Kochi: Start-ups mean more than mobile apps and information technology, rural Kerala testifies. In the age of the start- up frenzy that scripts overnight success stories, youngsters in the state are reinventing the pickle-making egg-selling entrepreneurship of their mothers’ generation.
Incubation centres focused on agricultural and food processing industries are making a difference to people’s lives in pockets across Kerala. The Agropark based at Piravam in Ernakulam district is one of the first agricultural and food processing business incubation centres in the state.
“The Agropark aims at setting a stage for the marketing of value-added products in agricultural and food processing sectors and the development of novel ideas about entrepreneurship,” Chairman Baiju Nedunkeri said.
The Agropark does not get any financial help from the government. However, the incubation centre is guaranteed of technical help from the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC), Kinfra, Central Tuber Crops Research Institute (CTCRI), District Industries Centre, Krishi Vigyan Kendra and the Kerala Agricultural University.
The park ensures office space, technical training, loans and seed funding to anyone who comes with a viable business idea. The centre will help entrepreneurs connect with angel investors, license their products and market them. As many as 48 companies have already been incubated from the park. Among them, 25 companies are active with their branded products in the market. The park has imparted training for 185 people in agriculture and food processing.
Handholding homegrown brands
Everyday items such as curry powders, banana chips and cut-mango pickle have scripted successful business stories. Still there is no easy route for an entrepreneur without burning his fingers once or twice.
The Agropark helps entrepreneurs test the waters without shouldering huge debts even before they find a footing. They can make their products at the park and use its packaging mechanism. If they see enough signs of their products finding takers in the market, they can go ahead on their own.
The hand-holding within the park helps them understand the market for their product, its shelf life, the time the business would take to break even and other vital information. All they have to spend is Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 while they take baby steps in business, while they may have to spend at least Rs 10 lakh if they were to invest in their own manufacturing unit.
The park’s trial production centres are based in Vaikom, Maradi and Arayankavu. While the Vaikom unit is into the processing of tender coconut water, the unit at Maradi is for chips-making and one in Arayankavu is for curry powders.
Value-added products have a greater market as evident by the transformation of the humble jackfruit when it is made into packaged products with a greater shelf life. When banana or tapioca are made into chips, they always command a higher price. Any product needs such a value addition and they have a wider market.
Entrepreneurs seeking assistance at Agropark are mostly aged between 30 and 40. Women are increasingly approaching the park with their business ideas.
Agropark is run by a 40-member team. It works out of 14,500 square feet, which includes the trial production units. Agropark also helps entrepreneurs based out of it to lease abandoned industrial units under the state government or local self-government bodies. They can use this space for a reduced rent until they think they are ready to set their own base.
Veterinary university pitches in
The Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU) based at Pookot in Wayanad district has set up a special directorate to support entrepreneurs. The university is about to launch a student entrepreneurship programme in the four colleges under it. Apart from the veterinary colleges at Pookot and Mannuthy in Thrissur district, the university has a College of Dairy Science and Technology at Mannuthy and a College of Avian Sciences and Management at Thiruvazhamkunnu in Palakkad district.
The university is also teaming up with the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation to launch start-up ventures in veterinary and associated sectors in the Bio Sciences Park in Thiruvananthapuram. Plans are afoot to market meat, fish, eggs, milk and vegetables by forming small-scale units.
Manoj Kumar, an entrepreneur from Kothamangalam, has been working at the incubator facility at the Agropark for five months.
“I pack sesame oil and lamp oil in various quantities, brand them and sell them. They are sold at temples and shops that sell articles for worshipping. I myself buy quality sesame to make the oil. It is pressed in a mill at Changaramkulam near Thrissur. I have set up a packing unit adjoining my house at Iramallur near Kothamangalam. I get help from my wife and my sister’s two children.
“The incubation at the Agropark will end by December. I plan to expand my business after that. What I have in mind is a unit with facilities to press oil. The business is profitable now. The Agropark is helping me out in all things big and small.”
V. Jijish, an entrepreneur from Kottarakkara, has tried out many business ideas:
I make a product that removes traces of the pesticides and other poison sprayed on vegetables. I make it with a technology developed by the Kerala Agricultural University. The production is done at the Agropark unit at Piravam. I pack it with the help of Kudumbasree units.
I first came to Agropark with an idea to start a pineapple processing unit. I made the product on a trial basis but it did not find favour with the market. Then I turned to Biowash to clean vegetables of pesticides. It was going on smooth in the beginning but lost steam later as part of a general decrease in sales of vegetables. Housewives tell me that they are buying fewer vegetables now as they want to reduce the exposure to the poison.
I will have to try out something else if Biowash does not prove to be a success. The Agropark is giving me all the guidelines and help I want.