Anyone who has lived in the mountains yearns to go back at some point of time in life. That’s why it is said that “mountains call you back.” This is precisely what happened with Ashish Negi, whose family belongs to the Huri village of Bhaba Valley in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur district.
Ashish’s father was in the army and he did his schooling in Amritsar followed by mechanical engineering from the Punjab Engineering College in 2005. After stints at a couple of multinational companies, Ashish realised that he wanted to head back home to the green and pristine Bhaba Valley where his family owned around 15 acres of land in Huri.
“I always wanted to get back home because it is a beautiful place. And our land, with apple orchards, was lying unattended. So in 2011, I bid bye to Jalandhar, where I was working, and came to Huri,” says Ashish.
Apart from looking after the apple orchards, Ashish began going to the fruit wholesale markets (mandis) to understand the apple market chain from farm to table.
In 2013, he got married to Sneha, who was from Kinnaur’s Sangla region and well-versed in apple cultivation. That’s when Ashish decided to take the next step and set up a machine for apple grading at his orchard to reduce the time as well as labour costs involved in segregating the fruits.
Girls harvesting Kinnauri apples wearing their traditional costume. Kinnaur accounts for about 7 percent of Himachal Pradesh's annual apple yield Pic: Kayang
Of the total area under fruit cultivation in Himachal, apples are grown on 48.9 percent of the land while the rest is used for growing plums, peaches, other fruits and dry fruits. Kinnaur accounts for about 7 percent of Himachal Pradesh's annual apple yield which varies between 2.2 to 3 crore boxes. Each box contains 20kg of fruit.
The apples in Himachal are graded into 6 categories according to size, weight, quality and appearance. They are then packed into corrugated paperboard cartons which keep the fruits safe during transportation to various locations. “Once I put the grading machinery on my orchard, other farmers began approaching me with their apples for grading and helping in sales,” Ashish says.
Fruit growers in Kinnaur, mostly tribal people, have been cultivating the red and golden varieties of apples organically for over a century. The fruit was first introduced in the Kullu Valley in 1870 by Captain RC Scott of the British Army.
The tribal growers, however, have been at the mercy of middlemen and other big buyers as the mandis are far off and transportation cost is high in the mountainous region, which is 2,320 to 6,816 metres above the sea level.
“Farmers would not get cash on time and the concept of market rates almost did not exist. Growers accepted whatever was given to them,” Ashish says.
In such a scenario, he began tying up with companies which picked up the produce at more reasonable rates. By 2018, Ashish realised the robust national demand for Kinnaur’s apples, which are dark red, naturally sweet and succulent and have a thick skin that gives them a shelf life of 15-20 days without any refrigeration.
Kayang co-founder Sneha Negi (Left) and Royal Kinnaur Supremes (red) and the Golden Yellow apple varieties grown in Kinnaur (right). Pic: Kayang
“Being better and tastier than other varieties, Kinnauri apples are mostly bought by hotel chains and big corporates. I thought it would be good if people across India could buy directly from Kinnaur and that led to the birth of our startup, Kayang,” he says.
Kayang is named after Himachal’s folk dance Kayang Mala where men and women form a circular garland-like pattern by holding each other's arms and moving to the tune of the instrument player.
Ashish co-founded Kayang with his wife Sneha to directly supply Kinnauri apples to customers while paying higher-than-market rates to growers in the Trans Himalayan region.
Fair rates & the business of apples
“So far, the locals had been producing apples but nothing was in their control apart from production. Now we buy apples directly from farms and we are also providing the farmers with technical and farming help whenever required,” he says.
Kayang is currently working with 250 apple farmers in Kinnaur and Spiti. Its work has led to increased rates and a guaranteed market for the region’s apple growers.
In 2018-19, these farmers used to sell the Royal Kinnaur apple variety (also called Black Gold our Royal Kinnaur Supremes) for Rs 65-70 per kg. “We now give them Rs 95 to 110 per kg,” Ashish says.
Farmer Durga Nand Negi harvesting apples (left) and children enjoying Kinnauri apples. Pic: Kayang
After procuring, the apples are graded, packed and couriered to Kayang’s Solan office. From there, the fruits are couriered across India through orders placed online or through WhatsApp. “We sell apples at around Rs220 per kg including the grading, packing and transportation charges, which are quite high due to the topography of the region.”
Kayang pays Rs 60 per kg for courier services and its customer acquisition costs are also high at Rs 250, which includes advertising, marketing etc.
This year, Kayang has sold more than 3500 boxes of 5 kg each (17,500 kg in all). While the maximum demand is from tier 1 cities including Bengaluru, Kolkata, Pune, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, Kayang is now also getting good orders from South India and the NorthEast. “We have supplied to Nagaland, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala as well,” says Ashish.
Kayang has broken even but scaling up operations requires more investments due to high transportation costs and the low shelf life of fruits.
“Charges are higher as even courier companies don’t prefer to transport fruits due to the fear of spoilage. A lot of care is required,” he adds.
Nurturing traditions & empowering farmers
Despite the challenges, Ashish feels satisfied with having improved the lives of farmers with better rates and assured purchases. “We have generated good business for the growers. We have also adopted a scientific and natural approach to farming. Kinnaur apples are organic and growers don’t have to use any chemicals,” he says.
A farmer harvesting apples from his orchard in Kinnaur. The growers are paid fair rates by Kayang. Pic: Kayang
However, sometimes, rains in lower Kinnaur can cause fungal infections in plants for which mild fungicides are sprayed between the first week of July and the second week of August. This is done well before harvest (September to October) and there is no chemical residue left in the fruit after plucking. This is called residue-free farming.
“In December-January, we use cow dung and spray lassi (buttermilk) on the roots to prepare the trees for the next season and fortify the soil with nutrients like nitrogen and potassium.”
This process is completed before snowfall so that when it starts to snow, the manure can get to the roots efficiently. “My own orchard has 1200 to 1500 apple trees and I now want to take the number to 4,500 trees in the next few years,” Ashish says.
He points out that one of the reasons why Kinnauri apples taste good lies in the traditional irrigation system used by the tribal growers of the region called Kuhl.
Kuhl involves digging surface channels to divert water from natural flowing streams (khuds) and springs. This naturally sweet water is used to irrigate the terraced apple farms. Not only apples but Kinnaur's orchards of pears, plums and apricots are also watered through the Kuhl irrigation system.
Having created a supply chain for national sales, Ashish now wants to venture into food processing. “From 2023, we will start food processing in Kinnaur and are looking at making jams and pickles as there exists a value chain in the segment. The products will be organic,” he says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)