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Feeding 1.5 million children every day

Most talk about entrepreneurship and food in the current Indian context revolves around food tech: an array of mobile applications that customise both eating and delivery experience.

That conversation, however, tends to exclude the potentially enormous market that exists in food manufacturing where quality control and economies of scale are equally important.

The third role model featured in the Jagriti Yatra is Akshaya Patra, a trust based in Visakhapatnam that has managed to tackle one of the world’s largest feeding programmes — the mid-day meal scheme — and become a major partner to governments in nine states.

Akshaya Patra started by feeding 1,500 children in 2000. The idea evolved from a principle it sought to fulfil from the Hare Krishna movement: that nobody around a 10-mile radius of a temple should ever go hungry.

Supreme Court ruling

In 2005, a Supreme Court ruling mandated that every child who went to school should get a hot nutritious meal. It gave rise to what we now know as the national mid-day meal scheme. Since they already had experience in conducting similar programmes, Akshaya Patra entered into a public-private partnership model with the Andhra Pradesh government where the government provides raw grain, rice in this case, and monetary help.

Though the Andhra government initially figured it only had funds to provide two items — like sambar and rice — Akshaya Patra decided to scale up the model to provide an additional third item like curd or a sweet dish.

Technologically, this soon proved to be a challenge. From 1,500 meals a day, Akshaya Patra was asked to scale up to one lakh meals.

“We had to change the process which till then only involved manual cooking and the only solution was to turn to technology,” explained Sriman Satya Gaura Chandra Dasa, president of Akshaya Patra Foundation, Hyderabad. “We explored all existing technology and found that there was nothing that could scale up to producing one lakh meals a day. So we had to think about our own solutions to improve the existing technology.”

It wasn’t long before Akshaya Patra was asked to provide mid-day meals in some locations in Rajasthan and that proved to be a different challenge.

“Rajasthan has a mostly wheat-based diet and that means that for one lakh children at least three lakh chapattis need to be produced,” said Mr Dasa. “Again we explored the technology market and found that the fastest machine could produce 1,000 chapattis an hour. So we had to sit with the manufacturer and improve the machine till it can now shoot out about 50,000 chapattis in one hour.”

For cleaning rice, Akshaya Patra collaborated with Swiss company Tetra Pak to import a machine that cleans rice faster.

Akshaya Patra now feeds 1.5 million children in 10 states across 24 locations. Though it is a trust and may not necessarily work for profit, it plans to expand its business by speaking to various state governments.

For improving quality control, it has set up four labs across the country to test cooked food products to check for their nutritional value and safety.

“Recently, we received Rs 50 crore from the Tatas exclusively for innovation,” said Niskinchana Bhakta Das, head of the Visakhapatnam production unit.

Aside from testing food, the funds that Akshaya Patra received also go into a gamut of technological innovations. Chief among these are thermo-insulated delivery vehicles that keep food hot until they reach schools and a gravitational kitchen model that drastically speeds up the process. Most of these innovations are funded through grants but some of the trust’s income is also reinvested into innovation.

Akshaya Patra follows a centralised model where food is prepared in one location and transported to schools in various locations through its custom-built vans. Mr Das says this is the major reason it has chosen to focus on urban or semi-urban areas. Only two of its 24 locations across India are rural and it requires a decentralised model.

“The problem with outsourcing to different centres is that it becomes very difficult to control quality,” he said.

Decentralised model

This reflects the problems faced by various state governments who follow a decentralised model, where preparation of food is handled at individual centres. The results are often disastrous. Two years ago, over 70 children died in Rajasthan as a result of poor quality mid-day meals.

“Immediately after that incident we had a lot of requests from state governments, like in Goa and UP, to come there and provide meals,” said Mr Das. “There is also an opportunity in Tamil Nadu now since Akshaya Patra did stellar work in feeding people during the floods despite not having a kitchen there.”

But rather than wait for requests, Akshaya Patra actively seeks avenues to expand. “We see a lot of opportunities in Gujarat where we already have four centres,” said Mr Das. “There, along with a grant, the state government also provides land and links us with a donor. The other major opportunity for expansion is UP.”

Though Akshaya Patra has a history of serving meals to large groups, it’s worth asking why similar models have not been replicated. One problem, says Rajesh Haldipur, a senior executive from PwC in Mumbai who is part of the yatra, is that such solutions will have to overcome vested interests.

“Akshaya Patra produces meals at Rs 8 per child. There may be others who inflate that amount to a lot more. After the Supreme Court ruling, every school has a mid-day meal scheme and a lot of those contracts may be given to vested interests who don’t want private players to come in,” he said.

Akshaya Patra nearly signed a deal with the Maharashtra government during the Ashok Chavan regime but after he was removed following the Adarsh scam, that deal went cold.

“Till the Central government introduces stringent world-class quality control as a prerequisite to operate a mid-day meal scheme, private parties may often find their route blocked,” said another yatri. Will it take another tragedy such as in Rajasthan for things to give way some more?

Akshaya Patra follows a centralised model where food is prepared in one location and transported to schools through custom-built vans

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 1:18:54 PM |

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