Millets and Youth Entrepreneurship: The Vasena Poli Story
Updated: Nov 2, 2019
I met Sudheer briefly when he drove down from Visakhapatnam to Anakapalle to source millets from Manyam Grains the new millet processing unit in Northern Andhra Pradesh. Later that evening Srinivas shared the YouTube video of Vasena Poli in a street food channel and we were encouraged to try out millets idli and speak to Sudheer about his story. Sudheer is a post graduate in economics from Nagarjuna University and was quite keen on pursuing organic farming. He was unable to make much headway in evoking interest in the Guntur and Krishna districts. Sudheer likes traveling on his bike and he spent two years in northern Andhra, including many tribal tracts, interacting with farmers and understanding both the strengths of millets and possible reasons for its decline. He felt that the naturally organic and rain-fed nature of millets fitted well with his organic vision. The only challenge was to find ways to reach it to urban consumers.
What followed was some systematic research on nutrition with some inputs from faculty at Andhra University and the millet research centre but an intensive phase of experimentation. He refused to watch YouTube videos on making the batter and wanted to work from first principles. He was keen to bring out a unique product with a unique flavour and taste. Rather than compete with existing products he created a new market space by selling only millet idlis made from either finger millet (Ragi), sorghum (jonna), kodo millet (areka), fox-tail (kora). A typical plate would have three idlis that could be a combination of any of these or also a multi-millet idli. His research had indicated that people in coastal Andhra has a different name for millets and hence Vasena Poli, a name that rings a bell with many above the age of 70.
Sudheer’s meticulousness is reflected not just in the special way the batter is prepared but also in the way it is presented. The conical shaped idlis are wrapped in a leaf that he procures from the tribal areas of Paderu and a tooth pick holds the leaf and the batter together as it is cooked. The flavour of the leaf passes on to the idli. When Sudheer started selling the idlis at Lawson’s Bay colony in Vizag near the beach, it attracted several customers. A complaint by a local resident on the increased traffic due to Sudheer and a few other’s stall led to a sudden eviction by the municipal authorities. Sudheer had built a loyal customer base by then comprising largely of young office-going staff. Not to be defeated he offered his products through the delivery chain Swiggy’s. We were witness to the constant stream of orders that he got while we were having our dinner.
Sudheer has plans for growth and wants to hire a permanent space for Vasena Poli. He intends scaling up his activities once he is able to establish his business and explore multiple locations. Sudheer’s story is an inspiring story of a youngster’s commitment, dedication and innovation. He is grounded, soft-spoken and clear about his goals. A small dose of working capital, perhaps crowdsourced, could help him stabilise his business. His own enterprise has several insights on entrepreneurship for the youth of India today who are otherwise dazzled by the latest technology or keen to add another app to help farmers. With a millet revival looming large in different parts of India there is a need for several entrepreneurs like Sudheer who could shape the supply chain. India has rightly declared 2018 as the national year of millets to bring attention to the healthy, nutritious and climate resilient nature of these small millets across many rainfed areas. With increased production by farmers, there is also a need for young agri-entrepreneurs like Sudheer who could shape the millet ecosystem.
The next time you visit Vizag do try out the tasty millet idlis from Vasena Poli and spread the word. A young reporter whom I met at a function from Times of India covered Sudheer’s story even as many others were keen to follow up on Chittem Sudheer’s story.
Here's the link to the story which was later published in The Hindu on 10th July 2019.