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Focus development in Rural India

Rural India as the source, not just as a destination market

India’s Cold-chain sector was traditionally driven by the industrial infrastructure and equipment providers and various documents output by industry bodies like CII and FICCI and large consulting firms drove across the need for greater storage infrastructure required in this sector. The country followed through, and over years developed an enviable capacity in cold storage, amongst the largest in the world. Yet, our cold-chain is still considered nascent and troubled. As a follow-up, the government of India constituted the NCCD; sanctioned by the cabinet in February 2012, envisaged as a think tank to policy makers, involving participation from cold storage providers, technology & equipment providers, consultants and grower associations.

Ever since its incubation, the National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD) has moved the understanding that mere storage of produce is not the final solution to food distribution. Cold-chain means market linkage and it involves a series of inter-weaved activities and has an expanded horizon beyond temperature controlled storage. NCCD thereby opened its participation base to include educational institutions, farmers and producers, traders and sellers, self-help groups, consumer groups, student groups, agri-entrepreneurs and enterprises involved in air, sea, rail & road logistics, finance, retail, research, packaging, marketing, etc.

Today, besides the equipment providers & store owners, the entire cold-chain user base, including who are impacted by it and those who add value in form of knowledge or R&D, now have opportunity to contribute directly to future developments. Through such collective participation from a wider stakeholder base, more conjoined inputs for holistic development is resulted and made this unique brain trust (NCCD) even more inclusive across all cold-chain segments.

Efforts were then undertaken to identify what were the major missing links in India's cold-chain, specifically in relation to fresh agricultural produce. Various options were put forth…

My personal response is immediate (and apologetically repetitive); we have not focused on the initiators of the cold-chain! We need to realise that the cold stores are primarily the middle links in the chain, and are designed to function for goods that already exist in the cold-chain. Therefore, they serve perfectly as conduits for imported fresh produce and in fact have helped imports grow tenfold. Conversely, our own fresh produce does not enter the cold store because they never ever got opportunity to access the cold pipeline, since the entry points were absent and these are not to be confused with cold stores.

Cold-chain is best perceived as goods flowing in a pipeline; and this pipeline needs to have a source point. These source points or feeder units for our fresh produce are the missing links; these are the modern farm-gate pack-houses which must necessarily be positioned in rural India. In my opinion, the cold-chain sector cannot develop at a faster pace without such development happening at village level, in rural India. Without the option to precondition or prepare the produce for the cold chain, access to a cold store is in fact detrimental!

There is also frequent enquiry as to why even bother with the cold chain. Answer is simple, today's cluster approach to farming and furthermore, the high density cluster of consumers. If these two are not appropriately bridged, we will suffer food loss and all that is input to produce it. Which brings me to say, cold chain does not preserve food from loss, instead it ensure reach through scientific logistics.

Please realise... and I implore all to understand, that the first counter to wastage, in case of perishable food, is to reach out to a wider consumer base, asap! Every farmer who handles perishable crops knows his first priority is to make a sale, not store to await a future transaction. This rule applies both within and without the cold-chain.

Cold-supply-chain is the only method that will allow our farmers and producers to stretch beyond their existing local markets and reach across regions to various urban consumption centres. The primary development strategy we should adopt is to expand the sellers’ reach into more buying regions to enable a sale; and to store surplus being the secondary tactic, so as to sustain the delivery mechanism. The best example of this is what already happens with milk, on a daily basis.

Without an appropriate cold-chain, our rural farmers are limited in their market outreach and therefore restricted to their traditional existing selling grounds. So far, the way our infrastructure enablers have been developed, it has ignored this concept and mostly functioned to help foreign farmers to link to domestic Indian consumers. It is time to that our own farmers start to benefit from our developments.

To achieve that, I strongly recommended that the country develop cold-chain feeder units; modern pack-houses with pre-coolers and appended staging cold rooms. India should have more than 100,000 of these units in farming regions; and these along with other changes proposed as interventions to support transport links, will be harbingers of development, in rural India. These units will feed into the cold supply chain and will be the first link between farm and fork.

It is also my personal belief that the farmers/producers should own the produce till the last possible moment. Today, they shed custody at the first instance and thereafter the product has no real ownership until it enters last mile retail. This ownership gap can be alleviated by agri-entrepreneurs who can form the bridge between farmer/producers and urban India. I only hope that as a nation we can enable this, which too, will help take the nation to the next level. The tools deployed to complete the bridge, especially in case of high value horticulture, is the cold-chain. Linking rural India to the rest of India, and possibly the world, is the revelation that is the cold-chain!

Frequently we hear that a large number of cold storage have shut down. This may well have been because of lack of goods moving through them. Once again, the question is that were there any initiators of the cold-chain, to feed these cold stores? Was rural India participating as the source in the overall scheme of affairs in the cold chain? Another reason for some of the closures was higher energy costs which stemmed from low application of technology. Initiatives need to include specific support mechanism to promote energy efficiency and technology induction is necessary for our future development.

Yet, despite these facts, our existing storage capacity does good service in other sectors. We have amongst the largest networks for milk and dairy products, potato is available all through the year for consumers and we are the largest exporters of meat products in the world, to name a few successes. None of that would have been possible without the cold-chain and the fact that all of these successes had also developed primary originators of the produce; milk collection centres, abattoirs, poultry farms, ice cream factories, etc.

A frequent lament is availability of quality manpower in the agri-sector. I profess that this complaint is mostly overdone. In agriculture, the sector considered most arduous is horticulture and you will be heartened to know that in 2012-13, our horticulture output has surpassed that of conventional grains. Our farmers have produced more than 260 million tons of horticulture crops and it is notable that this has happened off a mere 15% of the total land area under agriculture. So, at the production end, our manpower is surely efficient. Greater efficiency will further come through use of technology which allows for modern practices.

On the post-harvest and supply chain front, we have yet to test the calibre of our manpower. In my opinion, first focus should be on empowering the sector with the appropriate tools that help to link source to consumption markets. This will build a platform for success and success will attract all the talented human resources we need. Notwithstanding, the government continues to provide various skill development opportunities to all areas in this sector.

Everyone tends to view rural India as a market, the next sales frontier steeped with consumers. It is time that rural India took up cudgels and stretched back in reverse, beholding more of urban India their direct consumers. Rural India needs to command respect as providers, but for that they need to link directly as the source with the urban populace. If rural India cannot expand their market reach, I fear stagnation.

We should aim to provide direction towards developing India’s rural landscape, to promote successful models and enterprises that truly enhance the wealth creation capability of our country. This means, not just to sell into our villages, but to enable them as an even greater source point of goods, food and affluence.

The future of India is its rural farmscape... and I see that future dotted with Cold-chain.

-Pawanexh Kohli
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