the food industry stood solidly.

Vendors were forced to utilise the digital world maximally, thereby, efficiently solving the challenge in purchase and delivery by going virtual. If we go by statistics, the Indian online grocery market size was valued at USD 2.9 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 37.1% from 2021 to 2028.

The market has gained immense traction over the past months on account of the changing lifestyle of the consumers, growing urbanisation, and the tech-savvy generation who prefers buying products online.

In Assam, too, it has been observed that with the growth in disposable incomes and busier lifestyles, people are increasingly seeking out customisable and convenient online platforms for grocery and meat shopping. The preference for online delivery of food products became more visible following the COVID-19 outbreak, especially with the social distancing standards consumers finding it not only convenient but a safer option as well.

Players in the new dispensation

Many vendors acclimatised themselves with the new norm, although some more than others. For Dibrugarh-based Diganta Saikia, founder of fast rising meat and fish start-up Manxho, the journey of his protein venture began in June 2020 during the lockdown due to coronavirus.

“We already had a full-fledged pig farm and with the ban of movement, sale, culling of pigs/pork, we decided to sell fresh pork with home delivery service (as per the law during the lockdown). The administration allowed us to sell pork door-to-door since chicken meat was being sold that way, thus becoming the first ever company to sell pork and smoked pork online through home delivery service in Dibrugarh district. We started off with Dibrugarh town, now we cater to consumers in Khowang, Moran, Tinsukia, Duliajan, Digboi, Guwahati, and Namsai (Arunachal Pradesh),” he says.

Manxho is also the first one in Upper Assam to sell packaged smoked pork online and in shops with an FSSAI licence.

Saikia’s story is similar to many other food vendors, such as Freshdo’s Sahil Huda and Foodsbaskets’ co-founder Pranab Barman. Barman’s venture began by identifying a need. He discovered that the accessibility of hygienically processed custom cut meat and exotic fruits and vegetables in Guwahati was very limited.

“There were few start-ups like FreshToHome and Licious that had launched their services in tier one cities with similar products. In a developing metro like Guwahati, although the receptiveness to buy groceries online isn’t very big yet, there is a sizable growing customer base, and we are targeting them. We are looking at customers who are looking for quick, convenient, and quality products. Covid-19 struck at a time when we had just started the ground work and that opened up even more possibilities for the online grocery business,” says Barman.

Rocery, co-founded by Nilotpal Baruah and Anjanjyoti Phukan, is another fast rising vendor, revolutionising the online meat and fish space in the state.

“In Assam, the industry is largely unorganised and is mainly run by the middlemen. Lack of hygiene and unorganised market structure make it difficult for many people…Rocery was conceptualised as a one-stop-shop for all meat and fish products,” says Baruah.

Hirak Jyoti Das, co-founder of Fooppers, tells us that his venture was originally a restaurant discount coupon platform, but the initiative wasn’t successful. Later in 2020, Hirak, along with his childhood friend Rahul Anand Kalita, converted Fooppers to an online home delivery service.

“We do not store raw products. We take the raw meat from GMC (Guwahati Municipal Corporation) certified vendors. Apart from meat, we also deliver seafood and have a ready-to-eat section with products such as fries, frozen peas, frozen corn, chicken salami, chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn etc,” Das informs.

For seafood, Fooppers has seafood vendors in Guwahati. The company’s vendors also source these products from Odisha, Mumbai, and Andhra Pradesh. Their products are FSSAI certified and the start-up is an authorised vendor of Assam Livestock and Poultry Corporation.

Taking Assam to the rest of India

Along with the home-grown start-ups, there are also grocery and ethnic ingredients start-ups founded by young Assam entrepreneurs in other parts of the country.

Bangalore-based Axom Haat’s founder Jubismita Goswami says that being away from home has never been easy. “I would miss home-cooked food and the regional ingredients we Assamese people use in our recipes. We came up with Axom Haat and kicked-off with home-made pickles from a well-known brand called Kharkhowa. Now we have almost 100 different products which we deliver pan India.”

Juhaal was born with an objective of catering to the food demand of the Northeasterners residing in Delhi-NCR. The founders Krishnazina Thakur and Olenka Dilip, two friends from Guwahati, started this initiative in 2018.

The start-up deals in authentic food products: Lakadong turmeric, Khasi ginger powder, red and black rice cookies, wild black pepper, bora and joha saul from Assam, and dried santa rosa plum from Manipur, smoked duck and pork. These are just some of the items in high demand.

