The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many Indians studying or working abroad to return. For a bunch of highly skilled and educated youth from Himachal Pradesh, however, it’s not just a homecoming but the beginning of a new era for their family-run traditional apple business –a third-generation revolution as they fondly call.
Using digital gateways and portals, this group of third-generation apple farmers are selling fresh, nutritious and natural apple varieties plucked, packaged and delivered straight to homes across India. And no middlemen in the picture.
Meet Aalisha Chhajta, who has a masters degree in Communication from Mumbai and then a post-graduate degree in Entrepreneurship from Barcelona, Spain. Back in India last year due to Covid-19, Chhajta is currently handling the marketing of apples, all digitally, at her family-run Chhajta orchards in Jubbal.
"We are into the third generation of apple farming. Yet, I noticed that not much had changed during all these years," Chhajta said, adding that the farmers used the same old harvesting and marketing practices and continued to depend on commission agents and labour from Nepal. However, Chhajta said she felt confident of making a big turnaround in another year's time.
Not just Chhajta, others have also joined the digital apple market as new players.
A web portal promoted by Himanshu Khagta, a Rohru-based expert in digital branding of native Himalayan products, is fast growing as an easy digital platform for delivering fresh apples, be it from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai to individual buyers in Andaman Nicobar within four to nine days.
Normally, the apples which the consumers get in metropolitans come from the CA stores and are plucked two to three months back. However, the new digital marketing techniques allow orchardists to take pre-booking orders and give a timeline to the buyers for the delivery through a highly reliable logistic chain.
The packaging used for transporting the apple is highly cool and the fruits are marketed in two or four kg boxes. Some companies, says Khagta, also book and deliver perishable items.
“We are trying to promote branding in the name of Shimla apples using our digital platform 'From Shimla'. It is a platform for farmers to take pre-bookings for orders and quote their rates depending on the variety and quality of the fruit. We don't charge any commission for our marketing services," Khagta adds.
As many as 11 young entrepreneurs, all having family orchards, have now joined hands to use this innovative way. Some of the prominent names include Pranav Rawat, Akshat Chauhan, Maarish Chhajta, Akshay Kalta, Shubhangana and Viranagna Kainthla, Shilaroo, Ojasvi Jagithta, Aditya Kaith and Amit Tanta. Many of them also promote the business through Instagram and other digital platforms.
The varieties being marketed include Tydeman, Gale Gala, Scarlet Spur, Oregon Spur, Royal delicious Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Black Amber plums.
Aalisha Chhajta says as her family orchard has to handle a huge volume every season. While the digital mode can’t be a substitute for marketing the entire produce, it has provided newer avenues for the youth to gainfully engage in economic activities that protect the interests of the apple producers and also consumers.
Corporate online grocery chains like ‘Big Basket’ already have a foothold in the marketing of several products, fruits and vegetables. Third-generation apple producers, however, are looking to tap into niches and unexplored markets using the power of digital and social media.
"We at Himachali Farmers Producers Company Ltd are also working on this kind of a broad-based system with a strong IT-backup and efficient logistic network centres. And young producers like Aalisha and Khagta are certainly making their mark,” admits Deepak Singha, a leading orchardist who is also on advisory panels of the state government.
Yet another group of youngsters led by Haryana-based Himanshu Dua has also launched “My Pahadi Dukan”, a digital e-commerce platform for marketing apples along with other mountain products.
"We work with small businesses of the mountains and help them sell online and increase their consumer reach. 'My Pahadi Dukan' is about sustainability and ethical sourcing. We are working with Chaand Bagh Orchard in Sharontha (HP) to help them sell their fresh and unwaxed apples directly to consumers in various cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc, while ensuring the farmers get paid a fair price,” Dua tells Outlook.