Having practised dentistry for 14 years in Jalna (a small city in Maharashtra), Dr Minal realised that most dental and health problems occur because of incorrect food choices. It was in search of a healthy alternative that she thought of launching a healthy snacking brand. Since her family was already in the business of solar cooking, she began experimenting with this technique. After successfully baking bread, pizzas, and cakes, she began making cookies. That’s how the idea of solar-baked cookies took shape.
She launched Kivu, India’s first cookie brand that empowers rural women to bake its exclusive vegan and gluten-free cookies using specially designed Solar Ovens. “I realised that many of the rural families still use wood stoves for cooking. The women not only spent reasonable time collecting the wood but also severely suffer from the smoke it emitted, which slowly damages their eyes and lungs,” shared Dr Minal.
In an in-depth conversation with the doctor-turned-social entrepreneur, we dived deep into the world of solar baking and found out more about her innovative brand, the benefits of solar-baked cookies, challenges faced and more.
ELLE: Why did you choose to call your brand Kivu?
Dr Minal Kabra (MK): We believe that beautiful things happen only when we truly witness our inner energy and channelise it for a greater cause. So when we brainstormed on the brand name, we wanted it to resonate with this core philosophy. We found two beautiful words from two different languages. ‘Chi’ (pronounced as Ki in Japanese) stands for inner energy, and ‘Vu’ in French means seeing. And so, the confluence of the two is Kivu, which stands for seeing your inner energy and using it for the greater good.
ELLE: What is solar baking? Can you tell us about the process?
MK: Not all solar ovens can bake as the temperature required for baking exceeds 180 degrees Celsius. This is achieved in our specially designed Solar Oven that efficiently captures the light and builds temperature ideal for baking cookies.
The typical process starts with preheating the oven for at least an hour till the temperature exceeds 150 degrees Celsius. The cookie dough is then freshly prepared in a batch of 1 kg, and the cookies are spread over the baking tray, which is realigned to face the sun and goes inside the solar oven. After 20-30 minutes, depending on the solar intensity, the tray is pulled out, and cookies are shuffled for a uniform bake. After 40-50 minutes, the tray is removed, and the freshly baked cookies are packed after cooling them at room temperature.
ELLE: During your research, what challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
MK: Solar baking is vastly different from conventional baking, wherein you can control the temperature and time. So, achieving a consistent quality of the baked product is a challenge.
We made things more complex by choosing to bake without the most suitable but sinful ingredients – refined flour, refined sugar, and dairy butter. The alternatives used were jaggery, vegetable oil, and depending on the cookie type, we used amaranth, jowar, whole wheat, oats, or coconut as a base. With no template to follow, we spent a lot of time designing the perfect recipe that would yield a consistent product (despite varying solar intensity) and be easy enough for anyone to bake. We learned the obvious importance of proportion, the time of mixing for different seasons, the grain size of the flour, and most importantly, how the solar oven and the baking time vary with season.
ELLE: Were there any challenges while retailing?
MK: To make people believe that you really can bake using a solar oven was challenging. In our early days, we actually carried the solar oven and gave live demonstrations as barely anyone knew about it. The second challenge was limited shelf life and associated risks of returns. This impacted us severely during the first lockdown as all the retail stores had come to a halt. Eventually, we changed our strategy and focussed more on online sales. Since then, we have been able to grow not just in sales but also in repeat orders.
ELLE: What are the benefits of solar baking?
MK: Solar cooking helps in retaining more nutrients as compared to traditional fuel-fired or electric cooking. It does not emit smoke and harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Every Kivu cookie baked using a solar oven prevents 5g of CO2 from getting into the atmosphere. If solar ovens are used for daily cooking in villages, it will save trees, forex spent on importing crude, and most importantly, improve the health of the women who are presently suffering from wood smoke.
ELLE: What flavours is Kivu available in?
MK: We have Jowar based Ginger Lemon cookies, Amaranth-based Rajgira Coconut cookies, Whole wheat-based Cinnamon Cookies and then chocolate-based Coco Choco and Chocolate oats cookies. These have a shelf life of four months from the day they are baked.
ELLE: What are your future plans for Kivu?
MK: There is a long way to go. As an immediate short-term goal, we intend to create 10 new clusters benefitting 100 families in India by 2023. In the long term, we see Kivu being relished by customers from across the globe, pushing us to set up solar-operated micro clusters in other parts of the world as well. Very soon, we will be launching solar-baked savouries that are vegan, gluten-free and completely healthy.