Frustrating scavenger hunts down crowded aisles and across dusty shelves of expired goods in Dhaka’s markets frequently left Sam Bretzfield not only empty-handed but also convinced there had to be a better way to buy groceries in Bangladesh’s teeming capital. The country’s dubious food safety regulations and notorious traffic jams only further drove home the point.
Sam is the co-founder and chairman of Direct Fresh, an agri-tech business that started as an online portal for Dhaka’s residents to order quality groceries home delivered and, in the process, sidestep all those nasty chemical food additives and gridlocked streets.
While Direct Fresh has offered safe-to-eat, locally raised meat, fish, and greens from the get-go, it is rapidly developing and expanding its holistic farm-to-table model — but more on that shortly. A spinoff dairy— the first of its kind in Bangladesh to sell organic, non-UHT treated milk from grass-fed cows — was launched as a subscription service in 2015.
Customers create accounts and place orders on the company’s website. The latest in cold-chain and smart-logistics technology helps Direct Fresh deliver both imported and domestic dry goods, perishables, meat, fish, fruits, and veggies to local homes and institutional clients, within 24 hours. Total traceability, from field to fork, ensures that produce is free of carbide, formalin, DDT, and other toxins that regularly plague Bangladesh’s fresh food supply.
This past summer Direct Fresh was invited to become a member of BCtA (Business Call to Action), a United Nations Development Program initiative that spotlights businesses in 65 countries demonstrating sustainable, profitable, and novel ways of helping to improve the lives of society’s poorest.
One way Direct Fresh is helping is by working directly with Bangladeshi farmers, cutting out the so-called middleman. Direct Fresh gets much of its produce from local smallholdings. It has invested in farmers’ operations with seeds, fertilizers, bio-pesticides, and training in techniques to help maximize yields while minimizing the ecological impact of food production. Farmers’ harvests are then bought at prices ensuring growers a viable, stable livelihood. Perhaps surprisingly, this safely sourced food costs shoppers no more than if they bought it from the supermarkets.
With a recent injection of venture capital, Direct Fresh is launching a model farm in Rajendrapur, north of Dhaka. The farm will use innovative, sustainable methods of agriculture like multilayer plots, azolla feed for livestock, vermicompost, and bio-pesticides and will support a hydroponic greenhouse. Hydroponic farming is the method of growing crops in nutrient-rich water, without soil. In time the Rajendrapur farm is expected make redundant Direct Fresh’s imports of certain fruits and vegetables from India and Thailand.
Another (perhaps less obvious but no less important) way Direct Fresh is helping to better lives in Bangladesh is through its work with Thrive.
We sat down with Sam to chat about Direct Fresh and how it supports Thrive’s mission to feed hungry students in Dhaka.
Just curious as to what brought you to Bangladesh?
My parents were honorary consuls general for Bangladesh in the States and they spent a considerable amount of
time here back in the late 70s, early 80s. So even though I was raised in the US, as a kid I had some exposure to Bangladesh with infrequent trips back and forth. My current business partner, Mishal, his grandfather became friends with my dad. And so then my mom became friends with Mishal’s mom, and not surprisingly Mishal and I met and became friends from an early age. Later, my work in the States had me traveling around this region and I was inspired by what I saw here, the potential of this country and the opportunity to really make a difference. So I called up Mishal and suggested we explore a business partnership here. We started our IT company, bGlobal, in 2004, and Direct Fresh about three-and-a-half years ago now.
Direct Fresh was founded in 2012, partly due to your experiencing the hassle of grocery shopping in Dhaka but also because of food safety concerns, is that right?
That’s right. You know, it’s kind of a funny story how Direct Fresh started. Mishal and I were in Thailand, enjoying a nice dinner, and I was complaining about how in Dhaka I couldn’t find fresh lettuces, like iceberg lettuce, butter lettuce and the like to make salads. And Mishal was telling me about his poor shopping experiences, finding expired products, produce that didn’t look good, products that were outrageously expensive. So the idea hatched there. And then as we did deeper research we saw how the issue of food sourcing and safety was much bigger, how it was systemic from how farmers were farming to how produce was moving in and out of the wholesale markets, to how fruits and veggies were being adulterated with chemicals to prolong their shelf life. That’s when we said, ‘Wow, there’s a much bigger issue here beyond just trying to put together a fresh salad.’ And so we made it our mission to help try and change things, and one of the ways was to develop complete traceability of produce to ensure that it’s safe and healthy to eat.