Not without some challenges…

Although grocery and meat produce are in high demand, the journey for these entrepreneurs was far from being a walk in the park. Moving products from one point to the other during the global lockdown was a major problem for these entrepreneurs. As a result of the relatively new popularity of purchasing meat and fish online, it was difficult for customers to trust their authenticity.

Axom Haat’s Goswami says, “Since we are based out of Bangalore and all our products are procured from remote places, getting the products to Bangalore is costly. Then we have the end-mile delivery challenge as well. Post inception of Axom Haat, we got impacted by the CAB/CAA agitation and then Covid-19. Getting a seamless supply of products has been a challenge due to all these factors. Post lockdown, most of our courier partners have increased their delivery charges. The struggle is never-ending.”

Manxho’s Saikia adds that being a small start-up from rural Assam has its own challenges. But Huda has a quite different concern. “The highly unorganised sector in the Northeast is a major challenge for us. People involved in these sectors, too, were not much educated or trained and mostly comprised small-time vendors. There was no system for quality control and hygiene control when things started.”

Barman says whatever they’ve achieved so far is through word-of-mouth. “The E-commerce market is dominated by discounts and massive advertising and we don’t have deep pockets to fund such discount campaigns. Therefore, we are mainly reaching our target customer through both paid and organic digital marketing channels, and of course word-of-mouth. Time-to-time we do provide nominal discounts to our customers. We have received necessary mentorship and financial support from the Startup Incubation Programme Saranya 3.0 by North East Agri Technology Entrepreneurs Hub (NEATHUB). We are currently undergoing Advanced Incubation by NEST Assam Startup (run by IIM Calcutta Innovation Park) for their Cohort 3.0 batch.”

Manxho’s Saikia adds that being a small start-up from rural Assam has its own challenges. But Huda has a quite different concern. “The highly unorganised sector in Northeast is a major challenge for us. People involved in these sectors, too, were not much educated or trained and mostly comprise small-time vendors. There was no system for quality control and hygiene control when things started.”

Barman says whatever they’ve achieved so far is through word-of-mouth. “E-commerce market is dominated by discounts and massive advertising and we don’t have deep pockets to fund such discount campaigns. Therefore, we are mainly reaching our target customer through both paid and organic digital marketing channels, and of course word-of-mouth. Time-to-time we do provide nominal discounts offers to our customers. We have received necessary mentorship and financial support from the Startup Incubation Programme Saranya 3.0 by North East Agri Technology Entrepreneurs Hub (NEATHUB). We are currently undergoing Advanced Incubation by NEST Assam Startup (run by IIM Calcutta Innovation Park) for their Cohort 3.0 batch.”

The highs and wins…

One positive index the online grocery business in India has going for it is its future outlook. Many of these vendors have gone on to cater to the needs of thousands of people in and outside their district. Barman reveals, “We have served around 15,000+ orders since our inception.”

Saikia also shares some of his successes. “We started off in our home district and within a year, moved onto three more districts and also another state. By opening up new stores in collaboration with the owners in other districts we have also been able to generate employment,” he adds.

Rocery’s growth so far has been purely organic. The company has been catering to a selected group of customers who look for quality products. Presently they have more than 1200+ regular customers and counting. Similarly, Thakur’s Juhaal serves 4,000+ customers in Delhi-NCR without investing in hardcore promotional activities. They reach out to the customers through word-of-mouth, exhibitions, and Facebook.

Future plans to sustain the growth

“We are going to launch ready-to-cook (marinated meat, fish products and traditional recipes) meal kits. We are also exploring ready-to-cook vegetables (cut vegetables) to cater to the needs of working professionals and planning to expand our services in two locations within Assam in the next six months,” says Barman.

For Saikia, the future might hold something slightly different for his venture. He says, “In the past few months, we launched a variety of unique products. Right now our focus is to maintain their quality and make public our unique products in untapped markets. However, we have one major plan that will go into action from November next month; we’re going to start Pan-India delivery of our products,” he says.

Sky’s the limit

With 680 repeat customers that continue to increase daily, start-ups like Foopers are cashing in on the fast-growing online grocery business. According to co-founder Das, the company delivers an average of 40 home orders on a daily basis. The survival of this industry is important for the sustenance of any community and these entrepreneurs understand the task that they are faced with. With more innovative ideas and direct solutions, the sky can only be the launch pad for them.

Also read: Rising COVID-19 cases in Assam, WB: Centre tells states to enforce SOPs


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