1. Please tell us about the starting journey of Neofarmers?
Let me start from the root with the philosophy we follow.
So at the start of 2016, we started with the thought of doing something good for our kids as we had some land in our name and we wanted to farm there or fish there. The idea evolved from there and I was already engaged in advertisements, audio, and visual productions with Janala Bangladesh. And one day, suddenly, we decided to just start this venture.
During my travels throughout Bangladesh, I noticed that there is a lot of food adulteration and some farmers do this knowingly while others unknowingly. I also noticed that a lot of products from Bangladesh are going extinct, like a very interesting type of rice that we grow in Bangladesh. So we thought that maybe we can find a way to revive these back into our country.
Initially, we wanted to do it just for our own family, friends, and our needs. Then we started R&D in 2016. And then we thought “Why should we be the only ones to get to experience this? Could we scale this up to give this service to all the people of this country and also start a business based on it?”. So we wanted to work with healthy foods, and once we got it scaled up to more pure products, like oils, we also wanted to work with healthy lifestyles. And secondly, we noticed that people who are living in the cities don’t know the story behind a product, they go to any supermarket and buy rice, for example, without knowing where it came from.
By “story behind the product” I mean that there are a lot of families involved in the many different processes for bringing that rice to the supermarket, and consumers aren't aware of any of that. As a result, there isn't much value or respect for the farmers and growers. Another thing is that our farmers are growing very interesting products, for example, if we ask around, they will know around 4-5 types of rice at max but we have around 100s of types of rice in our country. And we usually don’t know about these types of rice or the nutrition benefits they have. And these are made by indigenous knowledge, and not genetic modification which may be harmful to us.
As it turns out, the farmers were about to stop making these types of rice because they are difficult to product and maintain and because they weren’t being sold as no one knew about them. And another thing is that the products which are genetically modified are usually cheaper so people buy them more. For example, if a farmer was to grow rice in 1 bigha of his farmland, he could only grow 5 maund (37.3 kg) of indigenous rice whereas he could grow 20 maund (746 kg) of genetically modified rice in the same amount of land. So we decided that we need to serve these products to a customer base that will value the product and with that, keep the product from going obsolete.
That is where Neofarmers started but we had to do R&D for around 2 years before we finally launched our service, brand, and product at the start of 2019.
2. What inspired you to focus on establishing pure and uncontaminated products in the market?
Like I was saying, the idea came from thinking about my family - what are my family and extended family consuming. Thinking about that started the idea. And by now I have traveled to almost 63 districts of Bangladesh and I have seen that farmers unknowingly infect the crops with harmful products or too much shar.
So if we could educate them better, the crops would turn out better and in the end, it would be better for the consumers as well. And there is a consumer base that is looking for products like these but can’t find them anywhere, so that is where Neofarmers fits in.
3. What difficulties did you face in the initial launching stage of Neofarmers and how did you overcome them?
There were always a lot of difficulties. None of our backgrounds were in agriculture or food processing. We started the whole thing out of sheer passion and the love for it. Initially, we thought that it would be really easy to make organic products in Bangladesh. But ultimately we found out that maintaining an organic chain is a very difficult thing. And it is somewhat impossible in Bangladesh. Even though some people are claiming to have organic products, honestly you can’t make organic products in Bangladesh.
It is because the process is almost impossible to maintain in Bangladesh. For example, if you wanted to make organic ghee, you would have to make sure that the cow from which the milk is coming to produce ghee drinks pure water. If the cow drinks from a river, 2 miles down the river it might get contaminated from a land where there was shar or tikna shot used, or the cow could be eating grass where shar or tikna shot was used on the land. As a result, we cannot claim the milk from that cow to be organic, and therefore we cannot claim that the ghee from that milk is organic either. This was the first hurdle we faced.
Secondly, we found out that there isn’t even a certification for organic products in Bangladesh, so you can’t just call a product organic because Bangladesh doesn’t have any authority to certify the products. So, with that in mind, what we came up with is that we cannot make anything that is organic, but we can create a safe food chain. We don’t say our products are organic, we say they are safe foods which are traceable. We know where it came from, what are the stages it went through, and how everything is made.
So our first hurdle was we had to deviate from our initial philosophy, and secondly, there are different certificates required here, like getting certifications from BSTI and BCSIR is a very cumbersome process. There are a lot of complications whereas they could have made the process much easier, especially for entrepreneurs like us.
