Gitesh Aggarwal, the brain behind Sewan canteens, is betting big on nutritional, yet pocket-friendly food offerings for the underprivileged with the objective of creating India’s largest affordable food platform
Gitesh Aggarwal is working towards building Sewan Foods, India’s largest chain of women-run home-cooked food canteens. His for-profit social impact venture recently tied up with the Delhi Skills and Entrepreneurship University, one of the bigger projects of the Delhi government, to help establish 20 women-led canteens in their campuses. In an exclusive interview, Aggarwal recalls how Tamil Nadu’s Amma canteens inspired him, the life lessons he picked up in school that helped him become a great public speaker and ignited his love for the social impact sector and why assigning nutritional value to economical food is of paramount importance. Edited excerpts:
When did you get the idea of launching Sewan Foods? Was it during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic?
Actually, the thought for Sewan Foods came before the pandemic struck. It was in 2019 while I was working for the management consultancy firm called Sattva. After completing my school education at Apeejay, I graduated from Jamia Millia Islamia University with a degree in mechanical engineering. During my engineering studies, one thing was clear in my head: I wanted to work in a sector that focused on social impact. That is why I opted for the Young India Fellowship programme at Ashoka University and not any other conventional programme, or campus placement. Because of my experience at Jamia and during my fellowship, my decision to work in the impact sector was strengthened further. Soon after graduating from the fellowship batch, I got a job with Sattva, a social impact management consulting firm, which provides consulting services to NGOs, foundations and CSR programmes or anybody else in the impact sector who wants programme implementation, monitoring and management. When I say players in the impact sector, I mean NGOs and others who directly impact people’s lives. Akshay Patra, for instance, provides free meals to 16 lakh schoolkids every day. This is the kind of impact that appealed to me rather than working in an MNC firm wherein I would have been maximising the money of my employers. That was the basic motivation. Even during my consulting job I wasn’t able to touch the lives of people at a personal or direct level. Around that time, in 2019, my company sent me to Chennai on an assignment where I came across the phenomenon of Amma canteens for the first time.
How did the functioning of the chain of Amma canteens inspire you?
Amma canteens are part of a state-level programme of the Tamil Nadu government started in 2011 wherein they provide meals free of cost or at a very nominal price to those who can’t afford to have a meal at a restaurant or even street food. I was fascinated with the concept, because there are 700 canteens across Tamil Nadu that are feeding thousands of people, especially those who don’t have any money, even to eat. Plus, they were providing nutritious meals, taking care of the nutrition part and not just feeding anything to the poor. They could have given it for free but they were charging a nominal amount, say Rs 1 or Rs 3. I was really inspired by the idea since nothing like that existed in Delhi. Although we have Jan Aahaar centres in which one can get a meal for Rs 20, I thought that maybe this could be implemented on a national level. At that point, I thought that I could experiment with food and add some impact angle to it.
Why is attaching some value to the food, however nominal, so important?
I feel that is important because India is one of those countries in which we have high levels of malnourishment and even if you talk about cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, almost 70% of their citizens are deficient in proteins or essential vitamins. This is because the kind of diet we take is just not good enough. Our diet lacks basic nutrients. That’s because many of us rely on fast food to fill our bellies. I’ll give you an example, a lot of people near my office have just one Vada Pav for lunch. Sure, one can fill one’s stomach with that for about Rs 10, but that is not adding any nutrition. It is almost as good as being hungry. That was why I thought just filling the stomach of underprivileged people wasn’t enough: we need to add nutrition as well, even if it comes from daal-chawal, or roti sabzi, or poori sabzi. When I launched Sewan Foods in February 2020, we initially thought we would work in the impact sector and our core proposition would be to resolve the hunger problem in India through affordable food.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey.
After coming back from Chennai, I resigned from my job, built a sustainable business model and registered my company. When we started, I was just a 23-year-old kid with little idea of how to develop business models. One of the interesting things was that despite my fascination with the social impact sector, we still decided to build a for-profit venture and not an NGO that is dependent on grants. We had a very clear vision that it would be a for-profit social venture with a central focus on food and hunger. Along with my co-founders Chaitanya and Himanshu, we started with our first Sewan canteen in Mehrauli in South Delhi, managed by women serving meals for as low as Rs 20 rupees. We were providing full meal thalis comprising Idli, dosa and sambhar etc with a good amount of nutrition in them. These meals were priced at least Rs 10 less than the market average.
Which were the beneficiaries that you were targeting, to begin with?
When we began we had 3-4 target beneficiaries in mind: One, daily wage or migrant workers, the second category was students from low-income backgrounds and thirdly, salesmen and people who roam in the city on foot, looking for work or selling products and had a family to feed. Such a person would find it difficult to even afford a meal priced at Rs 50. For them street food or an affordable meal pack may work best. Once we started, our venture grew steadily between February and October 2020. Even during the pandemic, we were able to find work. We were establishing canteens in industrial belts across Delhi and Manesar. But our team lacked the experience and knowledge required to build a for-profit business venture. We were creating an impact but also spending crazily. Our idea of spending more meals to cover our running costs didn’t work out. We had reached about 5 canteens by October but after that, three of them closed down. Partly it was because of Covid and partly because of bad business modelling and projections. That is why we changed our business model from the asset-heavy approach of establishing physical canteens. Our challenge was to keep prices low and at the same time create a market for affordable food. We came in touch with a few good mentors such as Mr Ujwal Thakar, the former CEO of Pratham, one of India’s largest NGOs in the elementary education space. We also got an angel investor, a senior guy in MakeMyTrip, who funded us for some time and is currently mentoring us. Thanks to their mentorship, we were able to structure our venture as a for-profit entity. At present, we are building India’s largest affordable food platform. In our news business model, Sewan just handles the supply chain of food. We don’t invest in building physical infrastructure for food any longer. This has cut our expenses significantly.
How does your new business model work on the ground?
Through our online venture, we are tying up with hundreds of NGOs, foundations, organisations, factories and offices that need affordable food. For instance, the Honda plant in Manesar needed affordable food solutions for their security personnel. We are providing the same to them.
We recently partnered with the Delhi Skills and Entrepreneurship University, one of the bigger projects of the Delhi government. They want us to establish 20 women-led canteens on their campuses. We ourselves are not establishing those canteens, but we are basically creating entrepreneurs out of it. Say there are 20 women from underprivileged backgrounds, looking to establish their own entities. We are providing them with a platform on the Delhi University campus and for the food solution, we will be providing them with all the meals so that all they do is sell the food. Also, we have recently partnered with 3 NGOs in Delhi and each of them will procure around 2000 meals from us. We would be facilitating that. The innovation over here is that rather than building our own capability in building these kitchens, we are partnering with existing kitchens. Say a school or an NGO has an existing kitchen. We simply ask them to cook 1000 meal packs for us at Rs 12 per meal pack. Their cost price is Rs 10 and on every meal, they make a profit of Rs 2.
Please tell us something about your school days. How has your schooling helped you in life?
The experience was quite good, especially with respect to my fellow students and faculty members who guided me. Particularly, the then principal, Anita Paul Ma’am. She was a great leader who helped us inculcate good habits that would last us a lifetime. Apart from that, a number of teachers were very supportive. These include teachers who were phenomenal in shaping our personalities.
Initially, I was very scared of public speaking. I was very, very bad at it, to begin with. That was one of the good habits I could acquire only because my teachers worked really hard on that. They egged me on and encouraged me to go on the stage and speak and even participate in the school elections. That was why I became a Prefect in school. Also, I was Vice President of the Interact Club at school and I did a lot of community service which helped shape my resolve to venture into the impact sector when I grew up.