Startup to end Bangladesh deadly food scares

Unhygienic and adulterated produce is a major food safety concern in Bangladesh. The lack of cold storage and excessive use of pesticides in farming results in toxic and chemical ridden fruits and vegetables. Common practices include the application of calcium carbide to ripen fruits, using formalin to preserve fish and vegetables, and adding sulphuric acid to condensed milk. A study estimated 3,850 Bangladeshis died due to diarrhea each year between 2003 and 2009, with deaths attributed mainly to the consumption of toxic food.

junk foodBangladeshi startup Direct Fresh wants to address these growing concerns. The Dhaka-based venture is ostensibly an online grocery delivery service but has tailored its model to ensure customers get fresh products, free from preservatives or carcinogens. Direct Fresh works closely with farmers, employing a method called ‘contract farming.’ The process allows them to monitor the entire process from sowing, harvesting, and delivery to warehouses. “There are absolutely no middle-men,” says Sam Bretzfield, co-founder of Direct Fresh.

Direct Fresh describes its service as a “farm-to-table” model. Bretzfield says they have utilized smart-logistics tech to track each batch of produce. The startup runs its own logistics, supply, and storage systems, and does not outsource any part of its operation. This helps Bretzfield and his team make good on the promise of fresh and organic produce.

Direct Fresh was founded by Bretzfield and Mishal Karim in 2012, after they pooled together US$400,000 of their own money. The pair sees considerable potential in the Bangladeshi market, and expect the next wave of growth to come from its mobile internet users.

“Mobile has leapfrogged desktop usage and there is a growing savvy, young generation of consumers who realize the importance of the internet,” says Bretzfield. “This generation will continue to rely on technology to complete many daily tasks, including shopping online.”

The co-founders also believe that the Bangladeshi middle class is poised to significantly expand in the coming years, which will help them consolidate their market position. A study by the United States Development Authority indicates that the Bangladeshi retail industry in 2015 is estimated to be worth US$16.8 billion, with supermarket turnover reaching almost US$1 billion.

Additionally, the middle class is estimated to be 47 million people (31.3 percent of the population) according to research by the University of Dhaka. These figures have helped catapult Bangladesh as one of the “Frontier Five,” and it’s likely that the country will be given emerging market status soon.

Bretzfield says investors are cognizant of Bangladesh’s growing market potential. Direct Fresh is currently involved in negotiations to raise a new round of funding.

The startup wants to expand its service offerings and cater to both business-to-consumer and business-to-business segments. The team expects to have more than 7,500 products available on the site by the end of the year. One of their newest initiatives is ‘Bespoke Farming,’ which allows for continuous supply of fresh produce, even in the off-season.

Direct Fresh reveals that it already serves 25 local organizations, including hospitals, hotels, and schools. It expects the number to spike once the new initiative is marketed more aggressively.