And thirdly, customers here want everything for a lower price. But when you are maintaining a safe food chain, the price of your products increase quite significantly, and sometimes double. Initially, the market was not ready to buy something for double the price. We had to face a lot of difficult accusations like “Why are your products so expensive? You guys are thieves” and more.
So we decided that we will educate the people, we will tell them that to maintain a safe food chain, our production costs are higher than the regular products on the market. And that we don’t use any kind of additives or preservatives, absolutely zero chemicals, and for that reason, our products have a shorter shelf life. Because our products have a shorter shelf life, they have to be discarded sooner and so our prices automatically increase.
Price was a very big challenge because people weren’t ready to understand something like this. It’s not like we are in the market for that long, but so far we have served 30,000 customers already. And if we talk about one of our products, the onion oil, for example, the process we maintain is very difficult. We have to extract the oil from onions, mix it with coconut oil, and keep it stored for several days. Then we can finally supply that product. So it’s a lot from production, to processing, to storage.
People ask “why is this much onion oil so expensive?”, and we can’t go up to every customer and explain everything every time, but we do try to explain as much as possible if they ask us online. So customer education is always a big challenge for us. Even though we struggled a lot initially, now we have customers who know the difference between our products and others, and have become frequent customers of Neofarmers. But, to capture an even bigger market we have to keep this educating process going.
4. What products do you use yourself?
I test the products on myself, for example, I take the black seed oil, honey, and triphala every morning. Triphala is something that helps your digestion. I had a lot of acidity problems for a very long time, and if you take any medicine for that like Seclo you will get immediate results. If you take Seclo before breakfast, by lunch you will be completely fine but after I started using Triphala I didn’t see any results for the first 7-10 days. It was very frustrating but after 15-20 days it will have a fantastic effect on your body. It takes a while to see its effect but it is ultimately long-lasting while being very healthy as well. Herbal stuff usually takes longer than chemical medicines. This is one issue that we discuss with our customers.
5. Why are your products different and how do you ensure purity? And where do you source your raw materials from?
If you look at our tagline, it says “Naturally Grown, Honestly packed”. Our whole thing is packed into these two lines.
Firstly, we are different from other products because we don’t use preservatives. Secondly, the sourcing is very important, because no matter how much you try to make your product good, if the source quality isn’t good, your product won’t be. For example, if you were to make biryani, but your rice wasn’t from a good source then there is nothing that can make your biriyani taste good no matter how good of a cook you are or the ghee that is used.
So we source from all over Bangladesh. We have products coming from the remotest villages in Bandarban, like the Bini Turmeric and Bini Rice. We collect these straight from the indigenous people farming there. Also, we collect rice from Phultala, Khulna directly from the farmers. The coconut oil we sell also comes directly from the farmers. They sometimes make them in small batches and give it to the mills, and we bring them from the mills. So sourcing is very important to create safe and natural products and we have a very strict process of maintaining these sources and quality.
Thirdly, we say honestly packed because let’s say that your sources are very good and pure, but in the process, if you don’t maintain the hygienic and safe process, your product will start to deteriorate. For example, if you are making a type of oil and during the production process you don’t maintain hygiene, get stuff dirty, inputs aren’t stored correctly, too much moisture forms, you store it out in the sun and is just not looked after carefully.
Fourthly, it is about packaging. Let’s say you make great products like ghee, but sell it in a plastic cup that you bought for 5tk. And none of the plastics that you see in Bangladesh are food-grade plastics. Our Onion Oils are sold in glass jars. But what if we used plastic bottles instead of glass bottles? The chemicals in the plastic will start to mix with the oils in the container and you can see that for any of our liquid products, we don’t use plastic bottles, we use glass. We still use plastic for dry products, as they are food-grade plastics, and unfortunately, we don’t have alternate materials. But we really want to have a 100% eco-friendly production and packaging process that is why we maximize the use of glass and paper. And because we don’t use plastic, we don't create any harmful residue that will mix into the rivers and go into the soil. Organic means eco-friendly. Like, when we are making our Almond oil after the oil is taken out, we take the remaining part of the almond and it is biodegradable but we feed it to our fishes. Our whole ecosystem is eco-friendly. That is how we differentiate ourselves from other products in the market.
Another thing is that we have this policy that we tell our customers, and as far as I know no one has a policy like this in Bangladesh other than us. So the policy is like, let’s say you take one of our ghee products, and you already cooked with that ghee but later you tell us that you didn’t like cooking with that ghee, we will refund you 100% of the money. Your word is enough for me to believe you. Either we refund you through products or we refund 100% of the money back to the consumer. This is because we are very confident that our product is top-notch and we know that there’s not going to be complaints about our product, but it is possible to have complaints, sometimes the products have issues.
