Some time in the summer of 2021, as Covid raged across India, the ice-apple season started. Normally, these glistening, translucent, perfectly-shaped pebbles of coolness (yes, I’m channeling my inner Nigella) are handily peeled and sold on neighbourhood handcarts, but the pandemic had decimated street vendors.
When the founders of Living Food Company, a digital marketplace for sustainable food and the leader of Bangalore’s new wave of vegan warriors, spotted a solitary soul selling ice-apples, they had a Eureka moment. They asked him where he had sourced his fruit. “My village,” he replied
“Nungu [in Karnataka, Tadgola in Maharashtra], available in April, May, and June, is such a delicate food you cannot store it,” says Akash Sajith, one of three co-founders of LFC. Their team drove to the Tamil Nadu village named after the palm trees that bear this fruit and which is located just 70 kilometres from LFC’s Bangalore office. They negotiated a higher-than-market price with the villager
Villagers would harvest the fruit and ferry it in tractors to LFC’s Bangalore office by 4 am, where they would help the company clean and process the fruit. At 6 am it would be sent to customers who had placed orders. “The next village has jackfruit, why don’t you help them too,” one villager told LFC. That’s how jackfruit and jamuns too became LFC offerings.
The idea for LFC was concretised in 2017 when a tragedy, a PhD, and like-minded friendship all came together.
That year, Sajith’s parents were diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. “They were cliched south Indians—they were vegetarian, did yoga, went for long daily walks, paid extra to shop organic,” he says. “Why them?”
As he started doing the rounds of oncology departments, it became clear that food and water contamination was a common cause of cancer in the country. “Nobody tells you where your food comes from or what it contains. You have zero information about what you put into your body. You have more information when you buy clothes,” says Sajith, who lost his father in 2019.
He discussed this with his friend and co-worker Niranjan KS and his former neighbour Shikha Lakhanpal. Lakhanpal had completed her PhD in Climate Change Mitigation and Sustainability from the United States and was looking to utilise her expertise on something other than teaching.
The trio launched LFC with their first offering, a subscription for microgreens, known for their cancer-fighting properties—and grown in Akash’s apartment. “We YouTubed how to start a vertical climate-controlled hydroponic farm.”
Both the male founders had an e-commerce background and understood the value of habit-forming subscriptions. LFC logged 500 subscriptions in the first six months through their Instagram account, and the trio knew they must be doing something right.
The next step? They asked customers what else they wanted. The answer was almost unanimous: Bread, free of chemicals and preservatives. This time, instead of YouTubing a D.I.Y., the company contacted craft bakers and tied up with them to offer subscriptions
Now LFC services 30,000 households and sells 650 products on its website (ranging from vegan cakes and aquaponic/hydroponic vegetables to Pappullu Podi, and Makaibari tea), many of them sourced from 40 or so partners in a marketplace model.
The company sells their greens wrapped in banana leaf, and partners with local farms so the fresh harvest reaches customers within hours. “We are focused on building very short, crisp supply chains,” says Lakhanpal. They use the tagline ‘Insanely Fresh’ to market this idea.
Whether it’s tying up with chef Monika Manchanda to recreate the magic of Kanji or working till midnight to pack orders of Palada Payasam for Onam, the foragers (as they like to think of themselves) are constantly on the lookout for the best local brands and ideas.
Arjun C, who began to experiment with fermentation after a trip to Germany in 2016 and then started producing Kombucha in beer-like amber bottles, partnered with LFC three years ago. “Our ideologies of producing and delivering clean, healthy, fresh food matched,” says Arjun who started with 100-150 bottles a month and now sells about 4,000-5,000 bottles. A majority of his sales come via LFC.
LFC’s popularity was visible at the recent Namu Recommends vegan fair in Bangalore where the company got a larger, prime spot, near the entrance.
As LFC grew, it found funders such as venture capital firm Amasia, the company’s lead investor. Now that they are no longer struggling entrepreneurs, they are moving to a larger office where half the space will be dedicated to encouraging in-house production by their partners, many of whom started out as home chefs. “This is one of the biggest blocks to scaling,” says Sajith, explaining the why of an in-house kitchen
Small entrepreneurs who partner with the platform will have access to a fully-equipped and staffed commercial kitchen plus help to digitise their business. “At scale, we should be able to bring down pricing so more people can afford this food,” says Sajith.
Meanwhile, the foragers have a new passion: Mock meat and mushrooms. “The mushroom is one of the healthiest, tastiest foods in the world, but 90 percent of what you get in the market is the tasteless button mushroom. Shitake mushrooms are so expensive. How can that be when it only requires moisture to grow?” says Sajith. “So now we want to sell all the mushrooms and price them as low as button mushrooms