Agri Business

Spice farming in North-East gets a ‘green cover’

Pratim Ranjan Bose Guwahati | Updated on May 03, 2019 Published on May 03, 2019

A farmer examines newly-planted turmeric plants on her farm in Assam in this file photo   -  BUSINESS LINE

Greencover Overseas, a private enterprise, helps farmers in cultivating new varieties and exporting them

M Krishna Saikia and his friend Sonjoy Changkakaty incorporated Greencover Overseas in Guwahati in 2004. Nearly 15 years later, Greencover is one of the most prominent traders and exporter of spices from North-East India, with a turnover of around ₹5 crore, which includes contribution of seeds.

The low turnover and the long gestation, is an indicator of both the problem and prospects of dealing with organic foods from the region.

Contrary to the perception created by successive State governments and after spending hundreds of crores in subsidies, Assam and the North-East, in general, are still in their infancy in tapping the potential of growing overseas demand for organic foods.

Non-availability of quality seeds, low and scattered production, lack of standardisation; non-availability of Apeda-registered packing houses — which is particularly important for exports to the EU — in the entire region comprising seven States, etc are some of the problems.

The Lakadong turmeric

Take for instance, turmeric, which enjoys huge demand in Europe for its anti-arthritis properties and contributes to the bulk of Greencover’s business.

The price of turmeric rises with the curcumin content. The region grows the Lakadong variety with high (over 7 per cent) curcumin content.

But, the plant is extremely location-sensitive and grows in half a dozen villages in Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, leave alone the lower yield.

“Lakadong is a niche product and doesn’t offer any large-scale business opportunity. The Meghalaya campus of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research developed a variety which has 5-6 per cent curcumin content, but the yield is too low for the price it fetches,” said Saikia.

New varieties

He solved the problem by introducing the Rajendra Sonia variety, developed by Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University in Bihar, to farmers. It offered the balance between yield, curcumin content and market price.

The introduction of the new variety, however, didn’t come easy. To convince farmers, Saikia had to float a non-profit, North East Organic, that would grow the spice on a pilot basis and demonstrate the results to farmers.

The process took years but Saikia is happy with the results. Rajendra Sonia offers double the yield of local varieties at a comparable market price.

Upping the value chain

With volume rising, the company is now setting up a ₹5-crore integrated spice processing unit with 50 per cent capital subsidy under the recently introduced Mission Organic Value Chain Development (MOVCD) for the North Eastern Region.

The integrated unit will have a packaging house, among other things, which means Greencover (and other players in the region) can tap the entire value and directly export products from Guwahati.

“Volume and standardisation are critical to agri-trade. The problem of the region is it lacks on both counts. The local varieties of pepper and ginger are smaller than required. Also, such discrepancies create problem for automated processing, which is mandatory for exports,” he said.

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Published on May 03, 2019
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