We are very confident that there are no issues with our products. But due to a lack of awareness, sometimes customers complain about the products. For example, we don’t use any chemicals in our rice, and in the market, they use a chemical in the rice to stop bugs. But our rice does get some bugs after 10-15 days, which is actually good because it proves that our rice is chemical-free. And for that we leave a little note inside the rice bags saying that if there are bugs, do not panic, this is natural and it is fine. But after seeing the bugs people do complain to us, and that is just due to a lack of awareness, which we are trying to fix.
6. Do you face any challenges during product warehousing, if yes, what are they?
We only maintain one warehouse in Dhaka for product storing. We didn’t face any problems regarding warehousing because we had a big one, but the problems we faced were in delivery. As most of our products are in glass jars, there is a high chance of it being broken during delivery. But when you are shipping in a plastic jar, delivery is a lot easier. But we overcame that, we wrapped our products really well and sent them out. And because we are only doing it in Dhaka now, we can manage in terms of warehousing. We are also thinking of getting a warehouse in Chittagong so that customers over there can avail of our products quicker and cheaper. Because shipping from Dhaka to Chittagong would be costly.
7. As we know, there are a lot of competitors in the market, so what makes Neofarmers different from others?
I have already talked about this, but if I was to be more specific, everyone sells products but we sell stories. We sell stories about the products. Even though we haven’t reached that point 100%, we will soon reach there. We want to show people the value chain of a product, how it is made, who is behind the process, what emotions of the farmers are connected to the growth of this product.
And secondly, as I have said before, what definitely differentiates us is our packaging. It is very eco-friendly and very decent compared to other packaging.
And thirdly, it is our commitment, like the fact that we are so confident in our product that if you are not happy after consuming our product, we are ready to refund the whole thing.
8. As people are relatively uninformed about the utilization of organic products, what strategies do you use to promote your products?
First of all, we don’t say that it is organic, we say they are safe foods. We are slowly trying to educate people about the products. We are only trying to do one thing, to let more people know that to lead a better lifestyle you need to consume good food. If you do not consume good food, your physical condition won’t be good. And if that isn’t good, your mental condition won’t be either.
If we talk about depression, there are a lot of causes of depression like not consuming the right products is just one of them. If you consume one of our herbal products regularly, Ashwagandha, it will lower your chances of depression episodes. I use it myself too.
If you take care of your body, you will have a healthy physical state and that actually results in a healthy mental state. Through our content, promotions, and blog we are trying to tell people why they should consume healthy products. That is how we are educating our customer base, and it is increasing day by day. So far we have served 30,000 customers. At the same time, we maintain a page and a community group on Facebook. And in the last two years, we held community meetups where we took our consumers to our farms and showed them how we make everything. So we are trying to establish a direct relationship between consumers and the product.
9. What has been the local response of your products to date?
I would say it was beyond my expectations. I didn’t expect this to be this big in such a short time. The response is very good, and as a brand, especially in the urban and female market segment, we had a very good response. They have started to trust the brand after consuming the products.
And secondly, in terms of growth, we initially thought that for the first two years we would be focusing only on Dhaka. But interestingly we had orders from outside Dhaka, and it was from the remotest parts of the country, even Khagrachari, regular orders from Chittagong, and many different districts. As a team, we are overwhelmed by the great response across the country.
We also had a plan that we will have outlets in Dhaka. But due to the pandemic, we couldn’t start even though our plans to start were in March and have 5 outlets by the end of this year. But we are working with one outlet so far, and hopefully, we will be opening it in October. It’s going to be on Iqbal Road, Mohammadpur, Dhaka. We will be assessing the response from the customers by looking at how people buy from physical outlets, and if it’s positive, we will open more outlets in Dhaka and outside.
10. What have been some of your strategies to deal with climate change in the business of organic farming?
Organic farming directly impacts climate change. Personally, I am very concerned about the environment and the whole climate change thing. And we have some other initiatives as well, like The Base Camp. And we will resume The Base Camp soon as I am the Managing Director of that as well. We have some other things too, and I am just trying to paint our philosophy here, how all our business and our philosophies are connected. And how it is interpreting my philosophy through my business as well.
