For an average urban consumer, scores of apps for doorstep food and grocery delivery services fight for screen space on his or her smartphone. But, even in 2019, thousands of villagers in India have to walk miles to access the basic minimum.
Similarly, most of the grocery products found in the modular kitchens of Tier-1 cities are mass-produced by large-scale corporate firms, allowing little profit for the farmer toiling hard in sun and rain.
While most choose to be oblivious towards the struggles of the village farmers and their families, one man from Andhra Pradesh was iron-willed to be an extra pillar of support.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
While working in England as a software engineer, Lova Raju Katari from Rajahmundry used to reflect upon a piece of news his father had read out to him in childhood – how a farmer family perished to death unable to bear their debt burden. “As a child, it struck me how the family desperately wanted to provide a decent education to their son but failed. From that day, I always thought of doing something for such farmer families which cannot support their children’s education,” shares Lova Raju, in a heartfelt conversation with Efforts For Good.
He is the founder of Village Dukaan – which delivers products from farmers’ homes to city inhabitants, without the involvement of any middleman, thus ensuring that a substantial profit goes to the farmers.
Farmer Suicides Deeply Affected Lova Raju
During 2011-12, a large number of farmer suicides became a terrifying reality in India, especially in Lova Raju’s home state Andhra Pradesh. At that time, Lova Raju was at the prime of his career in England. However, this news unsettled him deeply. Previously, he had tried to launch an initiative for educating underprivileged children in Rajahmundry and adjoining villages. But, to his disappointment, he failed to find any student who was truly keen on pursuing his education.
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“So, I thought if I can somehow help the families earn a decent income, they would automatically ensure that their children avail proper schooling,” shares Lova Raju. So, in 2012, Lova Raju returned to India and started exploring the villages, trying to get a first-hand idea about the farmers’ plight.
Understanding The Deep-Rooted Distress Of Indian Farmers
“I would not directly go and talk to them. Rather I would be on my way and observe their daily lives from a distance. I found that the landless farmers were the most distressed. The landowners lease off their plots to these farmers and collect a major portion of the produce after the harvest. As a result, the farmers were left with little to run their families,” he recalls.
Lova Raju spent around three years in surveying and reflecting upon the condition of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh. He brainstormed day and night to figure out a feasible way to help them. “That’s how Village Dukaan came into being,” he narrates.
The story behind Village Dukaan’s name will give readers an idea of how passionate Lova Raju is about his initiative.
He shares, “The first name was Village Shoppers. But, it lacked the emotional connection that I wanted to foster with the people. So, I zeroed in on ‘Village Dukaan’. There have been days when I would practise saying the name out loud in my room, for hours at a stretch. After a point, I would feel a deep connection with the name. That’s when I knew it was perfect.”
Eliminating The Middleman From The Product Chain
Lova Raju’s main target was to eliminate the middleman from the marketing chain, thus channelising the major portion of the profit to the farmers. At first, he got recruited a student to work for him on weekends.
Sagar was a student of 11th standard back then, who wanted to fund his own education through the weekend job. He would cycle around villages, going door to door and identifying grains, groceries and homemade food products which can feature on the e-shelves of Village Dukaan. As per Lova Raju’s instruction, he would also pitch the idea of the shop to the uninitiated farmers.
At the same time, he roped in potential customers from Rajahmundry who expressed their eagerness to be a part of this ‘desi’ doorstep delivery services.
Gathering all the information from Sagar, Lova Raju would write down all the details on the four walls of his bedroom in London, spending hours on connecting the dots to a beautiful future.
Nobody Believed In Lova Raju’s Idea
“They said my idea was a sure shot failure. They brushed off my appeals and advised me to stall my initiative before I run into losses,” Lova Raju speaks about the investors who, one after another, turned down his business idea.
He thus started fundraising – approaching his friends in India as well as in the UK. Some of these friends were the same ones who had once helped him to buy his first ticket to London.
Despite Lova Raju’s honest confession that it would take him years to repay them, his well-wishers chipped in graciously.
The Days Of Struggle
In June 2016, Lova Raju sent his wife back to his hometown to start the on-ground work on his behalf, while he worked on developing the Village Dukaan website.
“At that time, I would wake up at 4 AM to start working, then head to the office at 8 AM, and resumed the website work late at night. For two long years, I knew no holidays, vacations or even weekends,” he remembers.
The work before the final launch was slow, painstaking and unquestionably hard. So much so that his friends started losing faith in him. The stress, the sleepless nights and the hard work led Lova Raju to suffer from a prolonged phase of severe illness. He continued his work even from bed. Finally, all his efforts came round when Village Dukaan was officially launched in May 2018.
We started with 30 products. Within two months the number increased to 700. In six months, Village Dukaan expanded beyond expectations and Lova Raju had to recruit a team of full-timers, starting with his first employee – Sagar. Aside from Rajahmundry, Village Dukaan is now delivering to Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru as well.
Village Dukaan’s Secret To Success
Village Dukaan maintains a very unique and transparent way of operations. Their eight delivery personnel deliver rice, pulses, grains, honey as well as homemade food products like pickles, sweets, jams, jellies, chutneys etc.
Traditional delicacies from Andhra kitchens and lost recipes from grandmother’s cookbooks are the speciality of Village Dukaan. Sustainable packaging in traditional clay pots or leaf packages is another striking characteristic for Village Dukaan.
Explaining their working mechanism, Lova Raju cited the example of a paddy farmer they recently welcomed to the network. He quoted to sell his 2019 winter harvest of rice at Rs 1400 for 70 kgs. Village Dukaan offered him Rs 1700 for the same quantity. With the extra Rs 300, the farmer has been instructed to mill the husked paddy grains into the rice. The rice is available for pre-order now on their website.
The most interesting feature about Village Dukaan is that Lova Raju publicly shares both positive and negative feedback of a product. For him, quality is the utmost priority.
“I didn’t start this enterprise to make money or impress others. I am accountable for my products to the customers. So, if a product is below-the-par, I have to convey the same to the producer/farmer. That way, they will also learn to practice honest business,” his words express his unflinching integrity.
Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.
Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge
Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles
It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.
The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.
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“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.
In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.
“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.
On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.
Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.
“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.
After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.
Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.