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. In an interview with Startup Terminal, he talks about his business journey so far.
ST: When did you get the idea of launching Sewan Foods? Was it during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic?
Gitesh Aggarwal: 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.
ST: Why is attaching some value to food, however nominal, so important?
Gitesh Aggarwal: 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.
ST: Take us through your entrepreneurial journey.
Gitesh Aggarwal: 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.
ST: Which were the beneficiaries that you were targeting to begin with?
Gitesh Aggarwal: 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.
ST: Please tell us something about your school time experience?
Gitesh Aggarwal: The experience was quite good, especially with respect to my fellow students and faculty members who guided me. Particularly, the then principal, Anita Paul. Apart from that a number of teachers were very supportive. These include teachers 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 the good habits I could acquire only because my teachers worked really hard on that.
I did a lot of community service which helped shape my resolve to venture into the impact sector when I grew up.