Hyderabad: Naga Jyothi Ganipisetty, a postgraduate in Agribusiness Management from MITCON Institute of Management, Pune, explores healthy and effective ideas for the betterment of the society. Her affection for plants and the famers working in the fields made her conduct a research that carved her path towards opening an enterprise called ‘PLANTAE’ that researches on vegetables and its benefits for the people. She motivates women farmers to grow mushrooms and stevia and strives to increase awareness on the benefits of using the natural sugar substitute, which is marketed through online platforms and retail stores under the brand name ‘Stugar’.
Here are some excerpts from the interview we had with Naga Jyothi:
Tell us about your work and how did you start ‘PLANTAE’?
The name of my agri-based enterprise is “PLANTAE”, which precisely means research on plant kingdom. Plants always fascinated me, and my association with plants during my graduation taught me that everything is hidden in Mother Nature for human survival and it is for us to explore it. I strongly believe that plants are the ultimate answer to every human problem. During my post graduation in Agribusiness Management, I thought of turning my fascination for plants in to a career. But, like many, I was also carried away, and went into banking. Later, I worked in the development sector, and with farmers and artisans, which gave me very good exposure in life, but, didn’t give me the real satisfaction I needed.
So, I quit.
In a pursuit of my dreams, I started research on various gifts of nature and was not sure where to start. It was an article in the newspaper,that said “many are forcibly changing from non vegetarians to vegetarians due to various health reasons and but their taste for non vegetarian never dies.” This caught my attention. So, I focused my research on the best vegetarian alternatives, which provide the same amount of protein, taste, texture etc., and the answer that came to me was mushrooms.
How did you start your research on mushrooms?
I wanted to know more about mushrooms, and I got trained at ICAR- Directorate of Mushroom Research, Solan. Later, I started my company in a small place growing exotic medicinal mushrooms, which are the best alternatives for non vegetarian diet. I also trained a few women in growing of mushrooms and they are now growing a wide variety of mushrooms in their own house. I have also been working on the marketing side of it as they were being grown by women farmers. I am also in the process of training more women farmers in mushroom cultivation.
How did you get the idea of starting stugar; sugar-substitute?
I read an article on diabetes, which said, “Nearly one out of every ten persons aged 18 years and above in India has raised blood glucose levels, which poses extra financial and service burden on health systems.” I felt for sure that a fast growing economy like ours doesn’t deserve this. So, as a thumb rule of my companies’ ideology, I started exploring for the best alternative for sugar. There are many artificial sweeteners in the market, but they are all chemical based. So I needed a natural sweetener and there I came across this plant Stevia.
What was the research done to make it as a product?
Stevia leaf extract is already available in our markets but has very little acceptance from the consumers. In order to find the reasons for this, I conducted some surveys in Hyderabad, and the results were quite surprising. To name a few, many Hyderabadis felt that stevia leaf extract (liquid form) is nothing but, another kind of artificial sweetener owing to their similarity in packing like that of many artificial chemical sweeteners. Few other felt that it has many side effects. Many more felt that, though it is extracted from the leaves of Stevia, the extraction process is all chemical-based and the final extract is full of chemical remnants.
I felt that, before taking this product to the consumers, I needed answers for all these questions. So, I met few scientists in CSIR-CIMAP (Central Institute of Medicinal And Aromatic plants), a Research Center in Hyderabad, where a very good quantum of research was done on stevia plants, the sweetener compounds extraction and its benefits etc. I also met few scientists working on extraction of the stevia sweetener from stevia leaves as sugar substitute. Apart from that, I have gone through many research papers published in NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) website on stevia plant, its safety, its medicinal properties etc.
What were the challenges that you faced in the process?
After getting all the answers to my questions and getting thoroughly convinced about its usage, safety, medicinal properties etc, I started with marketing of dried stevia leaf, to send a message that, it is a purely natural product. The biggest challenge encountered at this stage is the acceptance of the stevia sweetener by the consumers, because though it is a perfect natural sugar substitute with zero calories, it’s peculiar after taste is not commonly liked by the people. The other main challenge is convincing the customers on the financials. Everybody compares the price of stevia extract with that of sugar. And when you drag your health in this argument, particularly diabetes, I insist the cane sugar is no match to Stevia.
How many women farmers work along with you?
Our working style is a bit different and innovative. Initially, I started alone, now I have a core team of five people, who take care of production, packaging and marketing in PLANTAE and few women working from their homes. Out of all the women farmers I trained in Mushroom cultivation, 15 of them are very active and they cultivate mushrooms in their own houses. Few more are thriving for an economically stable farm.We are employing 10 women for preparation of cotton dip bags who prepare them at their home. We are exploring new ways to allow our staff to work from home during the times convenient for them as most of them are women.
Where can we purchase your product?
We are more into online sales. The product is now available on Amazon and few other retail outlets in Hyderabad. We are now considering wholesale dealerships also.
How healthy is your product?
I Strongly believe, it is very healthy, reliable and a perfect substitute for sugar, particularly for those with diabetes because of zero glycemic index.
What are the future plans for your products?
We want this wonder herb to be in every house so that the fresh leaves can be used for sweetening your dish. So,we are going to start a nursery to supply Stevia plant to every home. We strongly believe that in future every home that has a tulsi plant will have a stevia plant too. We are researching on a variety which can be easily grown inside the house and will be convenient for apartments as well.