Origin Story Interview W/ Jasmin Shaikh, Axia Foods

Origin Story Interview W/ Jasmin Shaikh, Axia Foods

Brighter Future

 / 

Jan 11, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #PlantBasedInnovation #ClimateAction #HealthAndWellness #CleanEating #FoodTech #SustainableLiving

Brighter Future

Today, we have the pleasure of talking with Jasmin Shaikh, founder and CEO of Axia Foods, a food and beverage manufacturing company making world's first ever nutritionally complete, affordable, convenient clean labelled plant based products with minimal environmental impact.

Hi, Jasmin. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. To get started, why don’t you introduce yourself and your company to our readers.

Namaste, everyone. I’m Jasmin Shaikh, a professional food scientist and lead auditor for ISO 22000-2005. For more than 11 years, I have been working in research and development in the food industry. I also work as a food and beverage consultant. Finally, I’m a fitness enthusiast and climate activist. I started my plant-based food company, Axia Foods, in 2019.

Thank you! Could you tell us a little about your roots or the path you have taken in life?

I was born and raised in a place called Eksal near Satara, Maharashtra, in India. I really love the place I come from because it’s not just a tiny village—it’s also a place ideas come from.

As a girl or woman, people normally support everything you do, whether it is a sport, academy, entrepreneurial journey, or anything else. They will do anything to support you. But coming from a small village, you can’t expect to have that kind of backing. Today, when I go to conferences or give speeches, people always ask me where I come from. Most people believe that great people, great human entrepreneurs, are born in the cities, in hyperlocal places where they are educated, but that’s completely wrong. People from small villages also want growth and have ambitions. They can be determined to get where they want to be in life. They are the ones who are working for that and striving for better. And that’s why I love my village—its where I belong and will always belong.

Were your parents in any way entrepreneurial? Or are you different to them in that respect?

In my family, everyone is studying, whether its medical engineering or a small-scale business. So, I am a first-generation entrepreneur. My brother and I started Axia Foods, so together we are the first generation of entrepreneurs in our family.

How did you both come to build Axia? What is the story behind that?

“Axia” means value, because it all started with the great value we place on helping people. In fact, Axia’s origin has a personal story to it. We developed the product for my father, and the results we saw with him gave us the confidence that we could build something from it. He told us that it would be life-changing, not only for our family but for lots of other people—and he was right!

My father was on dialysis for seven years with multiple medical conditions, like blood pressure, diabetes and intestinal issues. These medical conditions restrict the amount of dairy and meat you can eat, especially if you have haemodialysis. So, along with dialysis, the correct diet is crucial for that person. We watched him take ten units of insulin before every meal, that’s how severe his condition was. We knew we had to find a way to help him.

I researched plant-based products and nuts from India and all over the world during that period. Nuts have many valuable properties, not just in terms of nutrition when eaten, but also for their healing and therapeutic properties, making them great for skincare routines. Then, around 2015-16, Beyond Meat, a soya-based meat product, was bursting onto the market. I quickly realised that the plant-based movement had already started. I was already working on a product using nuts in order to meet my father’s dietary needs. That’s how I came up with making a highly nutritious, probiotic, nut-based yoghurt.

I initially made an almond and cashew nut yoghurt for him. He ate these yoghurts regularly and, surprisingly, after two months, his nephrologist came to us during his health check-up and asked what kind of diet he was on. We mentioned the nut-based product we gave my father, and she was so happy. That was the first clinical approval that we got. She even recommended this product to others in my father’s batch for dialysis. I was so happy to see that not only was my father benefiting from our product, but other people were, too.

For seven years, we visited the hospital twice daily or weekly. I came across a  kids as young as seven years old going for dialysis, and kids as young as eight taking insulin. When I sat down and connected the dots, I asked myself why this was happening. Surprisingly, it’s all about what is on our plate and what we eat. India, for example, particularly feels the effects of climate change as the summer season has shifted. The rainy season seems to extend ever longer, leading to more floods, disruption and devastation. It’s all connected. Our planet, our seasons, our food and our health. We are witnessing a global emergency of climate change, hunger, malnutrition and disease due to our animal-based diets, the increase in animal farming to supply this demand, and the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water consumption. All of these things directly affect kids and adults around the world. So, it’s all connected.

The product we developed for my father was a win-win situation. We took our product from our home to the hospital, and now we’re taking it to the entire world.

That’s an incredible story! Your father was very lucky to have such a dedicated daughter, who just so happened to be a food scientist, helping him. I can imagine it was very rewarding to see him benefit from it. What other elements of your work are the most fulfilling to you?

For me, the most fulfilling part is sharing our work with others and contributing to a great future for generations to come. When people talk about creating a future, what kind of future are they talking about? It’s not just about chasing the moon or planning for the colonisation of Mars—it’s about what we are doing on Earth. At Axia Foods, we are helping people talk about the challenges, the planet and its effects on people, and we are happy to be part of the solution.

