[BtS] Thirukumaran Nagarajan on Growth and Supply Chain @ Ninjacart

[BtS] Thirukumaran Nagarajan on Growth and Supply Chain @ Ninjacart

This article is part of Behind the Scene series by StartupTalky where we bring you the insights on how a company operates at ground level.
Source ~ from the horse's mouth that is as told by the founders, core management.

Ninjacart is Bengaluru based India’s largest B2B fresh produce supply chain company. It is a pioneer in solving one of the toughest supply chain problems of the world by leveraging innovative technology. Their high-quality and hygienically handled fresh produce ensures healthy food to consumers, with a promise of delivery within 12 hours!

Founded by Ashutosh Vikram, Kartheeswaran KK, Sharath Loaganathan, Sachin Jose, Thirukumaran Nagarajan and Vasudevan Chinnathambi in 2015, Ninjacart has successfully built a tech-enabled supply chain for fresh farm produce, delivering over 1,400 tons of fruits and vegetables daily. Ninjacart has become India's one of the largest Fresh Produce Supply Chain platform.

StartupTalky interviewed Thirukumaran Nagarajan (Co-founder & CEO of Ninjacart) to get insights on how he is Operating India's One of the Top Supply Chain Startups Ninjacart. In this post, you'll get a complete insight on Ninjacart's Supply chain model, how it functions, Ninjacart's business model, growth hacks & more.

And here's what Mr. Thirukumaran Nagarajan has got to say -

Gradual Growth of Ninjacart’s Business Model and Revenue Model
Major Growth hacks of Ninjacart in Early Days
Ninjacart Supply Chain Model - How Ninjacart Operates
Role of AI and Machines in the Growth of Ninjacart
Initiatives taken during Covid to keep the Operation Running & Support Farmers
Different tools used by Ninjacart for smooth flow of the work and company
Expansion Plans of Ninjacart

How did Ninjacart’s business model and revenue model look like in its very initial days and how it changed gradually?

Ninjacart commenced business in 2015 as a B2C model. Our main aim was to deliver fresh produce to the end consumer within 60 minutes while providing online inventory to retail outlets. We launched our operations in Bengaluru. During those initial 6 months of operations, we realized that the production side of the supply chain is fragmented and retail outlets struggle to source fresh produce on time. It helped us to understand the inefficiencies in the supply chain. These systems relied heavily on expensive and erratic last-mile delivery fulfillment, increasing pressure on the retailers and us as a delivery provider.

This prompted us to pivot our business model from B2C to B2B and we started sourcing fresh produce from farmers directly, simultaneously supplying to retail outlets and small businesses. Addressing challenges like persuading retailers and grocery store owners to take their business online and introducing technology to farmers as a more trustworthy alternative to harvest and sell their produce, Ninjacart’s B2B model began to thrive and we knew we had created something impactful.

ninjacart Logo

There were plenty of hurdles we had to overcome. Evaluating the entire network and identifying the gaps is one matter, but actually being able to implement our solution is quite another.

  • At the offset, the two major obstacles we set out to tackle were - convincing retailers and grocery store owners to take their business online and persuading farmers to trust us, a tech startup, over the traditional middleman they had known for years.
  • Then it was devising a mechanism to standardize the pricing of fresh produce. More often than not, farmers would sell their produce for a loss, given the perishable nature of their goods. Therefore, we needed a solution to provide high value for farmers while ensuring the best possible output for the end party.
  • Limited connectivity, inadequate storage infrastructure, and mismatched supply-demand led to post harvest losses which needed to be controlled with the provision of proper tools and equipment for harvesting. Simultaneously, we also had to train/educate the farmers.
  • Easing the challenges faced by retailers, from exhausting procurement processes to poor quality management and competitive pricing.
  • Introducing more sophisticated management and new technologies to improve efficiency in the supply chain, making it low cost, effective, and super fast.

Ninjacart | Indian Company | Company Profile |
Company Profile is an initiative by StartupTalky to publish verified informationon different startups and organizations. The content in this post has beenapproved by the organization it is based on. The traditional Supply Chain is highly inefficient, unorganized, and has a highrate of food wasta…

What have been major growth hacks in the early days of Ninjacart?

At Ninjacart, technology has played a major role in making the food supply chain more efficient and independent to handle advanced logistics. Since we started functioning as a B2B model, there is plenty of learning and transformation involved.

As an agritech startup, it was difficult to gain trust in the farmers’ community as they prefer to work with a familiar face rather than a tech company. To understand the framework at the grassroots level, the core team of Ninjacart made overnight trips in mandis.  It took us almost three months to determine the price of tomatoes at which farmers sell to the middleman. The timespan of fresh produce being sold in the market is very limited. Within a few hours, the fresh produce is segregated, sorted, and sold. The farmer has to harvest and bring the item to mandi and then figure the price and demand, leading to huge losses as they are unaware of the market conditions.

Ninjacart has solved this issue with the innovation of the Farmer Harvest Calendar, which gives farmers a week’s notice on what is expected of them.

