A Call to Farms

Money does not grow on trees, but it can be minted in the fields. Business Today brings you a quartet that shows how it is done.
Shamni Pande        Print Edition: Dec 22, 2013
A Call to Farms
Anil Agrawal, Anil Mittal, Rahoul Jain and Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha

So you thought agriculture was a poor man's business and the high-profile financial world of Dalal Street was the only place to make big bucks, right? Wrong. Actually, many Indian lords of the field are raking it in with simple commodities such as potatoes, maize, rice and soybean, with their success attracting big private equity deals at a time when the rest of the economy is in the grip of a slowdown.

Business Today has picked four agricultural barons to look at how they hit pay dirt.

Take Cornell University-educated Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha, for example, who bet big on potato and maize when Punjab was growing more lucrative crops such as wheat and paddy. Today, the Sangha Group is the largest potato and maize producer in the country.

Then there's Anil Mittal, Chairman and Managing Director of India's top rice exporter, KRBL, who has given India one of its best-known brands, India Gate, and clocked sales of Rs 2,100 crore in basmati.

Some like Rahoul Jain, Managing Director of Capricorn Food, have made their fortune in more unconventional crops. Jain is one of the country's top mango processors and has just received an infusion of Rs 60 crore from private equity firm Quadria Capital.

Little-known Sanwaria Agro Oils's Director Anil Agrawal is another agricultural baron who tapped his family's years of expertise in the soybean business to convert it into a Rs 2,000-crore company.

How did Business Today pick these agricultural barons? Simple, these five commodities represent areas of core need. More importantly, they are also relatively free from frequent government intervention and these entrepreneurs have used innovative technology in businesses that for years saw little or no change at all.

Today, agricultural commodities are more relevant than ever before as India Inc struggles with an economic slowdown and galloping inflation.

Food for Thought: India's food expenditure has shifted towards high-value foods in the last decade, growing at an average of 8 per cent annually
According to a McKinsey-CII study, the agricultural processing business has the potential to grow to Rs 5.7 lakh crore in 2030 from Rs 1.1 lakh crore in 2011. Food exports are expected to rise to Rs 7.7 lakh crore in 2030 from Rs 1.4 lakh crore in 2011. Mangoes, bananas, potatoes, soybean and poultry are expected to lead the rise.

Despite the potential, Indian agriculture is beset with problems. Vast tracts of agricultural land have been lost to non-agricultural uses because of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. Moreover, declining per capita land availability and shrinking farm sizes are also responsible for the slow performance of agriculture. To make things worse, Indian agriculture is dependent on the vagaries of nature, and low mechanisation and power subsidies remain big worries.

"The major issue is that governments do not recognise the farm-to-fork needs of the farmer. Most of the policies are aimed at assisting farmers at field, but major bottlenecks are there when it comes to marketing the produce," says Rakesh Kumar, who heads Nalanda Organic Vegetable Growers' Federation.

Still, agriculture remains the one ray of hope for the economy. According to CRISIL's State of the Nation report, agriculture is set to bounce back because of a bountiful monsoon. As the largest sector in the country employing 52 per cent of the population, it continues to weigh in on GDP growth. "Farm GDP growth could more than double from last year ... This will help check food prices and support rural consumption," it says.

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