We’re doing food production using 80% less energy, 99% less land and 90% less water, and we’re saving all those resources. Each person using Axia daily or once in their life is increasing water and food security by saving 20 kgs of grain  and 11 gallons of water per person. They are helping to reduce deforestation, and they are helping to eliminate at least 4.5 kgs of CO2 greenhouse gas and emissions. So, it’s incredibly fulfilling to know that we are helping to make people healthy and keeping our planet in good shape for the next generation.

Have you ever taken a different path than planned or made a very different decision you wouldn’t have expected?

In some ways, we have. We started with novel “clean food” innovation technology that significantly elevates the nutritional viability of everything: a seed, fruit, pulses, cereals, nuts, everything. So, on that basis, we are creating a milk replacer that is completely plant-based and holistic for people who need that.

Today, people are not just looking for organic products—they are also looking for clean, basic products. Like the home foods we make with four to five ingredients, people expect and want clean foods and holistic nutrition, and we’ve adapted to that and develop our products on that basis.

But when it comes to the Indian market, people are still struggling to understand what plant-based means. For example, how is it possible to make yoghurt without milk? So, we are still trying to create awareness about why plant-based food is important. At one conference, people were talking about the future of plant-based products. It’s very different in Western countries as the knowledge and demand is already there. We have to adapt our approach to the different markets accordingly. When it comes to mass products, we have kept our USP of the product, changed our product portfolio, and now we are serving a mass market where they won’t hesitate to spend $1 on our product. So, in that way—in our strategy—we’ve taken a different path than expected.

What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to develop a product like Axia?

As previously mentioned, we started all of this because of my father, but also because of my role in food research and development, and my being an athlete. But since childhood, I have loved space and astronauts and all things related to that. How do these people maintain their health? What kinds of food are they eating? And from an early age, I’ve wanted to make food for space. That’s why I studied food technology. I have witnessed first-hand how food innovation has changed people’s lives—including my father’s life.

My father has been a great source of confidence and support on this journey. He used to tell me that I was doing a great job at my work, and that I'll have a six-figure salary, and all that stuff. And he said, “Okay, this is the right time. You always wanted to start your own thing, and you have a great product now, so this is the right time." He gave me just five minutes to decide while he was doing dialysis. After five minutes, I made my decision and never looked back. I lost my father one month later, so that thought is always in my mind, driving me forward and keeping me motivated.

What were the biggest challenges you faced or even mistakes you made with Axia?

The biggest challenge that we have faced was the pandemic. Those connected to our products were creating awareness on a larger scale, but we had to halt our operations during the pandemic. However, it wasn’t all negative. Lots of people were looking for our product because they were looking for an energy boost during this time or because they were on a budget. So, that was the biggest challenge that we faced.

Another challenge we faced was bias from others. I’m from a research background, and some people think that those from a research background don’t know how to do business. I heard comments like “she doesn't have any business background” or “I don’t know how she’s gonna take this”. People should research the people they want to do business with, whether it is market-based research for food or consumer-based services. If they did, they would know that we have created so many successful products for the market, all of which are doing great in the national and international markets. It’s definitely a challenge we come up against.

Then, of course, there are the challenges associated with putting our products on store shelves. Some stores are reluctant to do so because plant-based products are still very new. They don’t want to know; they don’t want to engage with us. So, we were ready to pay the price for the shelf space to get our product out there. For me, rejection or challenges are nothing new. When there is negativity, I change that negative direction and position, then channel my efforts into positive things. I keep trying until I hit on something positive.

For example, when we struggled with funds, we tried to keep our confidence up and believed it would eventually pass. During that time, NASA selected us for the deep space challenge, so we developed and shared our technology with NASA. So, keep thinking positively, be ready to accept a challenge and become a master of adapting to any situation you find yourself in.

Wow! The project with NASA sounds very exciting. Is there something coming up with that? Could you tell us more?

In phase one of a NASA space mission, there is the challenge of growing agriculture as a backup situation for when astronauts go on missions for five years. So, for that project, we got involved with the CSN Matthews foundation for the NASA space challenge. We got involved because of the kind of product and technology we have, such as the minimum raw materials and technology that can sustainably elevate nutrients. Plus, in space, you only require small portions, but the nutrient level needs to be the same, so it is helpful for their brain activity, especially throughout their time in space.

With those requirements, we created a product with our technology that made a plant-based product that can be a backup solution for the astronauts on their five-year missions. So, we are looking forward to making customised products for NASA, and we are hoping that the day comes soon when our product is used in space.

Amazing, so your childhood dream would finally come true?

Yes! That was a big moment for me. I’m so close to seeing my dreams come true because I’ve worked so hard for them.

Speaking of big moments, were there any “A-ha!” moments in your life or career that were important on your path?

Yes, there are so many important moments. The first moment was when I made the product for my father. We could see that it was working but we never did vigorous nutritional testing. So, before launching the commercial product, we went for nutritional testing. When the results came back, we were very happy to see that our observations were right. That was a big moment for us.

