G.K. Nair

Kochi, Oct. 30

IF the entire quantity of an estimated 700 tonne of synthetic vanillin used in the country by various industries is substituted by natural vanillin that itself would open up tremendous potential for growing vanilla in the country.

Natural vanilla could be made available to the huge domestic market at competitive price if the cultivation, processing and extraction is done on an economy scale, according to Mr Abraham and Ms Regina Manimalethu, US-based NRIs, who have set up a pilot plant at Ranni in Pathanamthitta district. They have set up the modern plant in collaboration with Vanilla manufacturers in the US for processing vanilla beans and making vanilla extract for marketing in the US.

Mr Abraham, who is the head of the company, CZR Vanilla Corp, said that to build up a sizeable market for the natural vanillin in India firstly, "we will have to popularise the product in the Indian market and secondly, it should be made available at competitive prices".

He said that the consumer would be ready to pay a premium price for the natural product but the difference between the prices of natural and synthetic vanillin should remain at acceptable levels. But, for producing natural vanilla extract, green beans should have to be made available at moderate prices. The growers should be ready to sell A-grade beans having a length of 17 cm at Rs 250 a kg.

Mr Tomy Kuriackose, one of the directors of CZR, said that when the prices of vanilla shot up to $450 a kg in the international market and the farmers in the State were getting over Rs 3,000 a kg for green bean, many people had suddenly took up cultivation of this crop making unreasonably high investments. When the modest investment required for raising vanilla in one acre is around Rs1.25 lakh many had spent several fold towards cost of planting material and on other farm management practices without realising the fact that world vanilla market is small, highly volatile and depends on the crop in Madagascar, the world's largest producer.

In the process, many have burnt their fingers. But, it is highly remunerative compared to other cash crops such as rubber. From one acre the grower could get a yield of an average 1000 kg from the fourth year and at Rs 250 a kg, the income would come to Rs 2.5 lakh, he said.

The major dissuading factor in Kerala is that the cost of production here is higher because of the high labour cost while in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is comparatively less and hence the growers in these States could offer their produce at lower prices.

Mr Abraham, who had successfully completed the Rs 50-lakh pilot project, by producing fungus free, high quality, moist, plump and aromatic beans equivalent to that found in gourmet stores in the USA, said that because of the high labour cost, the plant for commercial production of cured beans and extract might be set up in Karnataka because of the availability of good quality of green beans and cheap labour.

He said that his company had a tie-up with a major supermarket chain in America and hence marketing of the products would not be a problem.

However, he said, India has a huge market and if one per cent of the country's population consumed 100 ml of natural vanilla extract a year there would emerge a great demand for it. Hence the potential for vanilla is going to be tremendous, he added.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 31, 2005)
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