Meet Ramesh Kumar and Tho Pin Da, the founders of Asmara, a line of healthy beverages crafted in Singapore. These beverages incorporate TCM, Ayurveda, and Jamu as well as herbs and flowers that are perfectly curated to serve the modern palate. Their drinks have also gained recognition and awards among many local media. We interviewed them to share their story and passion behind their product. Read on to find out more about their inspiring entrepreneurial journey!

How did you come up with the idea for Asmara?

Asmara® harnesses the scientific elements from TCM, Ayurveda, and Jamu along with clinical breakthroughs to curate our beverages using herbs, flowers, fruits, roots, and prebiotics. Our beverages are 100% natural, high in fibre (4 apples equivalent), contain prebiotics, and manufactured in an ISO22000 certified facility in Singapore. Our tagline and “aim” was in – redefining tradition, redefining nutrition, and redefining you.

Our award-winning natural beverages were developed by certified Food Scientists and science-based Herbalists for targeted nutrition:

A novelty was required to offer more options to Singaporeans than the usual range of overseas products. We needed products that are formulated based on Singaporeans’ taste preference, health concerns, and choice of ingredients. Most imported products are usually formulated based on the preferences and health trends of their own respective region/country. Therefore, Asmara’ food scientists conducted focus group, consumer survey, and scientific sensory evaluation to carefully develop a suitable product to suit Singaporean concerns and taste buds. Singapore is also home to various cultures and traditions, which have their herbal and medical systems such as TCM, Ayurveda, and Jamu. However, science and traditional medicine have differences in opinion. Therefore, merging science with traditional medicine is always a challenge. Even though there are various herbal products in the market, the science behind these products is always questionable. Asmara took up the challenge to combine science with our local Asian herbalism.

As certified food scientists who have researched the area of herbs, polysaccharides, nutrition, and product development, it was easier for us to combine tradition with science to create novel food products for Singaporeans. As food scientists, we strongly felt that we should revolutionise the way we see food, nutrition, and traditional medicine in Singapore. We tend to rely heavily on the West, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia for food and health trends, even though we have several hidden gems within the multicultural sphere of Singapore. Our main concern is that 90% of food and beverages in Singapore are imported – making food security a prime concern. Singapore is heavily dependent on other countries for functional health products and trends. Therefore, we started Asmara R&D consultancy and Asmara® product brand line to spearhead and pioneer the development of high-quality and cutting-edge functional health products for Singaporeans and the global consumer market.

Did you start the venture alone?

Ramesh and Pin Da started the venture together. Both the co-founders were university classmates in 2010 (studying food technology) – who went through lots of stressful and precious moments together as good friends (more like brothers!). They have been the closest of friends for the past ten years and now business partners since 2018.

We put our thoughts together and started to take actions to build a brand. We put down our creativity and our technical knowledge together, and we began to build the company. We both had full-time jobs when we started Asmara as we had to support ourselves and our family financially. It was also a big struggle because none of us had a business, marketing, nor branding knowledge.

Ramesh Krish Kumar​ is Asmara’s Managing Director and a professional food scientist and modern-day apothecarist (food alchemist). He currently oversees Asmara’s product development, marketing, and business development. Simply to say, he is the “brain” and “nervous system” of Asmara – always designing, planning, ideating, creating, and envisioning. As a food scientist (not a cliché!), he has worked more than seven years in the area of product development, herbalism, and nutrition research while developing more than 40 functional food products (wicked!) in 2018. He has also lectured (loves to talk!) and tutored local diploma students in Food Chemistry and Nutrition during his employment with Temasek (he misses teaching!). Ramesh graduated with a Bachelor (Hons.) and Master of Food Technology (Dist.) from Massey University (New Zealand) and Diploma in Food Science and Nutrition from Temasek Polytechnic. He is a professional and recognised member of The New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology. Ramesh has a strong passion in the area of traditional medicine, theology, sociology, psychology, nutrition, and the “eye” for design. Asmara does not have an in-house designer or marketer, which forces Ramesh to switch brains from left to right often! His eye for perfectionism (blessing?) and creativity has shaped Asmara’s name and branding. As a scientist, he wanted to revolutionise the way foods are consumed in Asia and add a new purpose and meaning (with a lot of struggles) to his life-journey, which resulted in the birth of ASMARA.