In the traditional supply chain wastage goes up to 25% which Ninjacart succeeds in shrinking up to 4% by leveraging deep machine learning. Furthermore, with the adoption of traceability infrastructure, we ensure food safety until last-mile delivery.
Ninjacart Co-founder
Thirukumaran Nagarajan, Co-founder and CEO of Ninjacart

The access of farmers to warehouse facilities in India is limited. In the absence of adequate cold storage and efficient warehousing facilities, fresh produce gets wasted even before it arrives in the market or to the end consumer. Therefore, the implementation of tech-incentive processes helped Ninjacart to develop more controlled distribution chains. Over the years Ninjacart has expanded its operations, we are currently operating in 11 major cities across India and promise a delivery within 12 hours. The positive response and overall impact has strengthened our vision to change the way India consumes food.

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How do you manage such a large supply chain model?

At Ninjacart, we strive to tackle some of the most difficult structural issues while keeping pace and performance at the forefront of everything we do. Being a supply chain company we have a large workforce at the ground level, making labor a significant business cost.

It starts with farmers bringing fresh produce to the Collection Centre, where it is weighed, batched, and dispatched to our Fulfilment Centers (FC) and Distribution Centers (DC) located throughout the city. Our algorithms then establish an optimal route plan for drivers to reach their destinations with clearly defined points, set a dispatch schedule, and fix arrival slots.

To plan each route with full capacity at minimal cost, we also consider the distance between the Collection Centers (CC) as well as the distance between the Fulfilment Centers (FC) and Distribution Centers (DC). With sophisticated software to understand the geography of the city, the maximum capacity of the vehicles used, cost required. All of this adds up to enough information to run and build a distribution route for the day.

It can be summarized as follows:

  1. The first step is to acquire and understand the ‘Farmer Harvest Calendar’, which would give the team an overview of fruits and vegetables available in each season. This makes Ninjacart aware of the demand and supply, and gives farmers a week’s notice.
  2. The notice period allows farmers to understand the market expectations. Our technology helps us to gain a complete understanding of past buying data, such as - order history and its frequency to figure out a pattern. It helps us to know which items to procure.
  3. Once the produce is procured as per the demand analysis, it is then put into crates at the collection centers
  4. After the produce is weighed and tagged, a message goes out to the farmer through an app which details the supplied quantity and the price so that the amount is credited to the farmers’ bank account the subsequent day
  5. Ninjacart then moves the crates to the fulfilment centers. With the use of special trolleys these crates are loaded and unloaded, ensuring a quicker turnaround time as compared to the traditional lift-and-place logistic systems. The entire process is monitored through an app that the company has built with a sophisticated algorithm
  6. As next steps, these crates are loaded onto vehicles at the distribution centers for delivery, which starts at 2.00 am daily. There are no names on the crates as everything is enabled through the app. Every crate has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag so that the company knows exactly which vegetables and fruits have been delivered
  7. More importantly, the empty crates don’t necessarily return to the same collection center and Ninjacart’s technology ensures that the chain remains efficient. This has enabled tighter control so that operations are profitable
  8. Ninjacart also maps the simplest routes for drivers to reach their destinations with clearly identified points

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How implementing AI and machines has helped the company to grow?

Technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Data Analytics drive decision-making at Ninjacart, and help perform complex human tasks accurately.

The use of generative models and programming helps Ninjacart to accomplish a recommendation engine. The prediction model is used to analyze hundreds and thousands of market factors.

For instance, we analyze past buying data of consumers and the frequency of orders to determine the kind of produce that needs to be procured.  It enables us to track produce and thus, provide complete transparency within the food value chain. This way, we inform farmers about what is expected of them for that particular month by issuing a ‘Harvest the farm’ calendar offering weather forecast.

Diagnostic analytics techniques combine growth plans with historic demand data and market conditions to organize the weekly sales and procurement forecast at SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) level. Another analytics tool is predictive analytics, which tells us what is likely to happen. It identifies potential threats in the supply chain spotting optimal patterns while neutralizing errors.

The Ninjacart Supply Chain relies on vehicle route planning to transport tons of fresh produce from farms to retailers in less than 12 hours. The algorithm saves the details of retail customer orders made the day before. It determines the best delivery route based on factors such as customer position, tonnage, crate count, delivery time window, and so on. Similarly, the algorithm uses vehicle information such as vehicle type, start place, maximum crate size, maximum number of points, available time window, and average vehicle speed to allocate the delivery route for the next day's door-to-door deliveries to stores. After considering both the factors, the algorithm perfectly optimizes the vehicle route towards the customer locations. The route is decided to use the vehicles more efficiently in terms of vehicle usage, occupancy, and positioning the orders to be delivered.

Our algorithms automate the planning and optimization of logistics by mapping 1000+ routes for vehicles crisscrossing 15 states for delivering to customers daily across 7 cities.

