Soulfull CEO Prashant Parameswaran (sitting) with COO Amith Sebastian and CMO Rasika Prashant
Indulekha, a 36-year-old mother, shops twice a week at a Hypercity outlet in Bengaluru. She loves to explore and try new products. A few years back, she came across a new breakfast cereal which looked like Kellogg's Chocos but was made from millet, called ragi in Karnataka or nachini in states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
She remembered how her grandmother would push her mother to give a porridge made of ragi to the children. She tasted the different variants on offer — ragi with chocolate or vanilla for kids and ragi with pulses inside for adults — and picked two trial packs. Her family liked it and the next week she bought bulk packs of both the variants.
Branded Soulfull, the millet-based products are sold by Kottaram Agro, a Bengaluru-based start-up which raised Rs 350 million from Aavishkar, an impact investor. Millets are good for consumers (nutritious), farmers and environment (less water- and chemical-intensive and grows well in drought-prone areas). Higher demand for millets will help encourage farmers to take these crops and aid sustainable agriculture.
Consumers like Indulekha know that ragi is highly nutritious: it has 10 times more calcium than many other grains like rice, wheat or corn. In states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala, many people have ragi or nachni-based porridge as the first meal of the day. It uses one-tenth the water than rice, is mostly grown organically, and is drought resistant. No wonder, the Centre has declared 2018 as the year of millets.
‘‘At Soulfull, we have established proof of concept and created a category for millet-based products. We have successfully launched innovative products that bring together health and taste,'' says Prashant Parmeswaran, managing director, Kottaram Agro Foods. It has cornered some share in the kids and muesli segments for breakfast cereals, increased its consumer base and grown from being present only in modern trade to around 4,000 stores across 12 cities.
The inspiration for millets came from quinoa, which started gaining popularity in the US and Europe in 2009-10. Grown in the tribal areas in Peru and Chile, it had become a $4-billion grain. ‘‘If you go back 100-200 years, there were ragi, jowar and bajra which used to find a place in our plates,” says Parmeswaran. Can we find a way to make these grains relevant in India again, he asked himself.
After working on jowar for six months, he zeroed down on millets, which are easier to process. Next step was to figure out how one brings millets to the consumers. An insight was that lot of ragi/nachni was given by mothers, and it thought they could influence children to try them.
So, it identified children as a potentially large segment and wanted to be in the morning space and the breakfast category.
Soulfull is creating a category of ancient grains. ‘‘I am not a breakfast cereal brand. It is one vehicle that will come out of the Soulfull garage; we will soon launch products that use millets in the 21st century,'' says Parameswaran. It plans to enter millet-based beverages, biscuits or snacks. It is launching health drinks in a ready-to-drink powder form, where you need to just add milk and mix it. It is made out of 12 natural grains, high in protein, is mainly to meet hunger pangs (say 11 am, in between meals) and more so in the evenings, between 5 pm and 6 pm, when you want to eat something healthy than having a samosa.
Expert take: Soulfull needs to build product portfolio
Anuradha Narasimhan, Former VP-Marketing, Britannia
I first noticed Soulfull on the modern trade shelves in Bengaluru. Both the brand name “Soulfull” as well as the attractive packaging left a favourable first impression on me. The brand has entered the health food space at a time when both awareness and interest in health are rapidly growing. Right place, right time is a great way to be. The product offering seems to be a clever combination of Indian grains and
western formats – appealing to homemakers and children alike.
Ragi Choco Bites and Desi Masala Muesli can tickle Indian taste palates while being in convenient international formats. Is Soulfull over-dependent on modern trade -- what tricks will they pull out to compete with the distribution networks of established players? Other than distribution expansion, Soulfull will need to build the product portfolio to address snack times and tiffin boxes to address a larger market and not be boxed into breakfast-cereals. This start-up brand is almost pristine in its brand building and will need to be missionary about consumer penetration — a lambi race ka ghoda!