In 2013, doctors advised Sai Krishna Popuri’s father, who had diabetes, to switch to oats because they release sugar slowly into the bloodstream, helping regulate glucose levels. Instead, the family opted for millets, the ancient grains Krishna had been familiar with since childhood.
“I remember my grandmother feeding me many food items made using millets. Since millets also slow down the release of sugar and offer other nutritional benefits, we decided to bring them back into our kitchen instead of going in for oats,” says Krishna, who completed his B Tech in Electronics from IIT Delhi in 2011.
He then took up a job in the education company XSEED but always dreamt of being an entrepreneur. “My entrepreneurial mind was always thinking of business ideas. This incident led me to think of a business that could combine the health benefits of millets with the deliciousness of my grandmother’s food. I decided to be a millet entrepreneur,” he says.
The seeds of millet entrepreneurship
Krishna approached the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad, where over 120 scientists research millet cultivation, pathology and value addition among other areas. “One of my aunts, who was working in an agriculture university, suggested that I shold get in touch with the IIMR. There, I spent the first year finalising the product line,” he says.
Scientists at IIMR have developed the technology for making more than 70 types of millet-based products, which can be enhanced for taste, flavours, and ease of use by entrepreneurs who want to commercialise these recipes.
“Every entrepreneur needs to perfect the generic recipes to create a unique product,” says Krishna, who works with a team of food technologists and nutritionists to create millet-based ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat items.
To begin with, in 2014, he launched jowar porridge, which is a direct replacement to masala oats and offers better nutrition. “I launched it in two sweet and two savoury flavours. I went around various food festivals to derive the price at which people were comfortable buying the products,” he says.
Krishna would procure raw materials from IIMR and process them in his apartment. “I would prepare and package them at home, put the packets in my car and deliver them to retail stores in Hyderabad,” he recollects.
He delivered the products to about 40-50 stores at that time. By the end of 2014, he set up the first factory in the Jeedimetla Industrial Area in Hyderabad. His company, Fountainhead Foods Private Limited, sells millet-based ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat foods under the Health Sutra brand.
From home to factory
“The time when I started, in 2014-15, the millet processing technology had not fully evolved. A lot of research and development (R&D) went into setting up my factory. I spent a lot of time designing and scrapping machinery for millet processing,” he recollects.
With an annual global output of 25 million tonnes, millets have been in use for over 4,000 years. They are a good source of protein, fibre, key vitamins, and minerals. Resilient to climate change, millets are hardy crops with a low carbon footprint, can withstand high temperatures and grow on poor soils with little or no external inputs.
There is a growing awareness among Indians about healthy food options and millets are among them. But in 2014, the awareness was low.
Since demand was growing slowly at that time, Krishna participated in events and discussed the potential of millet-based products with supermarkets and retail players. He also expanded the product range to include instant pongal mix, jowar vermicelli, millet cookies (jowar and ragi), and multigrain atta among other products.
Krishna says all the Health Sutra products are preservative-free, gluten-free and have no added sugar.
“From 50 stores, we reached 300 stores in Hyderabad in two years. In 2017, we decided to scale the business through venture capital funding,” he says.
In May 2017, Mumbai-based Ankur Capital invested close to a million dollars (around Rs2 crore then) in the company.
“We used this funding to set up our own processing plant in Nacharam in Hyderabad. We hired more people and strengthened the distribution network to reach 3,000 stores in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by the end of 2017,” the food entrepreneur says.
The business was growing rapidly and Krishna expanded the product range to include millet-based drinks, snacks, and many breakfast options. Some of the products include flakes of jowar, bajra, ragi, and barley, instant millet porridges in multiple flavours, cookies, digestive biscuits and millet upma rawa.
The ups and downs, and ups
However, the biggest challenge hit Health Sutra during COVID. “We shut down the factory during COVID as the environment was scary and workers did not want to get infected. Moreover, our products were not in the essential foods category. Since an idle factory kills cash flow, we vacated the premises,” the millet entrepreneur says.
The food processing machinery was installed at other locations and Health Sutra now produces close to 1.5 tonnes of millet idli rava and millet upma rava per day. “We make about a tonne of flakes daily while biscuits and diet namkeen are prepared at a contract manufacturing facility,” he says.
About 80 percent of the sales are done offline through retail outlets while 20 percent are online transactions through Amazon and Big Basket. “Our annual revenues are about Rs 2.5 crore right now,” he says.
Fountainhead Foods is now setting up a large food processing facility with a capacity of 3.5 tonnes of snack food and breakfast cereals per day. It will have the capacity to make 15 tonnes of millet flour and semolina per day.
“We are focusing on building the brand and creating awareness among people. Once the new factory is functional by the end of January 2024, we will be able to cater to a much larger market,” Krishna says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial, and socio-economic reporting)