In LEADERSPEAK on MEDIABRIEF, we are delighted to bring you a conversation with highly respected food scientist, researcher and organic food entrepreneur, K C Raghu, Founder-Managing Director of Pristine Organics Pvt Ltd, who set up the company 25 years ago in 1992, with a rather ambitious plan: ‘to use tradition and technology to bridge the gaps in the dietary habits of our people’. Raghu’s path-breaking work in the field of food and nutrition truly makes him a food revolutionary, and one of the drivers of India’s Organic Food Revolution. Excerpts from a conversation with Pavan R Chawla
At a subliminal level too, right from Day One of his working life, his focus seems to have been on the health and well-being of people and the planet. Now, most people simply talk, but a select few walk their talk, and K C Raghu, Founder-Director of Pristine Organics, has shone amongst the latter. He quit a secure job as a scientist to set out on his own entrepreneurial journey, fuelled by the firm belief: If your ends are clear, the means will follow.
And follow they did. Raghu, who set out to chart a course where his career and passion could converge, founded Pristine Organics in 1992. Driven by a desire to improve the health of people and planet through a holistic approach to food and nutrition, and to focus on health and well-being of people without harming the planet, over the years, Pristine has create customised nutritional supplements for human and animal nutrition sectors, fortifying food and fodder with the right combination of micronutrients and vitamins. In fact, the growth of Pristine has been in parallel with the growth of these sectors. Its products were appreciated equally by the leading organisations for their unique blends and the quality control across the value chain. Today, Pristine also manufactures its own range of organic products.
And today, 25 years after, it has not only turned out to be a pioneer in a range of organic foods, nutraceutical, and critical medical diets for rare genetic disorders, it is also the only Indian Company recognized by the Food Safety & Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) amongst only 5 companies all over the world to address Inborn Error Metabolism issues as a part of the organization’s Diet4Life campaign; Pristine Organics provides specific designer diets to patients suffering from IEM.
Raghu wants to bring back the rich Indian staple foods which have been long forgotten and re-introduce them in the Indian diet. His path-breaking work in the field of food and nutrition truly makes him a food revolutionary — one of the drivers of India’s Organic Food Revolution. And after Pristine Organics celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, Raghu is expanding its footprint farther — into the Europe and US markets.
Join us as we chat with K Raghu, Founder-Director of Pristine Organics Pvt Ltd. He speaks about setting up Pristine, the vision behind it, its growth and achievements over the years, and more. This is the man who has a library of 38,000 books, and when it comes to work, has a forever dream. “Our dream is to improve the health of people and planet through a holistic approach to food and nutrition,” he says. “A journey that we know is forever.”
Pristine is a food and nutrition company, focused on health and well-being of people without harming the planet. The company was established 25 years ago with a focus on nutrition and organic food.
Since inception, Pristine has focused on organic foods and nutrition supplements that can fill the deficits and gaps in one’s daily diet. We are also the largest manufacturer of organic baby food in India, with more than 90% market share in this space.
We are a private company, with an annual turnover of about Rs. 75 Crores. Our organic food products are available via large e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, as well as offline channels.
How did you start with the company? What was the idea behind it?
Back in the early 1990s, I was working extensively in the domain of food R&D. I had just completed graduation and had worked for a little while as a scientist at one of the leading research institutes in India before starting a small lab that was involved in this domain. In this company, we researched extensively into mycotoxins and other critical food issues. And during this research, I realized the extent of the issues in the Indian food industry. There was a massive gap in awareness and understanding of food safety in India, and I thought that this would be a growing concern in the coming years since there was not much conversation about it. The topic was typically explored at a superficial level. I believed that the awareness and research in this domain had to start from the farm to be effective. Hence, Pristine Organics was born, visualizing the health gaps, the future requirements, and with the aim of producing products as per those needs.
I have a post-graduation degree in science. I have run a food journal and been an editor for the food and nutrition world for a few years. I have also worked as an analyst and in product development before starting my own company.
I’ve always been interested in food science and have more than three decades of experience in critical nutritional solutions, formulations and safe organic food productions.
Do you come from a family of entrepreneur or professionals? If professionals, how did you get the idea to begin with such a company?
Food science has been of interest to me most of my life. I am from Chikmagalur, and food has been at the core of a lot of my thoughts. Pristine’s vision is to be a company that is a true expert in food technology, looking towards the future.
It was not a conscious thought of being an entrepreneur that pushed me to start a company. It was about the existing gap and the quest to find the answers.
As a salaried individual, how did you find the resources and courage to start on your own?
My conviction was, if your ends are clear, the means would follow. ‘Startups’ wasn’t really a thing way back in the 90s when I started my company. It was my thirst for knowledge that led to the establishment of the company. It was the desire to share more information, to create awareness and looking towards the future that created the vision behind Pristine today.
Pristine’s vision is to be a company that is a true expert in food technology, looking towards the future. We have never compromised with the conviction and basic philosophy of the company. As technology advances further today, there are also several issues related to our health and nutrition that get ignored. We need constant research to address these issues.
Our knowledge has been very useful in tackling serious health crisis with people affected with HIV+, severe malnutrition and people whose immunity is compromised.
