In Mamarathupalayam, a sleepy little town 10 km from Erode in southern Tamil Nadu, about half a dozen turmeric farmers wait patiently, samples of their produce neatly arranged on sheets of newspaper in front of them. Their name, the name of their village, and the quantity of their produce are displayed next to the little heaps of turmeric. They are at the factory of Sakthi Masala Pvt Ltd, one of the largest producers of branded spices in southern India.
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Sakthi does not purchase produce unless a member of the family that owns the company personally inspects and approves it. This takes time, but the farmers do not mind, because they don't need to deal with middlemen, and they get paid directly.
"Almost all our purchases are cleared by family members, to ensure that we buy the best possible inputs so that our products are of impeccable quality," says Santhi Duraisamy, Director, Sakthi Masala, and a driving force behind the company's growth. That is no small task: the company buys 36,000 tonnes of inputs every year. "If you ask me to describe the reason for our success in one word, it is quality," she says.
The rags-to-riches story of Sakthi Masala began in 1975, when Santhi's husband P.C. Duraisamy, then a turmeric trader, decided to venture into the world of branded retail. What began with an investment of Rs 10,000 in a 300 sq ft space today occupies more than 30 acres, employs 1,000 workers, and has a turnover of more than Rs 330 crore. Sakthi makes more than 50 varieties of spice and masala powders, besides pickles, flour, papad and ghee. The company is a leading player in the branded masala segment although its market share is difficult to gauge considering the unorganised nature of the industry.
In its early days, the biggest hurdle the company faced was not competition from multinational companies or established local players. Rather, the challenge was to change age-old cooking practices in Tamil homes. "Women preferred to make the masala powders themselves, as they were particular about taste and quality," says Santhi. "Buying them was unthinkable, and we had to win over the housewives."
While maintaining the quality of the inputs, the company had to continuously innovate its manufacturing processes. "There was no specific machinery for the production of spices and spice blends. Through experience and suitable changes in the process, we were able to produce and package spices and spice mixes that retained the aroma and flavour," she says. "We had to arrive at the perfect blend of tradition and technology." As a result, acceptance increased rapidly, helped by the fact that women have been increasingly taking up jobs outside the home and easy cooking became a way of life.
Today, Sakthi Masala products are available in almost all parts of South India, and in other major cities with a significant South Indian population. The company also exports to Australia, Europe, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, the United States and West Asia. The closely held company is cagey about its growth plans. "We want to widen our product range and constantly upgrade our technology" is all Santhi is willing to say.