We have adopted special trolleys to load and unload the crates, ensuring a quick turnaround compared to the normal lift-and-place logistic systems. The entire process is monitored through an app that helps us place crates in a particular order so that the team can deliver faster. At Ninjacart, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) plays a crucial role in every step of our supply chain, including internal control.  Future-ready ERP increases efficiency, lowers operational costs, and acts as one source for information that permits agility and rapid decision transformation.

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What major initiatives were taken during Corona to keep the whole operation running and support farmers?

The operations at Ninjacart were at a standstill during the initial days of the lockdown as the government regulations were unclear on which part of the supply chain could keep running. Despite that, we worked around-the-clock to fill the gap between supply and demand by deploying several initiatives. Our problem-solving approach helped the entire supply chain network one way or the other. These initiatives helped farmers to sell their produce directly to the end consumers. At the same time, it benefited consumers as they were able to buy fresh produce at subsidized rates.

There was uncertainty and fear amongst the consumers as supermarkets were closed at the time. After analyzing the situation, we concluded that we have the infrastructure to serve society by bringing food to their doorstep. The execution part was difficult as we had to expand our operations to directly reach the apartments and societies across cities. We created and disseminated a Google Form on social media for people in residential complexes to order fresh produce in bulk. It was a huge success, and we helped thousands of people in 7 cities - Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai, and Pune during the lockdown.

Additionally, to ensure that essential commodities reached everyone in need, we started a special program to sell at subsidized rates to old age homes, orphanages, community kitchens and slums. Many NGOs worked with us to feed numerous people, creating a huge impact during a period of crisis.

At Ninjacart, we were flooded with calls from farmers seeking our help in finding end consumers as they were left stranded with their harvested produce. It was time to step up and help our farmers as a way of showing gratitude and support.

We launched ‘Harvest The Farm’ initiative asking consumers to buy fresh produce from Ninjacart at cheaper prices through Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzo. With the existing supply chain in place, we identified the farmer with a ready harvest, purchased their produce, and helped them recover their cost.

The lockdown gave us an opportunity to work towards our vision of establishing a traceability infrastructure that will help trace fresh produce to its origin from any given stage of the supply chain.

On the occasion of World Food Safety Day on 7th June, we launched FoodPrint. FoodPrint allows us to know everything about the food we eat. Starting from - identifying the farmer, the date and time of harvest, the truck that carried the produce, the warehouse that processed it, the helper who handled the product at the warehouse, the retailer who bought the product, and finally how it was delivered to your doorstep, this endeavor focuses on driving home transparency.

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What are different tools the company uses for smooth flow of the work and the organisation?

We have removed intermediaries and replaced them with Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. We have taken a constraint-oriented modeling approach. Constraints are based on distance, vehicle, cost, capacity and time. After defining these constraints, we use a metaheuristic optimization technique (Guided Local Search), to maximize objective function and reduce supply cost. Every process and action is governed by technology at Ninjacart.

The tools developed and implemented by the core of Ninjacart can be concluded as follows:

  1. Facial Recognition: The software quickly captures the entire face, which is then fragmented into small pieces and converted into data streams. To mark attendance, 90% accuracy is required each time. This data can then be used to track worker productivity of employees from start to finish and at various points in the supply chain, as well as to solve many of the common problems that arise to ensure an order is delivered on time and without hiccups.
  2. Futureready ERP: Mobile-ready ERP ensures removes all paper use of in the supply chain
  3. Demand Forecasting: Leveraged deep machine learning to perfect forecasting to 97% and reduce the overall wastage to 4% [Traditional supply chains have wastage up to 25%].
  4. Farmer apps: Ninjacart also have specific apps for the farmers wherein they help them not only in demand forecasting but also with harvest planning and determining the price indent
  5. Connected Logistics: Speed and price can make or break any supply chain. Ninjacart’s indigenous route optimization and utilization keeps the load factor at 92% and puts fresher vegetables on the plate (they move the produce from farm to store within 12 hours) at a cost almost 1/3rd of the traditional supply chain
  6. Vehicle Route Planning is vital in driving the Ninjacart Supply Chain
  7. Social security: Cashless and instant

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Being the top player in the niche, do you plan to acquire small startups to expand?

We aim to learn and grow together as everyone is trying to solve the fragmented food supply chain in India. In recent years, we have witnessed new players entering the market only to help the farmers in their pre- and post-harvesting journey. At Ninjacart, we hope to bring as much innovation and solution as we can so that the end consumers and farmers have a seamless and safe supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. The launch of FoodPrint has enabled us to expand our vision of making farmers aware of residue-free farming methods.

We have partnered with Kilofarms, an agritech startup company. Together we have produced the first batch of residue free tomatoes and we intend to add 18 more residue-free fruits and vegetables by the end of this year. Leveraging each other's tech capabilities, we have developed tech-enabled methods such as drip irrigation to assist farmers  in achieving the finest grade of fresh produce through residue-free methods. It not only enables the production of food through optimal farm inputs and low Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), it is also scalable, practical and more affordable than pure organic food.

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