Another important moment was working with NASA because we were struggling here within India to build consumer awareness about plant-based products. Of course, we know that this journey will be difficult and take a lot of time, effort and persistence. But being appreciated and supported worldwide, whether it is through our association with NASA, The Vegan Women’s Summit, or Food Navigator, is incredibly rewarding. It’s great to know that people appreciate our efforts and hard work. There are even Indian startups entering the plant-based segment because of our success, which means we are inspiring people to create great plant-based products that will help even more people and the planet.  

Are there any books, movies, speeches, or people who inspired you in your journey?

There is an honourable man who has inspired me, Mr Ratan Tata. He’s the biggest industrialist-philanthropist. He’s a man with a golden heart, so there only a few people like him. Then, of course, I would like to mention Elon Musk. This is a man who makes things possible—things that other people say are impossible. Finally, there is a book I always listen to by Jordan Peterson. And my first great inspiration is, of course, my parents. We try not to compare ourselves to other startups, especially those in the plant-based food market, but there are people doing great things there that we are inspired by. People who positively impact the social, economic and environmental sectors, be they a small farmer or a big seller. Those people are inspiring to me.

What were the biggest compromises you made to get where you are today?

I don’t think I’ve had to make many compromises because I’m doing the thing I love to do. My friends have had to make compromises along the way to spend time with me. I have very limited time to achieve my goals and they understand that.  

I'm happy that I love what I’m doing. I’m working 16-18 hours a day, but I’m not compromising anything because compromising comes when we are a little bit unhappy or unsatisfied with what we are doing.

I like your answer. It’s the first time in this interview series that I’ve heard someone say, “I haven’t made any compromises”. Everyone says less time or money. You love your work so much that this isn’t even a compromise.

I never thought about it in that way. I love to develop products, so it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice or compromise to me.

How do you envision the future? What do you think the new standard or the new normal will be like?

Everyone is talking about the future, but why isn’t anyone talking about the now? For example, some organisations and NGOs ask innovators, students, and homemakers if they have innovative ideas to feed the 10 billion people we’ll have in the world in 2050.

But climate change is here today, and it will have changed our lives drastically by 2050. So why is everyone talking about the future? Right now, we need everyone to come together and do their little bit to make sure we survive. We are not doing this for the planet. We live on this planet, and whatever we are doing, we are doing it for ourselves. We’re creating the future, today.

The next five years are crucial for us, so what are the positive things that we can do to improve our future? When people talk about the future, it should not be about the colonisation of Mars or making robots or self-driving cars. Why are people trying to colonise Mars? If we want a different habitat, why not start with the one we live in today?

Our future will be safe if we stabilise climate change and food and water insecurity. These are the only two things that our growth depends on. For example, in the pandemic, what was the basic need people were looking for? It was food and healthcare. Most people with good health and immunity survived or could fight off the virus. So, the future is in everyone’s hands. Our present is our future. If we have a great present, I believe we will have the greatest future.

When you are no longer with us on this Earth, how would you like your friends and family to look back upon you and your journey?

Okay, now people think I’m crazy, but I want the people associated with Axia, including our customers, to keep the mission going. Keep this momentum going and growing. This could be by working with Axia Food’s mission or buying one of our products. That way, our mission will always be alive.

Whether I’m there or not, I want to make sure our mission will continue. We don’t need to be there. As long as people know about the product and what the company is doing, I’ll be happy. That’s it. That’s what I want to create.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs, old and young, who are just starting out on their own entrepreneurial journey?

There are two things. First, along your journey, you will come across negativity and people with lots of opinions. You will do the market study, and you will overthink a lot. So, for entrepreneurs just starting out, in whatever you do, you must have confidence in your idea. You should have confidence before executing because when you say you have a plan you must know your next step. You should master, learn and absorb negative energy and convert it into positive energy because that’s how the current generation is. You must keep motivated. Look at yourself in the mirror and be confident about your ideas.

The second important thing is to not just focus on how you will change the world. You should also know how to plan your finances, workforce, and time, because these are the three most important pillars of your empire. These are the most important pillars of any organisation. You will lose everything if you don't know how to manage your finances. It’s also important to have an attachment and commitment to your employees when you build an organisation. You’re just not taking on those employees for two or three months, so you should know how to sustain the people you employ and build a culture where you value your workforce and all that they contribute.

If you understand these two things, you will be on the right track.

If there was one lasting message that you could share with the whole world, what would that be?

When it comes to plant-based and animal-based diets, food is a choice we make. If our choices negatively impact us, our surroundings and the planet, we should work on that. It’s not just about today or one meal. It’s about the future and all of the generations to come. So, with the right choices, we can not only help ourselves but also save the planet. And we have a responsibility to do this because we all live on this planet and are a part of its ecosystem. It’s up to us to make the right decisions.

Jasmin, thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing everything that you have achieved with Axia Foods. It is truly inspirational, and your father’s legacy certainly lives on through the positive impact you are making on the world with your products.

If you would like to find out more about Jasmin and Axia Foods, check out the Axia Foods website: www.axiafood.com, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

To stay up to date with our latest content and interviews with amazing people like Jasmin, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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