Tho Pin Da​ is Asmara’s Operation Director and a professional food and packaging technologist. He currently oversees Asmara’s operations, logistics, quality, & safety. Simply to say, he is the crucial “heart” and “lungs” of Asmara – ensuring that every aspect of the company is “alive”, “functioning”, and well “oxygenated”. Pin Da graduated with a Bachelor (Hons) of Food Technology from Massey University and a Diploma in Chemical Process Technology (Food) from Singapore Polytechnic. His area of research is in packaging technology, meat science, meat-alternatives (cool!), shelf life, food safety, and food processing. Pin Da’s passion is very complex, but he has dedicated most of his time in understanding and developing different food products throughout the years. He started Asmara because it added ownership to him and a real purpose for him, actual value to the consumers, and an opportunity to learn, challenge and grow. He wanted to revolutionise the way people view local food products in Singapore. As food technologists – business, numbers, and operations are slightly alien; which further provoked Pin Da to delve deeper into building a strong and successful ASMARA.

What was the hardest part in the early stages of the company’s growth? Do you think luck played a role in the success of Asmara?

The Threads of Fabric Behind A Brand. Each and every brand is pinned together by fabrics of struggles and sacrifices. These struggles redefine a brand and its creators. The same goes for Asmara.

Within a year, Asmara grew from an unknown and unheard brand to a “proudly Singaporean” and “food scientist curated” brand those uniquely combined elements of our unique multicultural heritage. The overreliance on overseas products and underappreciated local talents drove the need for Asmara to grow further.

Starting a brand is not easy, especially with no support, no business background, no manpower, and no funds. Blood, sweat, and sleepless nights were spent to create four products. The launched products had to be continuously cared for like a “newly-born child”; where the marketing, branding, public relations, and sales required proper execution.

Many did not understand the amount of anguish, effort, time, brains, creativity, wits, patience, disappointments, and burnouts it took to reach this point. We slept at 3 am and woke up at 7 am every single day. We managed an exhausting full-time job to support ourselves while fighting to create a new brand.

Then we had to give up our jobs, comfort, security, financial stability, and peace to grow the business further. Financially, emotionally, and physically, we were fully burnout. Some did not understand what it takes to start a brand or even merely to run a start-up. Many laughed, a few smirked, some challenged, some never gave support, and others grinned away. We did not have any business, marketing, branding or even photographic skills. However, our passion drove us and pushed us.

We are not sure whether Asmara will ever grow to become a prominent and successful brand. However, we are very proud of how Asmara has evolved from a small mustard seed to a beautiful young tree with strong roots and a great story. We are shattered with no energy, but we will do everything in our power to ensure the tree flourishes and produce fruits of success for everyone to enjoy.

They say money and profit drive the success of any business. However, we firmly believe that passion, sacrifice, and love for what you do – are the most critical factors that determine the success of any brand, story or business.

We would say that was and “is” extremely tiring, we wake up at 7 am every day, and we sleep at about 3 am every morning so we get very little sleep and to be very honest it has always been a struggle. Plus, we do not have much business or marketing experiences, so it has been a very rocky rollercoaster ride, and we had a lot of ups and downs. What we realised was that we need to be very proactive and very passionate in the area.

