Software engineer quits job to revive cold-pressed oils; clocks Rs 10 crore annual revenues

Manohar Iyer quit as Nielsen's SE Asia Head of Tech and App Development to start a cold-pressed oils business in Bengaluru in 2019. His startup Saptham sold around 5 lakh litres of kachi ghani oils last fiscal and is targeting Rs25 crore revenues in FY25 

Rashmi Pratap
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Manohar Iyer, founder, Saptham Food and Beverages

Manohar Iyer, founder, Saptham Food and Beverages

Sometime in 2014, when Manohar Iyer was working with technology giant Capgemini in Australia, he visited India. Among the grocery items he had to take back were groundnuts and groundnut oil. At the airport lounge, he went through the receipt and saw that while the oil was Rs 110 per litre, groundnut seeds were Rs 120 per kg.

“I couldn’t fly in peace. I was thinking how they could be so similarly priced. I had spent years travelling around the world as a software engineer but didn’t know about the oil we were eating. I started researching the edible oil market players, and trends and understood the ways of extraction of oil,” says Manohar, who has also worked with Accenture, Capco and Nielsen.

His research showed that the traditional kachi ghani (also chekku or gaana) or the 'cold press' extraction of oil from seeds had almost become extinct.

In kachi ghani, oilseeds like mustard, sesame, groundnut or others, are crushed and then pressed with a heavy stone mill until the oil is expelled. Since the seeds are not heated, the oil retains the natural properties, antioxidants and nutrients.

Reviving the traditional chekku or ghani oils

In use about until two generations back, kachi ghani oils produced at local stone mills were preservative-free and flavourful. “But due to lack of demand, even the manufacturers of kachi ghani equipment were shutting down,” he says.

People had shifted to refined oils produced in factories. These oils contain harmful chemical solvents which are used to separate the fat from the seeds. But most people buy these refined oils because they are easily available at a low price and kachi ghani is an unknown concept for them.

at the plant manohar
Manohar Iyer working in one of the factories with an employee. Pic: Saptham

In 2015, Manohar discussed the idea of reviving cold-pressed oil extraction with his friends. “Some said they couldn’t give up their jobs and take a risk. Some others ridiculed and said why don’t you come to India and do it. So I decided to take it up.”

In 2018, when Manohar was working as Director-Head of Technology, Application Development, South East Asia, for Nielsen in Malaysia, he decided to move back to India.

“I told my family that we were eating poison and I wanted to go back to start cold-pressed oil manufacturing.” 

The refined edible oils available in the market undergo processes where their natural odour and colour are removed to increase their shelf life. However, this process destroys the nutrients in the oil. “In August 2018, we moved back to Bengaluru and in 2019, Saptham Food and Beverages was born,” he says.

Also Read: How this robotics engineer set up Rs 8-crore cold-pressed oils business in 4 years

Soon Manohar realised that it was not easy to revive something long gone and dead. “For society and consumers, to embrace something that has been written off is tough. But I thought that even if one percent of Bengaluru’s (1.5 crores) population could switch to a good oil, I would be successful,” Manohar says.

Combining technology with tradition

He began visiting old factories that had some kachi gani machines, compared the products, and found whether the manufacturers could train his team. He combined tradition with technology and innovation to come up with the best way to extract oils.

plant of saptham
One of the units where cold-pressed oil is extracted. Pic: Saptham

“While traditionally oil extraction was an ox or bull-driven mechanism, I replaced it with motors for hygiene and because I am against animal cruelty. Our extraction process is chemical free and uses no external heat,” he says. 

Manohar invested his savings of Rs50 lakh to set up the plant with a factory store on 6,000 sq ft leased space in Banashankari Stage II with a good footfall.

He branded Saptham’s edible and essential oils brand as Taila and started with the uphill task of selling oil at four times the price that customers were paying for refined brands.

“People were shocked but I would explain to them that around 3kg groundnuts give 1 litre of oil. When the raw material cost was so high, how could I sell the cold pressed oils at Rs 100? We had to hard sell and make them aware.”

Also Read: From a daily wager to a food entrepreneur, how Assam’s Diganta Das set up a successful business

His second strategy was to tap the social media. “We began posting about our products on social media, people began talking about them and the message spread fast. By the second year, I rolled out my second factory,” he says.

Saptham team
Members of an FPO (Farmer Producer Organisation) visiting one of Saptham's factories. Pic: Saptham

Rapid growth and expansion 

Since then, Manohar has been setting up a new plant every year – now the fifth factory in the fifth year. Annually, Saptham produces around half a million or five lakh litres of cold-pressed oils of 14 varieties. These include groundnut, sesame, coconut, niger, almond, and coconut among others.

“We are crossing Rs 10 crore in revenues in FY 24 and in the next fiscal, we are targeting Rs25 crore. Our net profit is around 20 percent,” he says.

Saptham is a leading player in Bengaluru’s cold-pressed oil market. It will add 11 more factories in the next 2-3 years, including two in FY25. It has also expanded from cold-pressed oils to flour milling in 2022 and the commercial launch is slated for May 2024. Apart from Sharbati and Khapali wheat flours, Saptham will also sell flours of rice, ragi, jowar, and gram (besan). We are adding 122 SKUs, covering 95 to 98 percent of all the grocery requirements of an Indian kitchen,” he says.

All Saptham products are sold through its five factory stores, the Saptham website, Amazon and Flipkart.

Also Read: Tage Rita: Arunachal woman entrepreneur making India’s first organic kiwi wine Naara Aaba

Manohar Iyer addressing students on a visit to a Saptham factory. Pic: Saptham

“We are planning to open our factories in all the metros and will be opening our dealerships soon. We are going to make a difference and make this industry come back,” says Manohar, who has won many awards for this work.

Saptham currently has 80 employees, who get PF, electric vehicles for their commute, grocery, family health insurance and other benefits. The company also takes care of the higher education of its employees’ children. “We have inspired 5500 cold-pressed oil mills in India out of which 800 are in Karnataka. Our staff helps other entrepreneurs in the segment with training. We also guide people on how to start the cold-pressed oils business, the challenges and pitfalls and how they can be avoided,” Manohar says.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)

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