Soulfull works on the idea that millets are healthy and that Ragi contains all the nutrients that is efficient to consume especially at the time of breakfast. Prashant Parameswaram came to Indian in the 2000 after noticing the great potential that the markets are exploring in the healthy food sector. As the markets started to expand, he wanted to explore the idea of using Ragi, the ancient millet to produce products for creating health benefits as the market for healthy and tasty consumption is expanding by the hour. His eyes for looking into details introduced Soulfull, a ragi-dominant product brand. He shares his insights on how it is essential to consume Ragi and why have the people forgotten it. Moreover, he tells how new ideas can be explored and nurtured to build a dream.
1. What motivated you to start this business?
I have always been interested in functional healthy foods. Back in early 2000s when I was working in the US, the US health and wellness market had started to pick up. I saw great potential in healthy breakfast cereals and lack of options for consumers. People wanted healthy options that would keep them fuller for longer. Spotting the gap in the market, and consumers’ inclination to go back to their roots, I saw a great opportunity in traditional grain, millets. I returned to Karnataka, which is a leading state for millet cultivation to incorporate Kottaram Agro Foods in June 2011. From 2012-end, we started to sell cereals made of millet under the brand name ‘Soulfull’.
2. How daunting were these challenges to finally make a successful millet-based food brand in India?
India has a variety of superfoods, including millets, however, with time people have lost knowledge on the benefits and importance of them. People also perceived millets to be tasteless, and hence it arose the need for us to first educate them. The apprehension about the taste of millet also meant that we had to work harder to sell our product and ensure that the taste is right. Soulfull, thus developed products catering to needs, lifestyle and tastebuds of the current generation offering healthy, convenient and tasty snacking. Additionally, we did a lot of research and development work on sorghum and jowar, but it had a lot of issues like low shelf-life. That’s when I met Dr. MNG Malleshi, former Head of Grain Technology, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, who advised me to try Ragi as an option and that is where my journey started!
3. In 2011 when Soulfull was introduced in the Indian market, the idea of healthy and tasty was not in vogue. How do you look back journey? Were you ahead of time?
Back in the early 2000s when the idea started brewing in my head, the US health and wellness market had just picked up and it was a gut feeling that India will pick up as well sooner or later. We were definitely ahead of time as most brands then weren’t health focused. There was a lot of research and development work that went behind making the products and ensuring our products were not just healthy but tasty as well. It has been a long and rewarding journey for the brand as today we see ourselves established in an ever-growing market where health with taste has more importance than ever.
4. Why did you choose to start with ragi?
Millets are one of the best traditional Indian grains. Ragi also knows as a super-grain, has proven qualities to lower cholesterol, manage weight, be good for diabetics and many more such benefits. Ragi is a star grain and way more nutritionally dense than wheat and rice. Interestingly, it takes 3000-5000 litres for 1kg of paddy but only 250-300 litres for Ragi, making it a more sustainable choice. While Ragi is in great demand around the world, over the years, the demand for it has dipped in India. We did a lot of research and development work on millets and drew up a portfolio with Ragi. We offer products like Ragi Flakes, that has 100 percent Ragi in them with no fortification.
5. You have also named the whole grains under the names of superheroes. Was it a conscious decision to position your brand?
Yes, it was a conscious decision to position the brand as millets are superfoods. They are super healthy; they check most nutrition boxes and they are very good for the environment at the same time. We wanted the consumers to know through the positioning that what they are consuming is no less than a superhero.
6. Millet is a whole grain, which makes the sieving process a necessary stage while reaping the crops. What steps have you taken to lessen human-contact or increase hygiene while food, processing and packaging?
We had a complete restart post the lockdown due to COVID-19 where we had reimagined our operations with a stringent SOP both at our production facilities and our offices by putting together a COVID manual. We had planned staggered manpower at our packing and processing facility with increased frequency of sanitation at our shop floors, pantry area and administrative office at the plant. We had trained our personnel on mandatory adherence to social distancing, masks, hand hygiene and health check-ups before one comes to work across all work-spaces.
7. Soulfull has emphasized on the multiple benefits provided by the whole grains infused in its products. How are you differentiating from the competing brands in the same segment?
We invested a lot in research right from the start and continue to do so to offer healthy and tasty products to our consumers. We set-up India’s largest Consumer Foods Millet facility in the last 1 year to enable a full-fledged R&D and innovation capability in-house to increase efficiencies. Being the innovator of the millet-based category snacks, it is the consumer-centric approach and 360-degree marketing strategy that gives us competitive edge to expand and occupy the ever-growing market. As for the product benefits, we are ensuring that there is no Maida, no preservative and nothing artificial that goes in our products. Our no-nasty policy and a differentiated millet-based product range gives us that competitive edge and differentiation in the category.
8. How is the healthy food segment in India growing? Where do you see your company in the next five years?
With the era of the pandemic, the need and demand for the healthy food segment has become more significant than ever. Indian consumers are prioritizing health as a necessity and not just a lifestyle choice. With most people sitting at home, and the rise of sedentary lifestyle overall, the need for healthy snacking is scaling. Consumer-centricity in the heart of Soulfull and we see us growing with a strong audience base year on year. We are increasing our investments to augment our category share and looking at deepening our presence in regional markets over the next 5 years.
9. What are the thoughts behind launching these products in the overseas market?
We are currently focusing on expanding in India and are continuously working on products that are healthy and tasty.
10. What is your advice to start-ups? Can you tell us three blind spots that must be careful of?
There are a lot of challenges that one faces when one starts a business, but limiting or restricting yourself will only slow down your process to achieve your dreams. Firstly, do not focus on profitability, believe in your idea and invest in it- money and time, both. When we started Soulfull, we invested heavily in research and development, thus making a product that would reap benefits in the long run. Secondly, overconfidence and thirdly, the attitude of micromanaging can sometimes make you focus your energies on minute things over larger issues that you need to manage to grow your business.