The bee, the hive, and a lovely sustainable business model. In conversation with Vijaya Pastala from Under the Mango Tree
“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
I am that stage of life where a lot of people around me are struck by the entrepreneurship bug. They want to make something with their own hands, develop communities and build sustainable businesses . And then in about two weeks from then they set up a website/app/consultancy.
The idea behind Vijaya Pastala’s Under the Mango Tree (UTMT) is almost beautiful in its simplicity. It is a company that has managed to find a unique way to impact lives, introduce a new trend to urban consumers and create an entire eco-system around it. And it is the sweetest story of success you’ve probably ever heard.
We were lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Vijaya earlier this month, and here’s what she had to tell us.
Vijaya has a background in rural development and agriculture and always knew that she wanted to create a business model that supports sustainability and livelihood creation. With over two decades of first hand experience in working with farmers, she was well aware of the challenges farmers faced in accessing markets in a competitive and sustainable manner. She also noticed how India’s flora led to several uniquely flavoured honey produced in small quantities but most of what was sold in the markets was mass-produced and uniform in nature.
Over time she began to toy with the idea of supporting beekeeping within farmer communities, thus increasing both their agricultural productivity (the cross-pollination helps in increasing yields); and providing them with an alternate stream of income. In addition, by guaranteeing a buy back of this honey at competitive rates she could also improve their access to market.
Today UTMT manages the entire honey supply-chain from end to end, from training farmers in beekeeping methods, to supporting the growth of amenable flora in the region, to supporting carpenters into producing the right kind of boxes for beekeeping, to buying back the honey, and ultimately to marketing it in urban centers.
Two key aspects of UTMT”s game plan are (a.)the exclusive focus on the indigenous Apis Cerana Indica bee, which is local to the areas they work in, and (b.) the buyback of honey at a premium price from the farmers because of its organic certification.
UTMT also commits time and resources to research and urban education about the benefits of beekeeping. One of their most popular outreach efforts is their Urban Beekeeping program through which they train interested individuals (ranging from IIT graduates to restaurateurs) into the process of beekeeping during the right season. The course lasts for nearly a year, where participants learn about the entire lifecycle of a bee at monthly practical sessions.
The sessions are conducted at the Maharashtra Nature Park where UTMT has instituted a live bee trail with bee boxes that participants get a chance to manage themselves. I ask her where participants find the space for beekeeping in a place like Mumbai once they’ve learnt the art, and am surprised to discover that the answer could vary from a corner of the terrace or backyard, to a second home or farm house.
In addition, UTMT also conducts educational programs for children in this Park such as fun-filled walks across this bee trail, that introduces them to the lives of these wonderful creatures!
Over the last 5 years UTMT has impacted in excess of 3000 farmers in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan.
Like most start ups, Vijaya’s key challenges have been in finding the right human resources for her team, and in generating an ideal kind of funding for growth. She believes that while things are improving, the idea of interning or working for a start-up with all its uncertainties is still alien to the Indian mindset, and hence often struggles to find the right people for her company. She has also occasionally struggled with access to the right amount and types of fund to fuel her growth plans.
However, today, Under the Mango Tree is a profitable enterprise with serious plans for expansion in to new territories and a dedicated team of staff members and volunteers
UTMT’s organic honey is quite unlike the honey you would typically find in a supermarket. By concentrating on the flora grown around their bee keeping site, they manage to produce remarkable strains of single origin honey that have no man made additives or blends in them. Quite simply, if the flora around the hive is largely mangoes, then the nectar-and hence the honey- will hold a suggestion of mango’s flavours.
Their products range from the wonderfully hearty Wild Forest Honey grown in the mossy Narmada valley, to the golden Litchi Honey, rich with flavours from neighbouring litchi flowers of Muzaffarnagar, to the Desert Bloom honey with hints of mahua, neem and karanj from the Rajasthani deserts.
The honeys are available in almost all the modern trade stores in the major metros – such Natures Baskets, HyperCity, Nilgiris, Reliance Fresh, or the Food Hall. In addition, UTMT also provides honey for the Fab India label, and is used in major hotel chains across the country including the Taj, Hilton and Trident.
Vijaya tells me that one of the key areas of focus for them in the future will be an emphasis on packaging honey as a gift item. And when you think about it, then small samples of organic honey do lend themselves rather beautifully to any occasion where you previously sent a box of mithai- be it weddings, festivals or birthdays! A small but growing number of corporates are also picking up UTMT boxes as part of their Diwali gifts!
What’s more, UTMT also ensures that 10% of gifting proceeds directly goes back to farmers!
We wish Vijaya and her team all the best, and can’t wait to try one of her delectable honeys on our morning cup of oatmeal soon!
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