We work extensively with the Centre for Human Genetics to identify and help children suffering from Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM). IEM is a genetic disease wherein the infant is unable to naturally synthesize essential compounds, leading to the buildup of toxins in the body that leads to death. These infants and children need a different food that must be specially formulated.
We work with CHG to identify these cases, educate doctors and families of the patients, as well as formulate these foods. We are the only Indian company in this space. Our work in this space was recently recognized by FSSAI when they established the Diet4Life initiative.
What are your growth plans for the company? Where do you see it 5 years from now? How do you foster innovation in your company?
We just turned 25 years this year and it has been a fantastic journey thus far. Looking down the road, in 5 years, we would be a 500-crore company across all our portfolios.
We strongly believe that Innovation doesn’t happen within the four walls of a laboratory. It should be deeply embedded in socioeconomic and ecological concerns as well. We work with people and organizations at various levels to inspire and educate, as well as innovate within our organization.
There are two focal points of the company: One is on organic food – daily staples, baby food etcetera, where we work with various farmers and farmer communities directly. Unlike the devitalized food in the market today, we provide minimally processed diverse foods which are beneficial for the people and our planet.
The other part is on food R&D wherein we create nutrition supplements for rare genetic disorders such as Inborn Errors of Metabolism. To name a few — PKU, Maple Syrup Urine Disorder, Homocystinuria, Lipid and Carbohydrate Metabolism Disorders, etcetera, to improve their clinical outcomes.
As I mentioned, we are the first and only Indian company that provides critical Inborn Errors of Metabolism (IEM) diets for infants and children. Through our proficiency in this sphere for over two decades, we have honed our skills in providing nutritional support for individuals who require such steadfast care, from infancy to adulthood. In fact, we are the sole providers of such critical nutritional supplements and are responsible for saving 500+ lives in India so far.
We work with various hospitals and doctors and these products are all developed in-house at Pristine as required.
The company’s product range also includes nutraceuticals, functional foods, medical and metabolic diets, and pediatric supplements. With over two decades of experience in research and development, the company is focused on tackling nutritional problems that is prevalent in our society.
Recently, we have created formulae for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cancer, Cancer care, Alzheimer’s care, a B12 Supplement for cardiac health and more.
Do you also help farmers with scientific guides and insights from your own scientific knowledge about farming techniques? How do you contribute to those people and their lives?
Farmers are very integral to our food community and to what we are doing, and of course, to our vision. Naturally, we have a close relationship with farmers. Farmers face several challenges — not just in selling the produce, but also in ensuring the quality and quantity is maintained and is sustainable.
Natural causes like droughts and floods also cause an imbalance.
We work extensively with farmers and help with low-input farming techniques, which is a form of sustainable agriculture that benefits the farmers greatly. We also help them to source seeds of rare biodiversity.
We also facilitate exchange programs between farmers that helps in knowledge transfer.
Do you grow the products or buy them from a different individual?
We source the products from farmers.
At Pristine, we truly believe in the goodness of food. It is not enough that food tastes good; it should also be nutritious and sustainable. Conservation and sustainability begin with what is on our plate – and that’s the ethos that we communicate with all our products. There is considerable attention to detail starting from the sourcing of products, quality checks, packaging and storage of the products. We also have a team of nutritionists who advise on related topics. Plus we have an extensive pool of recipes shared on our website, since people are rediscovering forgotten foods and like to experiment with the same.
You are basically a B2B business. How much of e-sales for end-consumers do you use?
The B2B Model is only on one segment of the company. The retailing of our organic food products happens via B2C channels.
However, for the other segment where we are developing products for rare genetic conditions, ketogenic diets etc. – this must be done in consultation with medical professionals. These are not products that should be brought off the shelf and consumed. These are delicate conditions that must be monitored and treated properly.
However, in the case of IEM and other conditions, once diagnosed, the products are given directly to the consumer monitored by the consulting physician or dietitian.
How much do you really know about your end customer’s demographics since there are the hospitals between you and your customers? Don’t you need consumer feedback to upgrade your offerings? And for marketing?
In the B2C segment, we encourage feedback via in-shop communication. They can also communicate via our social media channels or our website.
For the other segments, we are constantly in touch with the stakeholders and work in partnership with them.
We have various channels of marketing, including social media, digital marketing, offline marketing campaigns.
What has been your growth like since 1992? The challenges faced?
It has been an interesting journey. A lot of learning through the years. We’ve seen the evolution of the way food is consumed and the changes in perception. We’ve lived through the times that food was an essential part of our life, to the mass awareness of fast food, the return of the love for organic food and the rising awareness of various health conditions.
The challenges faced have always been the same – creating awareness about issues that matter related to food, farming and sustainability.
You started Pristine Organics when, as you told me, ‘startups were not even a thing’. Considering your great success, I want to ask you for advice to others aspiring to start something today.
As Mark Twain once humorously said, ‘To be a successful businessman, you need confidence and ignorance’. I also remember what Somerset Maugham said — that there are three ways of writing a novel, but nobody knows them.
I believe it is important that the desire to start something of your own should have stemmed from deep within, and not have been imposed upon you. And then, you need to have the courage of conviction.