Updated: Jul 27, 2021
Dr. Satya Tapas returned to India to start a venture in healthcare, but soon saw an opportunity to help smallholder farmers grow more resilient and high-margin crops
With a fruiting hybrid coconut tree which is dwarf, high yielding and early flowering
Dr. Satya Tapas has a background in healthcare with a PhD in biochemistry from IIT, and initially returned to India from where he had been working in Germany to start an AI healthcare venture in 2015 – not expecting to eventually also start an enterprise focused on coconuts. However, one day after a particularly strong storm, Tapas was traveling to Puri and realized that the whole area had sustained damage from the storm, including all of the crops that smallholder farmers were growing. As he saw firsthand the extend of the damage and starting thinking about ways he could help, he noticed that the only crop that seemed to have survived everywhere was the coconut tree. There was also a huge demand in the market for coconut products, Tapas realized, ranging from coconut oil and coconut milk to coconut sugar and desiccated coconuts. “I didn’t have any plan to start a business in coconuts,” he explains, “but it started accidentally when I realized the fundamental problem, and saw a huge market opportunity there. I had a solution and I had the motivation.”
"I had a solution and I had the motivation.”
There are three main advantages to growing coconuts over other types of crops, Tapas explains. “First, they have yields throughout the year – not just seasonal. Second, there is this huge demand for coconut products. Third, and most importantly, coconut trees are generally drought, storm, and cyclone resistant.” Tapas officially founded Cocoter in 2018, focusing on hybrid crops which start yielding fruit sooner, are easier to harvest, and are sturdier in storms. The company now has its own plantation and works with local farmers, providing financial security by offering end-to-end support and signing agreements to purchase coconuts that meet quality requirements at nearly twice the price farmers were receiving from local vendors.
Farmer awareness programme for farmers who were affected by the Fani cyclone
Starting Cocoter was slow going in the beginning. Farmers are often hesitant to take risks on new crops and varieties, and initially, it took the company almost four months to sell 50 seedlings. As they started creating awareness, mainly through word of mouth, they started getting more interest, and now have 3,000 orders for the coming month. “From fifty to three thousand we scaled aggressively,” Tapas says. Manush Labs was also a key partner in helping Cocoter scale. “Initially, I wasn't sure if we were ready for funding. But I realized we had been selected, and went through all these processes, and that we could be ready to scale.” Part of what Manush Labs helped the company think through was both what to focus on as well as what NOT to focus on. The accelerator helped the company make changes to its business model, and they are now focused on fundraising in order to reach more farmers and expand to additional states. (Cocoter currently works in Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Assam, in addition to Odisha, where the company was founded.)
“Water, storms, pest attacks – those challenges are all there.”
Recent plantation drive in Odisha during rain season
Any type of farming is not without risk, and coconuts are no different. “Water, storms, pest attacks – those challenges are all there,” Tapas says. The farmers they work with may have other challenges such as soil quality, which are largely out of Cocoter’s control. Focusing on single crops can also introduce risks related to a lack of biodiversity, something Tapas is careful to keep in mind as the company continues to invest in R&D and partner with companies and organizations finding innovative solutions. In the long run, he and his team are excited about the opportunity and the impact it has the potential to create, from increasing farmer income to providing nutritious food.
“The farming community talks about this and gets motivated. This is not just planting trees, this is important for community. That motivates people in my team, and they work hard, and are excited. They are passionate about agriculture and that helps me a lot.”
Meeting with a landowner to start plantation drive on bare and neglected land