It’s either we’re going to make it, or we’re going to lose everything. Hence we have put everything that we have, every single cent, every single amount of energy, every individual effort, every single drop of passion, to make this happen. Starting this business is extremely scary. I would say that one thing that made me continue is that it is incredibly fulfilling/satisfying. The satisfaction, the fulfilment, and the sense of accomplishment; these are things that work so synergistically together to push us towards our passion. As I said, when we start or run a business, the first aim should not be to make money, you should be asking yourself specific questions like, are you happy with what you’re doing? Is this something that you love? Is this something that you want to wake up every morning to do? If the answer is no for all of these questions and your only aim of starting a business is to make “quick” money, then it’s going to be slightly tricky as well. Thus, passion and determination are very crucial.

For the past one year there were lots of ups and downs, a lot of scary moments, a lot of jaw-breaking moments, a lot of difficulties, a lot of tears have been shed, and a lot of sleepless nights have been spent. However, that is what business is all about and at the same time that is how we start to build an empire, and we hope that this doesn’t crush us, but instead it builds us up further and allows us to progress further. Starting our own business, if you asked us to do it again, we would be very scared, but now we feel very confident and we are happy that we are living our passion and our dream. We don’t know whether Asmara will become a very big and successful company, but one thing’s for sure, we feel a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.

As I see Asmara progress, as the Asmara brand grows, as people come up to me and say I have seen your products, I have bought your products, you have one of the most amazing products, your product tastes good, and you have redefined the way that healthy foods are being consumed. In essence, it puts a smile on our face, and that is what makes our day.

The scariest part was always wondering if I was doing the right thing. Am I making the correct decisions? Am I making the right move? Am I taking the proper investments? Is it the right thing for me to reject an investment? In this past one and a half years, we have altogether had more than 15 different entities who have approached us showing interest to invest in us, and I always have doubts in my mind. We were proud that we had more than 15 investment companies contacting us, but we were also self-doubting our abilities. The self-doubt is something that was holding us back, and this is something that we learnt to overcome and have learnt to push forward to make a difference.

How has the health industry changed in the last year?

I would say that things are changing very much in Singapore in recent years. We are becoming health-conscious and increasingly conscious about what we put in our bodies. I slowly see a transition in Singapore whereby people are getting more active, and people are putting more effort into reading the labels, and to mind what they are eating. I wouldn’t say that the mass majority is becoming health-conscious; of course, we do have another majority of people who are not as health-conscious as well. However, when it comes to our health status, we have to remember that our obesity rates, diabetes rates, and our chronic illness risk rates are increasing in Singapore which is something we have to be very mindful about. Although as a society, we are slowly trying to get healthy, the risk of chronic diseases is alarming. People always love to take shortcuts. They want a quick-fix, something like a tonic/detox/cleanse, which they can drink and immediately lose weight and instantly feel better or reverse a specific type of chronic condition. It is essential to understand that no supplement, no food product, and no special tonic is going to reverse or cure a certain type of illnesses. However, a very holistic approach is required with: food in moderation, a very balanced diet, incorporation of healthy ingredients and foods, regular exercises – all these significant modifications are required to reduce the risk of certain health conditions. The incorporation of specific types of herbs, “superfoods”, and healthy ingredients will be beneficial in boosting certain health effects and health properties as well.

What advice would you give to a health company just starting their business online?

They say money and profit drives the success of any business. However, we firmly believe that passion, sacrifice, and love for what you do – are the most critical factors that determine the success of any brand, story or business. When we were growing up, we never dreamed that we were going to be a businessman. We realised that we always wanted to have ownership of what we do, and we wanted to make an impact, but we lacked the self-confidence and skills. What is essential for business, for us, that we understood (with time) was actually a few key ingredients. Number one is passion, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. We realise that many people start a business because the first thing they want to do is become wealthy or to make money. There is nothing wrong with that. Yes, money is the most important factor for any business, but if you lack the passion or lack the interest in what you are doing, it is not going to sustain you for a very long period of time. Although we did not have any knowledge or background in branding, marketing, or business administration, our passion along with the eye for details, perfection, design, and creativity was one of the main reasons that allowed us to start a business and to reach where I am today.

We hope you enjoyed it and we thank Ramesh Kumar and Tho Pin Da for this interesting interview.

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