Has food safety improved?
Well, it’s difficult to say with certainty that it has. But one thing that’s happened, especially in the last three or four years, is that people are waking up and becoming much more aware of where their food’s coming from. And that has a lot to do with the local media running stories and publicizing the fact that, yes, there are food safety concerns. So at the very least the issue’s in the public consciousness.
Is it extra super challenging to run a delivery-based business in such a densely packed city?
You bet! Without question it’s been challenging. There are so many factors at play: The traffic, monsoon rains, the frequent road closures, the heat — what’s the best way to get fresh milk to your customers on time without it spoiling? You figure out the optimal ways to create and maintain a consistent supply chain. It’s a constant learning process. Our teams are always learning, always adapting.
Recently Direct Fresh raised investment to expand its operations including distribution and farming. What does this expansion mean for the company?
One hundred percent traceability of produce is key to what we’re doing. The money we’ve raised will help change farming practices on a wider scale in Bangladesh. We’re expanding into doing multi-layer farming and hydroponics. With multi-layer farming you get a higher yield on the same piece of land, and that’s crucial here with such a high population density. With hydroponics there are incredible opportunities to grow year round in greenhouses, things like cherry tomatoes and herbs. The model can be scaled up and eventually applied to the production of other consumables like fish and meat. We want to help change the way food’s produced in Bangladesh while helping our farmers earn a better living and grow the best quality produce possible. Also, we’re planning to bring Direct Fresh to shoppers in Chittagong and Sylhet.
How does Direct Fresh help Thrive . . . thrive?
Thrive contacted us a couple of years ago and told us about their concept, how they were feeding schoolchildren in Dhaka’s slum schools. At that point they were embryonic, I think bananas and peanuts were the snacks they were distributing when they first started out. Obviously food quality and safety were major areas of concern for them given what they were doing. Thrive wanted to make sure the lunches for the students were fresh and nutritious, and because that’s also such a critical aspect of Direct Fresh’s mission, food safety and quality, it was a natural partnership. Besides that of course we really believed in the work Thrive was doing and wanted to be part of it. So we grow and supply the produce for Thrive’s school lunch program as well as deliver the food baskets to Thrive’s volunteers for distribution to the schools or to the schools directly when necessary.
What does it mean to you personally, to work with Thrive?
I’ve visited several of the slums where the schools are, to gain a better understanding of what these kids are up against. And it’s just heartbreaking, the living conditions of many of these kids, their families. The fact so many of them face hunger every single day. As a parent myself it just really hits home. So knowing we’re helping to turn things around, or at least in a better direction, it just feels really great to help out.
Is there a way for Direct Fresh customers to help support Thrive?
Yes, on the Direct Fresh site, when you’re done shopping, on the checkout page you can donate directly to Thrive. It’s pretty much as easy as clicking a button. Cash and credit card donations are accepted and one hundred percent of contributions go to Thrive. Ten dollars is enough to feed a student for a whole month.
Finally, Fit Girls [an Instagram-fueled health and fitness campaign] chose Thrive as their charity partner for a recent 5K event in the US. What was your involvement in hooking up the two organizations?
Fit Girls decided to hold their inaugural 5K run in Chicago and as it turned out I happened to be in the area. It’s phenomenal what Fit Girls is doing, helping women change their lives with exercise, healthy food, and a supportive worldwide community of members. So there’s this common thread between what they’re doing and what Thrive is doing, basically helping to improve lives, with food and nutrition being core components of that. So, I made an introduction to both parties — coincidentally, Gina [Thrive’s co-founder and VP] lives in the Midwest, in Michigan, and Thrive ended up with some great exposure at the Chicago run.