Another one of my projects is in Bandarban, it is called Moonlight. It is in a very remote village and we work with the local indigenous people there. We work with them in terms of farming, but we also have an inclusive tourism project with everyone in the neighborhood. And at the same time for the last 3 years, we have taught them how to stop using chemicals for farming, we run a school there, and have replanted around 2500 trees and educated them on how to dispose of plastic materials and reuse organic by-products in cooking and farming.
All our businesses are connected like this, and that is our target for zero chemical farming. We envision that our country will be a zero-chemical based farming country within the next 15-20 years. And if we can do that, we will see a massive change in our lifestyle. And we won't have to spend 100 cores of taka behind hospitals and medicine, because if you consume good products, your lifestyle will be different. For example, in the mountains there is land erosion, and the farmers there are using lots of pesticides, manure, and poisons which is causing the native trees to slowly die. That is making the mountains lose all its trees, which will cause the soil to loosen and create landslides when it rains. And the pesticides from farming are also flowing into the river which is causing the depletion of the number of fish. There isn’t even 1/10th of fishes left in the rivers compared to 10 years ago. Our whole economy is agriculture based and if we can streamline agriculture, make it environmentally friendly, our whole country will change in terms of health. So definitely I would say that organic farming has a direct impact on the environment.
11. Can you tell us about some of your best selling products?
So onion oil is one of our top sellers. And I am amused to see that because we didn’t expect to sell it like this. It was a very R&D thing just to test the market and see if people will buy it or not because it is a very interesting product as my wife and sisters use it for a long time now. And few other top sellers are our protein powder, coconut oil, moringa powder, ghee, honey, and kaali Jeera oil.
12. What are some of the upcoming products of Neofarmers?
We have a lot of upcoming products. We recently launched a few products which are Achar (pickles), Chili Flakes, and some herbal products like gluten-free coconut flour, Himalayan Pink Salt, Bread crumbs, Jaam Seed Powder, Mithi Powder, and Chondon Powder that women can use for their skin and we are currently trying to find a good source for it.
13. How many members are currently involved in the team of Neofarmers and can you tell us something about their contribution and their roles?
We started out as a small company and now we have around 35-40 people in our team. And if we consider our extended team, there are 200-250 people in our team, including our farmers. But our core members are around 40 people. And though I am the Managing Director of Neofarmers, I consider myself to be amongst the other team members because the people who are with us have been with us since the very beginning, at least most of them. Their contribution is enormous and I would even say that they contribute more than I do myself. They are very much passionate about the whole thing, the people who are producing, maintaining the warehouse, doing the delivery, for example Akash is looking after the sales and marketing. So I would say they own the whole thing, not just as a business. The business is just part of a logical sequence for getting profits but we don't work for the profit, we work out of sheer passion for this brand. And when people like you say that you got great results after using our onion oil, it gives us immense pleasure and a sense of achievement. And when we see that people in different groups are saying that this product from Neofarmers is really good, and we didn’t even talk to them, it makes us very happy.
Usually, people use influencers to market products like these but we don’t do that. We don’t want an ad to popup with an influencer saying to use our products, we want our customers to talk about it and work as an ambassador for our brand. So far we have seen this working as our customers are our brand ambassadors. And when people leave reviews on our page, it makes me really happy, and not only me, our team members are very proud of it as well that they are working for a thing that is bringing change to a person’s life. It has an impact on society, the lifestyle of people, the environment, and the last mile farmers. So this creates a bond amongst our team members. And there is no “bossing” in this company, nothing like “sir sir”. We are a big whole family and we work like a team.
14. What are the goals of Neofarmers for the next 5 years?
Our dreams are very big. We want to touch every product that is produced and grown in Bangladesh, at the same time as market expansion. And we want to expand not only in Bangladesh, but we want to take it globally. We want to make this a global brand.
We are already in touch with Amazon US, who have selected us among a few other brands from Bangladesh. And it may not be possible to reach globally everywhere in 5 years, it may take a longer period of time. But in 5 years I want to take these products to at least 5 countries. And we want to establish this brand as Bangladesh’s top Safe Food brand. And I would say we have achieved a lot in a very short time. But we want to take this to a larger audience. Our vision is that everyone will be using safe products. And if we make it so that our brand is catering only towards the elite and upper-class people, it conflicts with our vision. So we will try to fulfill this vision by taking this product to more people. So that if they can’t afford it now, soon they will be. It will be like they use less of it but at least they are using something healthier. And we will continuously try to implement this education.