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Inspired by California’s vibrant food scene while at USC, alumna Shriya Naheta formed Zama Organics which delivers fresh, organic produce to thousands of customers across India. [5¾ min read]Late spring in India brings the harvesting of karela, a knobbly, green gourd much prized in Indian cooking for its distinctive, bitter flavor. Muskmelon, mangoes and lychees are also in season, and green peas flood the market.
These days, many of these crops are raised using large-scale farming techniques and pesticides. But down rutted, dirt roads, tucked into remote corners across India, some small farmers still grow produce the old way — chemical-free, with close attention to the local ecosystem.
In more remote areas, alumna Shriya Naheta says, farmers have been practicing organic techniques for generations — even if they have never heard of the term. India’s appetite for organic products is also on the rise. According to a 2020 USDA report, India’s organic food sector is expected to reach $10.25 billion by 2025.
Despite these stunning projections, connecting producers and consumers still presents many challenges, given the inaccessibility of the farms and the farmers’ lack of opportunity to market their crops.
Naheta, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2015 with a degree in international relations, founded Zama Organics to help fill that gap. Her business now acts as the intermediary between 50,000 small farms and thousands of eager customers across India.
Her undergraduate years spent in the organic food haven of Southern California, where she shopped regularly at the farmers market on USC’s University Park campus, planted the first seeds of inspiration for her business.
“(The USC Dornsife course ‘Gender and Global Issues’) taught me to think out of the box, which is one of the best skills I could have acquired as an entrepreneur.
THE FOOD GENE
Naheta grew up in Mumbai, India, in a multigenerational family of 20 in which a passion for food seemed almost an inheritable trait. Her mother, Rajkumari Naheta, turned her passion for baking into a successful catering company and Naheta’s sister, Aditi Dugar, runs the city’s Masque, listed as one of Asia’s top restaurants in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
Naheta baked alongside her mother, tested recipes with her sister and helped in cooking classes. “I’ve known my mom’s cake recipe since I was a toddler,” says Naheta.
She was also bitten early on by the entrepreneurial bug, inspired by her mother and by her father, Sudhir Naheta, who runs an antique jewelry business.
“I was lucky to grow up in an extremely entrepreneurial and open-minded household with very supportive parents,” says Naheta. They indulged her creativity and her interest in developing business ventures that could also benefit others.
“We used to do small drives for charity, selling handmade cards or setting up a lemonade stand. I was always trying to come up with ideas,” she says.
BOLLYWOOD TO HOLLYWOOD
Naheta originally attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts for her undergraduate degree but a spring break visit to her best friend, who was attending USC, changed her trajectory. The bright, bustling sprawl of Los Angeles, studded with palm trees, felt instantly familiar.
“Both Los Angeles and Mumbai are on the west coast, one is home to Bollywood and the other to Hollywood and they both have great food. These are two cities I can call home,” says Naheta. “I immediately worked on transferring to USC and it’s the best decision I ever made.”
In 2013, she arrived on campus as a junior.
Her time as a Trojan helped prepare her for running a business. She cites the course “Gender and Global Issues,” taught by Jessica Peet of international relations, as a particular inspiration.
“It taught me to think out of the box, which is one of the best skills I could have acquired as an entrepreneur,” says Naheta. At USC Dornsife, she was also able to network with stars of the business world, such as billionaire investor Mark Cuban, whom she met when he came tocampus to give a talk.
Zama Organics sources produce from farms across India that still grow fruits and vegetables the old-fashioned way.
THE GOOD EARTH
Soaking in California’s vibrant food scene, which celebrates fresh produce, farm-to-table and organic food, also inspired Naheta. USC’s farmers market, which takes over McCarthy Quad each week, introduced her to the great abundance of organic fruit and vegetables that small farms are capable of producing.
After graduating from USC Dornsife, Naheta returned to India where she tagged along as her sister hunted for organic farms that could supply fruit and vegetables to her restaurant. The duo crisscrossed the country, stopping at farms in Pune and Nashik in the state of Maharashtra in western India, Shimla in the Himalayan foothills to the north and Bengalaru in the southern state of Karnataka. The experience opened Naheta’s eyes to India’s agricultural potential.
“It was amazing to see the variety of produce across India’s topography. I didn’t think that produce like high-quality romaine lettuce, arugula or kale could be grown here,” she says.
Small farmers often didn’t have the means to market their organic goods or lacked official paperwork. Seeing a need for a conduit between India’s remote organic farms and customers who were increasingly demanding farm-to-table food, Naheta launched Zama Organics in 2016.
Naheta coordinates pickups of produce from her network of small farms and then sells these goods via the Zama Organics website. Her business sources tea from Assam, pineapples from Moodabidri and olives for olive oil from Rajasthan. Indigenous farmers supply morel mushrooms and salt. WhatsApp is the favored communication platform between farmers and Zama employees, a buzz of messages flying from field to office.
Naheta started with just two employees and her business has since grown to 50 workers. “Our total revenue from our first year of operations was less than our current monthly revenue,” she says. “It’s crazy to look back and see where it all started.”
Building the business has posed challenges at times. Transporting produce from rural parts of India, which lack reliable roads, required painstaking logistics and the recruitment of a complex network of locals to help facilitate deliveries. COVID-19 struck a blow as restaurants and retailers slowed down or halted orders completely.
However, for Naheta, the positives outweigh the negatives. The pandemic helped to normalize online food orders and brought in a new set of customers eager for healthy produce to boost their immune systems. And Naheta sees her sustainable business model as the fruition of her childhood dream.
“No matter what we do, we’re impacting lives,” she says. “That’s true for the farmers we work with, our delivery drivers and packers who are mostly blue-collar or migrant workers, and the well-being of our customers.”
Eventually, Naheta hopes to bring organic Indian foods to the international market. She’s already in talks to supply products to the Middle East. “There is a definite global demand and that’s very exciting,” she says.
Organic turmeric, figs or raspberries, grown on small, family-owned farms in India and brought to market by a USC Dornsife alumna, could be coming soon to a shelf near you.
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