It’s been a journey full of happy coincidences for Ajay Naqvi, who talks of his success – a blooming blueberry business, Dealul cu Afine, in Romania – as incidental.
And now he’s eyeing the Dubai market.
But look at it another way – he has been planting the seeds for this achievement his entire life.
Naqvi began his life in a small town in Raipur, UP, where his father who was in the Forest Department, was posted.
“Nothing was by choice,” he says, recalling his teenage years when he was considering his choice of profession. One possibility was going to the Army, or going the other path and trying an MBA. But a chance encounter with a friend headed to an adverting course interview in Indore would seal the next decade. “We just walked in and we said, fine advertising it is,” recalls Naqvi.
A few years later he found himself working with the biggest names in the Indian market – Ogilvy and Leo Burnett.
During his various stints, he branched out from account management into planning and strategy and got a deep dive understanding of packaging, branding and successful roll-outs.
Then, as the Indian economy began to boom, Naqvi decided on a different path – entrepreneurship. Come 2007, he says, “[I] joined a few friends of mine in the space of retail design and manufacturing, for shop fits, for commercial spaces. And I led the merger and acquisitions for them and also the design vertical. Wrote their 5-year plan, their vision all that,” he says.
This was also the time he met his now wife, a Romanian political scientist, through a friend. “We got married in 2009. In 2010, we had Oliver, our son. And by 2011-12, we decided that probably the best place for Oliver to grow up, especially in the foundation years, is where there [are] parks for him to go play and fresh air, where things are not as complicated,” he explains. Of course, this meant a trip to the rolling hills of Romania, where landscapes look painted onto the canvas of the world.
Getting into the business
While Ramona and Oliver found it easy to relocate, it would take Naqvi another couple of years to follow; he continued to save up for the big move. “When I moved in 2014, we had this kind of little dream that we will have a house in the mountain, maybe an organic kitchen garden, because we fell in love with Romania,” he recalls. “Ramona and I almost every weekend we would hop in the car and go land hunting. We did that for a year and a half and nothing happened.”
The once-office-addict took well to the slower pace of life, spending time cooking and looking after home. Eventually though, he headed back to India for a project. Which is when his wife noticed an obscure ad on Facebook for a blueberry farm that already had the fruit and was just waiting for an owner. “So Ramona called me – she forwarded it to me – very casually. The next thing I told her was buy it.”
He says: “[I figured] if we fail on the job, we fail, but at least we would have learnt something and if not, at least we will have 5 hectres of land that we’ve purchased.”
So on to farming. “When I moved to Romania, she [Ramona] was still working fulltime in Bucharest. I had to be on the farm managing my life on my own; the language issues, the completely new set of people, living in a new place.
“So that led to quite a bit of challenge in starting up the farm. No prior knowledge of – no one in the family has ever done farming,” he recalls, of the early days.
What about the fear, of failure? “I’ve always been worried, all my life. If you look at what I’ve done in the last 20 years, I’ve always gotten into things I’ve known little about. I’ve just had a feeling. From getting into advertising to event management to advertising jobs….I just knew that I could get into things and I could learn things. I’ve always given myself that stress but with a little conviction and confidence that when I let go, I will fly. The fear that I’m going to lie flat on the ground has always made me fly,” he laughs.
The no-plan-B habit seems to be working wonders for him. Today, “we are at 25 per cent net profit over the past two years,” he explains.
His experience in the branding industry has also been useful. “I think the reason why as farmer we are making this kind of profit is purely because my marketing experience is coming in handy. We’ve been making a brand, we are not going directly to wholesalers and intermediates. We sell our blueberries at 8 euros a kg in Romania… other farmers who wouldn’t know how to market the brand has to sell it for 2 euros a kg.”
“Just to give you an idea we sold 5,000kg last year and we had only 305 customers. There’s a huge amount of repeat purchase,” he adds.
At any given moment, his farm employs 8-12 people. This may grow soon, as “just last month we got our first Angel funding and what we want to do with it is expand our farm. We already have about 3 more hectres of land so we want to put about 12,000 more plants on that. And once we increase production a little and we get our second funding – which is in advanced stages – we will set up a processing plant for juices, jams, smoothies, tea, powders that you can add to smoothies or juices.”
Sowed in university, tended through life, Naqvi is happy reaping the rewards of a lifetime spent working with chance.