Everybody talks about the way the country's depressed agriculture sector, the main source of income for 40 per cent of our population, has been pulling down our growth figures, but does anyone really care about what our farmers have to offer and how our traditional crops can be turned into money-spinners with some intelligent marketing?
I kept asking these questions when I recently met Puneet Jhajharia and Ishira Mehta, who gave up lucrative, settled careers (Puneet was developing technology solutions for Wall Street and Ishira, after a stint with the NGO, Self Employed Women's Association-SEWA, was with the International Finance Corporation) to launch CropConnect with the purpose of discovering hidden gems from our fields and getting them to the table.
It is a very different startup in a market driven mainly by the urban hunger for a better lifestyle. To set it up, Puneet and Ishira crisscrossed India - across 70,000 kilometres - to contact farmers and see for themselves what's pulling the sector back. Of all the stories they shared with me, I found the one about kiwis grown in Arunachal Pradesh most telling.
India imports 4,000 tonnes of kiwis from New Zealand, Italy and Chile - the most favoured brand name being Zespry - but Arunachal Pradesh grows kiwis too and these sell for 30 per cent lower than the price commanded by the multinational.
Over the last three years, Puneet and Ishira have seen Arunachal's kiwis struggle to gain a toehold in the national market; ironically, there are no takers as long they're identified as locally sourced and cheaper to boot. Fruit wholesalers therefore have hit upon a novel idea, as Puneet and Ishita have discovered, to clear domestic kiwi stock and make more money. They sell them under a foreign label at prices commanded by the imported fruit. Does that benefit Arunachal's kiwi farmers? Well, the market subterfuge does ensure their stocks don't remain unsold, but do they benefit from the higher prices their produce now commands? No way!
The north-east especially, Puneet and Ishira have found out as they go about "mapping the gap between the consumer and the producer", is a treasure trove of products that deserve to be better known in the rest of the country - these include Nagaland's pineapples, Meghalaya's ginger and turmeric, Manipur black rice and passion fruit, and the badi elaichi from Arunachal and Sikkim.
What is more worrying is that many of the traditional crops, some with healing properties, are getting lost forever. These include Karnataka's 'Diana' rice, which has been found to be just right for diabetics. And then there are products just waiting to be discovered, such as jamun powder from Jharkhand (again, beneficial for diabetics); bajra whole wheat biscuits from Jhajjar (Haryana); bamboo 'rice' from the seeds of bamboo blossoms growing in Karnataka; jhangora, or barnyard millet, from Uttarakhand, which is now being hailed as an alternative to quinoa (whose production cannot match the worldwide demand); and another hugely beneficial product from the hill state - nettle tea.
These are baby steps that they hope will lead to the creation of an FMCG brand dedicated to the traditional produce of India - neatly packaged and intelligently marketed. It's a commendable and creative initiative, but one is not good enough. Indian farmers need many more CropConnects to enable them to enter the marketplace without middlemen getting into the picture. Let the free market work in their favour too.