reStore Gives India’s Organic Retail Sector Food For Thought

Dressed in a cotton kurta and khadi trousers, Ananthoo seems to wear his role as activist quite perfectly. Over the course of the afternoon, he talks with fervour about the current state of the food industry and our diminishing control over food safety and nutritional security. His wry wit only amplifies the extent and urgency of the crisis. He leads us through a sector plagued by deceitful, exploitative practices, skewed prices, and environmental degradation. A growing gap between growers and consumers is illuminated - a space that chemical-laced vegetables, adulterated milk, and a growing incidence of disease are comfortably and uncontestedly occupying.

Anantha Sayanan or Ananthoo as he is popularly known, is co-founder of reStore, a volunteer-run, non-profit organic retail store in Chennai. On the back of an agrarian crisis and a spate of farmers’ suicides, Ananthoo quit his corporate jobs and set off with 5 others, on what he now admits, was an arrogant attempt to improve the lot of farmers. “We realised early on that we were ill-equipped to help them either with knowhow on farming practices or with information on government schemes,” he informs.

Ananthoo (Image: Author)

Ananthoo (Image: Author)

A new market

The volunteers spent many weeks travelling to organic farms, meeting with farming families, and connecting with them in ways made obsolete by mass retail. They visited farmer cooperatives and organisations working for farmers’ rights to understand the produce, production practices, and the market. This period of exploration and several discussions with agrarian communities helped zero in on the idea of reStore and what would eventually establish it as a trendsetter in India’s organic retail sector - the creation of a fair, honest market for farmers and consumers. It would be one where goods procured directly from farmers would be sold at affordable rates to urban consumers. Farmers would be assured of fair prices and consumers of genuine organic produce. The aim was to reinstate farmers as the custodians of health and nutrition and make them accountable to consumers.

reStore was founded in 2008 with the aim of rebuilding broken food systems by bringing food producers and consumers closer to each other, avoiding middle men, promoting sustainable agriculture, and ensuring the supply of chemical-free food. Its rubric, a long list of non-negotiables, was deeply influenced by the philosophy and work of Nammalvar, the famed crusader for ecological agriculture from Thanjavur. Chief among them was to procure chemical-free food from small and marginal rain-fed farmers, revive traditional grains, eschew the sale of third-party certified organic products, and most importantly, to ensure traceability and transparency of goods sold. Explains Ananthoo, “The source of the problem today is the alienation of the consumer and the market from the farmers. To the poor farmer, who is faced with the pressures of the market and the struggle to make a living, the consumer is a distant, faceless entity. Food adulteration has become an inescapable part of modern food systems only because we have allowed it to, with our disconnect from the farmer and our ignorance about food production and its impacts on livelihoods, health, and the environment.”

To the poor farmer, who is faced with the pressures of the market and the struggle to make a living, the consumer is a distant, faceless entity.

reStore began its operations out of a garage in Chennai (Image: Facebook)

reStore began its operations out of a garage in Chennai (Image: Facebook)

Remodeling the value chain

Operating out of an unprepossessing garage in Chennai, reStore stressed safety and sustainability across the value chain. It only sells organic food products that have not used any synthetic chemicals in their production, processing, storage or packaging. reStore put its might behind enhancing the nutritional content of food by reviving native fruits, vegetables, millets, and traditional varieties of grains and oils that had been pushed out to make way for polished rice and refined oils.

Following a farmer-friendly policy meant adopting radically different procurement practices. What truly set reStore apart, however, was its pricing policy. According to Ananthoo, “Our prices were determined by the farmers, and, from the first day of operation, product prices were decided for the whole year and remained fixed irrespective of market fluctuations.” This proved to be a mutually beneficial solution, to wit, it guaranteed the farmer a fixed fair price all year round and protected the customer from the vagaries of a flawed market. It upended the popular notion that organic produce is expensive and inaccessible to most and allowed farmers who were making between Rs. 3 and 4 per kilogram of vegetables for most of the year to realise a sixfold increase in profit. reStore’s  margins were used to meet the cost of transport and rent, and later on, to remunerate its employees.

reStore today (Image: Facebook)

reStore today (Image: Facebook)

Consumer awareness is key to fair markets

To complement its work to create an ethical and sustainable value chain, reStore also uses its store in Chennai to sensitise consumers about safe food, sustainable agriculture, and eco-friendly packaging. It practises bulk vending with produce stored in gunny sacks and bins and encourages customers to carry their own containers and bags to the store. Ananthoo says, “Because none of our produce is pre-packaged, branded or certified by third parties, consumers often ask if our goods are genuinely organic.” Thus began the work of building customer trust by putting mechanisms in place to ensure transparency and traceability of the origins and contents of different products.

“Because none of our produce is pre-packaged or branded, consumers often ask if our goods are genuinely organic.”

reStore practises bulk vending and does away with packaging (Image: Facebook)

reStore practises bulk vending and does away with packaging (Image: Facebook)

As part of its awareness building efforts, the team visited public spaces, offices, and schools to draw people’s attention to their cause. This paid off. More people cottoned on to the idea of safe food and ethical retail, the demand for organic produce began growing in the city, and ‘organic’ stores were mushrooming at every street corner to supply the growing market. But, with the proliferation of outlets with dubious procurement strategies, organic produce was no longer inviolable.

“Widening of access to genuine organic food cannot be done by replicating the existing, flawed model of retail,” Ananthoo says emphatically.

Seeds of change

By 2013, with the passing of Nammalvar, many youth, inspired by his legacy were ready to take up the mantle of protecting farmers’ livelihoods and spreading the message of safe food. Capitalising on this, the Organic Farmers’ Movement (OFM) was started as a collective of local organic stores to carry forward the trends set by reStore. It began with 15 individuals who set up a cooperative of outlets in middle-class neighbourhoods across Chennai, procuring and selling safe, unprocessed food, following the same ethical trade practices, and earning margins up to a maximum of 25 percent. Today OFM has grown into a collective of organic distributors and retailers spread over more than 20 stores in Chennai. Their stores double as centres of awareness building and learning.

Under the banner of the Safe Food Alliance (SFA), a pan-Tamil Nadu network of producers and consumers of safe food and advocates for sustainable agriculture, Ananthoo is keen on spreading the organic movement and mounting the resistance to GMOs in food and crops across the state. Regaining control over the food we eat, restoring our health, and safeguarding farmers’ livelihoods depends on correcting the markets for organic food and the policies that are unfair to producers and unhealthy to consumers. Ananthoo says, “The organic retail sector needs to move out of the hands of a few businesses with vested interests.” A truly sustainable organic movement is one that is ecologically sensitive and just across the value chain; it is based on safe, nutritious food for all, distributed at fair prices, on upholding producer and customer rights, and on the existence of an educated consumer base that holds it responsible for their health and well-being.

Read more about the work of reStore here and about OFM here.

Featured image: Author

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.