How supply chain firm Ninjacart is connecting farmers, retailers using tech

The next time you buy fresh fruits and vegetables from your local kirana store, chances are that they were brought from a remote farm in less than 12 hours by a Bengaluru-based supply chain technology firm. That firm is called Ninjacart and it uses sophisticated supply chain algorithms that it has developed in-house, leveraging big data, predictive analytics, mobile applications and the Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

Ninjacart connects farmers with retailers via a network of more than 200 collection centres and 1,200 warehouses across the country. It moves over 1,400 tonnes of fresh produce per day, having doubled its volumes in the last four months.

“Technology plays a major role for us, otherwise it would not be possible to do it at this (scale). Every process and action is governed by technology,” says Thirukumaran Nagarajan, CEO and co-founder of Ninjacart. “You can’t keep training the employees every minute. Everyone is given an app and they have to just follow the instructions in the app. The brain resides inside the system,” he adds.

Nagarajan, an alumnus of the College of Engineering Guindy, Chennai and IIM-Kozhikode, had seen a gap in the food distribution market and realised that there was an opportunity to add value to the market through technology. So in 2015 he founded Ninjacart as an on-demand grocery delivery firm along with Vasudevan Chinnathambi, Kartheeswaran KK, Ashutosh Vikram, and Sharath Loganathan. Subsequently, he realised the extent of inefficiency in the supply chain for perishable produce and pivoted the company to become an end-to-end, B2B fresh produce platform.

Ninjacart’s paperless supply chain creates a seamless link between its more than 44,000 farmer suppliers and around 60,000 kirana stores and restaurants across seven cities. These include Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai and Pune. The efficiency of the system has dramatically reduced the time taken for produce to travel from farm to store.  

The company claims that this has provided 100 per cent traceability along the supply chain, apart from slashing food wastage to less than 1 per cent, compared to 35 per cent in traditional supply chains. Use of technology also allows the company to prevent pilferage and make sure that the fruits and vegetables, which are transported at ambient temperature, do not lose their moisture resulting in loss of weight. 

The company, which has over 4,000 employees and around 700 delivery vehicles, procures fresh produce from villages across India, including farms in places such as Padra in Gujarat, Thanabhawan in Uttar Pradesh and Bidaraguppe in Karnataka. 

It gets information about the availability of fruits and vegetables in each season after studying the ‘farmer harvest calendar’. It also analyses the past buying data of customers and the frequency of orders to determine the kind of products that need to be procured. This way it gets insights into the demand and supply of produce and informs the farmers about what is expected of them.

Once the produce comes in, it is put into crates at the collection centres. The fruits and vegetables are weighed and tagged. Then a message is sent out through an app on the supplied quantity and the price and the amount is credited to the farmers’ bank accounts the next day.

Ninjacart has also adopted innovations such as trolleys to load and unload the crates, which is faster than the traditional lift-and-place method. The crates are placed in the vehicles for delivery, which starts from early in the morning. The entire process is managed through an app. Each crate has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag so that the firm knows exactly which fruits and vegetables have been delivered. 

“RFID plays a critical role in every step of our supply chain, including quality control. You are clearly able to identify which farmer gave you what produce, and if a particular farmer’s produce ‘doesn’t make the cut’,” says Harish Swaminathan, who leads the engineering and product team at Ninjacart.

Ninjacart also maps the best routes for the drivers to reach their destinations. This includes tracking the vehicles using the global positioning system (GPS) to detect any deviations from the assigned route. 

Working closely with its farmer partners, Ninjacart ensures a reliable supply of high-quality products that align with the market need. It provides data-driven recommendations on what crops to grow, and communicates accurate pre-harvest pricing information and demand patterns. The company claims that over the last two years, it has been able to improve the net realised income of its farmers by 15 per cent.

“We are a one-point sale, so the farmers can focus more on farming than on figuring out where to sell and how much to sell. The money comes directly into their bank accounts and they don’t face deferred payments. Becoming part of the banking system is also making them eligible for loans,” says Nagarajan.

Ninjacart has so far raised over $150 million from top investors such as Tiger Global, Accel, Steadview Capital and tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani. Last December, the company got a huge fillip when Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, along with its subsidiary e-commerce firm Flipkart, announced a strategic investment in Ninjacart.

The relationship promises to be fruitful for both parties. While Walmart and Flipkart can strengthen direct sourcing of fresh produce for Walmart India’s Best Price B2B cash-and-carry stores and Flipkart’s online grocery business Supermart, the investment will help Ninjacart expand its customer base, reach new cities and gain exposure to global best practices.

“Fresh food is a $130 billion market. Our vision is that Ninjacart should have a role to play in all the vegetables and fruits that an average Indian consumes. That is an audacious mission and we are working towards it,” says Nagarajan.

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