Ready-to-cook vegetable units in Kerala come up trumps during lockdown

Units of the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Keralam and Kudumbashree are doing good business

Cut vegetables units of the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Keralam (VFPCK) at Kalliyoor in Thiruvananthapuram has a success story to narrate even during lockdown. The unit has not only sailed through two lockdowns but also recorded impressive profits.

A rise in the demand for ready-to-cook vegetables during the lockdown came as a shot in the arm for the unit, which opened in 2013-14 by VFPCK, a Government of Kerala enterprise with farmers as major stakeholders.

From the cut vegetables unit of VFPCK at Kalliyoor in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, we used to supply to a few government offices and residents’ associations. The closure of these offices affected our business, but we were able to gather customers through online platforms and shopping apps,” says Sheeja Mathew, district manager, VFPCK. In addition to apps such as AM Needs and Hello Fresh as well as online platform Koohoi, the unit supplies products to 10 residents’ associations in the city.

According to official figures, the maximum turnover before the pandemic was around ₹25 lakh, inclusive of the sale of vegetables and fruits. “But in 2020-21 the turnover was ₹63 lakh. It has already crossed ₹21 lakh in the last three months. We are hopeful of getting good business this year as well,” an official says.

The product range includes various cut vegetables used to cook thoran, mezhukkuvaratti, sambar, avial, kuruma, theeyal and erissery and also peeled vegetables such as shallots, ginger and garlic. “Since the unit is part of VFPCK’s farmer market at Kalliyoor, fresh produce is available in the morning. If there is a shortage of any item, we procure it from other farmer markets in and around Kalliyoor,” says Divya L, assistant manager, VFPCK.

Ready-to-cook vegetables packed at VFPCK’s unit at Kalliyoor in Thiruvananthapuram | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Only women are employed at the unit. While there are 10 regular staff members, more hands are taken if needed. They earn ₹ 225 (₹ 200 in the first year) per day and work in two or three shifts of seven to nine hours throughout the week. The first shift starts at 7 am.

“I got the job during the lockdown last year and my earning has been a blessing. Working in a women-only group makes me feel safe,” says Neethu GB, 28, who works in the 8.30 am to 6.30 pm During each shift, staff works on cleaning the vegetable, then moves to chopping, packing and labelling.

Ajitha B, 32, an employee for the last six years, says, “Chopping cheera (amaranthus), vazhakkoombu (banana flower) and koorkka (Chinese potato) take time. We use machines for pavakka (bittergourd), carrot mezhukkuvaratti and papaya thoran. The rest are done by hand.”

Women at work at the cut vegetables unit of VFPCK at Kalliyoor in Thiruvananthapuram | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Since the unit does not have a refrigerator, the vegetables are chopped just a few hours before they are delivered to respective collection centres. “Otherwise they will get spoilt. For example, AM Needs supply the products before 8 am. So we deliver the items the previous day by 7 pm for which we start the cutting process only after 5 pm,” Divya says.

Kits for sambar and avial (both 400 gm) and amaranthus thoran (300 gm) packet have more takers. Seasonal produce such as jackfruit and breadfruit are also in demand. “We hope to include items such as chembila (Colocasia leaves) and chena thada (Elephant foot yam stem) in future,” she says.

Meanwhile, VFPCK’s cut vegetable units in Ernakulam and Kozhikode are shut for the time being because of the pandemic. The latter is expected to reopen by the end of this month or early next month.

Home-grown enterprises

Cut vegetable units are also run by some members of Kudumbashree, the community organisation of Neighbourhood Group (NHG) women in Kerala. However, unlike VFPCK’s, these are managed by one or more members, mostly from their households.

Divya Mahesh (left) and her mother, Jayalakshmy Sankarankutty from Irinjalakkuda in Thrissur packing cut vegetables | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Ammath Vegetables at Irinjalakkuda in Thrissur district is run by Divya Mahesh, her mother, Jayalakshmi Sankarankutty, and her mother-in-law, Santha Ravindran, all Kudumbashree members. “We started this two years ago by selling peeled shallots, garlic and koorkka. Soon people began asking for other cut vegetables and that’s how we expanded it,” says Divya.

Her product range comprises vegetables and greens such as drumstick leaves, Colocasia leaves and stems, banana stems, flowers, amaranthus and jackfruit seeds, all grown at households in her neighbourhood.

Santha Ravindran, a Kudumbashree member from Thrissur, packing drumstick leaves | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Divya conducts business via a WhatsApp group. “When I started there were hardly 50 customers. During the first lockdown, the number shot up and now I have 400 families as my customers. I post the list in the evening and orders are closed by 10 pm. While peeled shallots and garlic are packed that night itself, cutting and chopping start the next morning by 5 am. By 10 am, it is taken to my husband’s house at Poonkunnam, some 25 km from my place. He, along with my mother-in-law, takes care of dispatching. Since we use plastic containers, we take them back for recycling,” says Divya. She adds that although the second wave of the pandemic hit them hard, things are now getting back to normal.

Sreedevi L | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In Thiruvananthapuram, Sreedevi L, a Kudumbashree member, has been supplying cut vegetables for five years now. But the lockdown gave a major push to her business, thanks to online sales. “I supply items to (online shopping platform), in addition to three shops and 12 apartments in the city, where I deliver products on my two-wheeler. There was at least 20% increase in my business during the lockdown, including online sale,” Sreedevi says.

When she lost her temporary job with a government-run enterprise, Sreedevi says she had no choice but to start something on her own. “Kudumbashree women run many small scale ventures and I thought of giving a try with cut vegetables. Now I have a steady income, even though it is a time-consuming job,” says Sreedevi, who also works as an accountant with a private firm.

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