Crunchy founder sows seeds of success in horticulture business

Business & Economy

Crunchy horticulture business founder Bibhas Biswas had a steep learning curve ahead of him when he arrived in Southland from India underdressed and underprepared in the winter of 2013.

The former international student could not have known then of the challenges he would face, the support he would receive, and the success that was to come.

Bibhas, known as Benji, left Kolkata on a sunny 41deg day in July and landed in Invercargill wearing shorts, t-shirt and sandals in -1deg. “I still remember the day clearly.” He had very little money, limited English, and no driver’s licence.

But he had passion and determination. He graduated with an engineering degree in India but he really wanted to study sports psychology and sports coaching. He enrolled in Sports and Exercise Science at the Southern Institute of Technology and secured a John Wright (former NZ cricketer and India coach) Sports and Academic Scholarship.

Decision to study in New Zealand “huge”

However, he knew very little about New Zealand and was having reservations about stepping into the unknown. As with many international students, he describes the decision to leave his family and his home country as huge.

The early days were tough. “I couldn’t understand anything people said, I didn’t know the food, the lifestyle, or the culture. And I was wondering where all the people were. It was like my life had fast-forwarded 20 years.”

With his scholarship covering course costs, but not living costs, Benji said finding work was critical but was a real struggle.

He was grateful to eventually secure a voluntary role at Rugby Southland as a junior strength and conditioning coach. Rugby Southland academy manager Peter Skelt quickly became a mentor and a good friend.

“He, and others, took me under their wing. I worked with the junior Southland Stags for a couple of years and I really learned a lot. They gave me a huge sense of belonging.”

Sustainability a driver for new business idea

It was the kick-start he needed and paid employment followed. But Benji was ambitious to be his own boss. A chance viewing of a documentary in 2019 about wasteful food production practices proved to be the catalyst for change.

With no background in horticulture, Benji decided he wanted to create a sustainable food production business that was organic, minimized waste, and eliminated the challenge of growing in tough climatic conditions,” he says. “I started experimenting in my garage with a few seeds and some compost. My partner Liv thought I was a really crazy guy. We had no jobs, no money, and a new baby.”

But Benji quickly realized he could grow microgreens and develop his own market with local businesses which were having to put up with soggy product transported from the North Island. Crunchy was under way.

Just like his early days as an international student, Benji has had to be resilient as a business owner. The 2020 lockdown came in his first year in business.

“We got hammered, but it forced us to think differently, to diversify our product range and sales channels so we wouldn’t be so vulnerable again. "

He moved to a bigger property and worked hard to get to the point where he could supply Foodstuffs supermarkets, a deal he was excited to sign just ahead of the most recent lockdown.

Crunchy is growing fast, with revenue up nearly 200 percent in two years, but Benji is not compromising on his sustainable business model. “Our goal is to be a 100 percent waste-free business and we are almost there already, which is very exciting.”

Former international student calls New Zealand home

He is immensely proud of how far he has come in a relatively short time. From international student to business owner, from job hunter to employer.

“I look back and remember struggling to find a job. Now I am creating jobs and feel a huge sense of satisfaction. I feel 100 percent like I am contributing to the community that has backed me.”

Benji has even become a member of Southland Chamber of Commerce, helping to inspire and support the business community.

With partner Liv, daughter Arya, aged 3, and a thriving business, he has no plans to leave Southland.

“I love New Zealand. I have been given so much encouragement here. I feel like I belong, and I want to make it my home.”

“My mum moans a bit about me not being in India. I said home is not where you come from, it’s where you make it.”

To cap off a stellar year, Crunchy has been named a finalist in the Innovation and the New and Emerging categories of the Southland Business Excellence Awards, and Benji is a finalist in the One to Watch category. The winners will be announced in February.

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