Some soup, with a dash of health

A cafe in Sivakasi offers food as preventive medicine

What came as an idea in 1998 to use naturally available herbs and plants to cure his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis has now taken roots in the form of cafes selling ‘food as medicine and medicine as food.’ G. Maran of Sivakasi, who claims that regular intake of sprouted cereals and mudakkathan (balloon vine) soup obviated the need for knee replacement for his mother, started the Thaai Vazhi Iyarkkai Unavagam with a meagre investment of ₹50,000 to sell three varieties of soup.

Today, he offers 25 varieties of soups and juices to more than 300 customers every day. Inspired by his model, similar cafes have sprung up at 43 places in Tamil Nadu and Bengaluru.

Explaining his model, Mr. Maran says that his idea is to sell ‘positive food’ to health and beauty-conscious people, using authentic plants supplied by small farmers. He started selling sprouted urad dhal in packets, travelling all over Sivakasi on a bicycle. Later, a two-wheeler helped him in multiplying sale. Today, about 7,000 packets of sprouts are sold all over the town. “My target is the lower middle and working class people who cannot afford costly medicines and treatment. Awareness of traditional medicinal food is much more now, thanks to the Internet,” he says. At all naturopathy classes he attended and institutes he visited, Mr. Maran had been told to bring down the medical expenses of a family. Hence, the maximum cost of an item at the cafe is ₹25.

He follows time-tested, traditional methods to add value to ordinary herbs and vegetables. For example, the aloe vera juice offered at the cafe, a hot seller, is called ‘Sivakasi Jigarthanda.’ The curry leaf juice, made with coconut milk is a hit among girl students as they believe that it prevents hair loss.

Small farmers of the rain-fed area bring plants found in the wild and cultivated by them to the cafe. “I pay them more than what they normally get in the market. One kg of aavaram poo (cassia auriculata) fetches ₹90 in the market but I pay them ₹200,” he says. On Sundays, farmers bring organically grown greens and vegetables for display and sale to the cafe. This sale, called Thaalanmai Uzhavar Santhai (Benevolent Farmers’ Market), happens between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Stakeholders benefit

Mr. Maran says that this model is beneficial to all stakeholders. While the farmer gets a higher price, the entrepreneur realises a handsome profit through traditional value-addition and consumers get real value for their money. He is of the view that this model, which entails low investment, is ideal for small farmers and jobless educated youth in small towns. It also provides employment to women. In Sivakasi, women thrown out of employment from fireworks units, make soups and juices at his outlet.

He says,”My dream is to encourage young entrepreneurs to start one such cafe in every street.”

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