When Satguru Jagjit Singh, former chief of Namdharis (a Sikh sect), thought of starting an agribusiness and bought a 50-acre land to grow vegetables and fruits in Bidadi in the 1970s, he never imagined that his venture would one day become a household name in Bengaluru, spread across the country and also take to export. In 1982, he asked his nephew Satguru Uday Singh to take the reins of the operations, and under his guidance, the group formally began its professional journey.
Namdhari’s Group, which has a presence across fresh fruits and vegetables, groceries, dairy, seeds, fine dining and cafes, has a cumulative turnover of ₹ 650 crore. The chain currently has 11 Simpli Namdhari’s stores and 16 Namdhari’s Fresh stores.
Gurmukh Roopra, CEO, Namdhari’s Group, argues that with more and more people from rural areas moving to urban centers for jobs, there is a trend where the number of people engaging in agriculture is gradually decreasing. This opens up an opportunity for the consolidation of landholdings. If landholdings become bigger and agricultural activity is scaled up, incomes of Indian farmers can improve, be said, in an exclusive interview with The Hindu.
What are Namdhari’s immediate expansion plans?
We are looking at a fresh phase of expansion, in Bengaluru and in other metros. All our businesses, mostly seed business and fresh retailing, require new investments. We will be looking for a financial or strategic partner to help us take our story forward. We are planning to raise upto $50 million to scale up our retail network in Bengaluru and across the country in the next 10 months. We are looking at multiple options including strategic or financial partnerships to expand our retail business and seed business. We are also looking at investing organically. Again, it’s less about money or venture capital, it is about finding somebody who believes in the philosophy of Namdhari’s and somebody who wants to take us beyond Bengaluru and make us a truly national story.
What is the future of India’s agriculture, especially when farmers are increasingly abandoning their farms?
There is a short-term approach and a long-term approach to solving this issue. In the short term, if the government’s ambition is to have regulated mandis in every five-kilometer radius of farm regions, we should have 42,000 mandis across the country against some 7000 currently. At present, only 2.8% of the GDP is spent on agriculture while other sectors such as defense, roads, infrastructure and others get a better share. So unless the government increases its investment in farming, improves post-harvest, agricultural marketing, improves market access, set up more cold chains, and establishes links between mandis, things won’t improve.
The reality is, the situation will continue until the country generates more white-collar jobs in many non-agriculture sectors including manufacturing in order to help many farmers to explore alternate livelihood options outside farming. The number of people dependent on ‘not so adequately rewarding agriculture’ has to be reduced and when that happens we will be able to spread the land between fewer numbers of people. This means the size of landholding increases as the number of landowners decreases. You can now do multiple cropping, bringing precision agriculture, the scope for more mechanisation, technology adoption and thereby bringing down the cost of production significantly. And, this is a long-term action.
Incomes of farmers are only dwindling as they are forced to sell their produce below the cost of production. How can we improve farmers’ incomes?
To transform agriculture, both the private sector and the government, in collaboration, should do a lot. We have to bring improvement in crop management and on the post-harvest front. This will automatically upgrade the whole ecosystem. This will also help us explore global markets and become competitive. The international market always compensates better than the domestic market, and this helps farmers earn better prices. Let’s consider just horticulture. Let’s pick citrus, apples, pomegranates, bananas, or let’s pick mangoes. We should have an export-oriented policy, invest in research and develop better Indian varieties that are globally competitive. If we are able to do this, we can easily transform some 10-20 crore farmers into global players.
What should our country do to take our farmers to the global markets?
Just sitting in an office and making a policy, thinking that a document can help double farmers’ incomes is not something that will work. We need to make tangible investments in farming and I personally believe this is extremely critical for our country. We have to invest in farm infrastructure, invest in market creation and in research to develop better varieties. Today, we do almost a thousand tons of apple trading from the North to the South of the country. But our farmers are left with apple trees of old genetics and variety and the apples grown on these trees go soft and perish quickly. A farmer, who grows any crop today, will get four different grades of the same crop, two grades are easily marketable and exportable for better premiums. The same thing applies to citruses, vegetables, field crops, grains, or anything. It’s not about doing something revolutionary in farming, it’s about doing something tangible throughout the supply chain, from farms to consumers’ homes. And through these practices, we can increase farmer incomes by 20? or 30%.
Can you talk a bit about your seed business? How do you grow seeds for various climatic conditions?
Seeds is our single largest business, it accounts for close to 50% or 60% of our top line. Research is the most important element in the seed business. We train farmers in India, also in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Thailand. We also have a research station in Turkey, which caters to the Middle East market, which is Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. We work with farmers in each of these geographies. Seed research for each of these countries is very specific. It’s not like you breed a seed in India and grow it somewhere else. Today, we distribute our seeds through almost 15,000 to 20,000 distributor points across the country. Namdhari’s Seeds (research, production and sale of seeds) turnover is ₹ 300 crore. Our core area of research is vegetable crops. Every five years we release about 60 new hybrids across 30 plus crops that we work on.
What kind of R&D is happening around seeds? Why do you say seed-producing farmers enjoy a better status?
We are pioneers in developing seeds in the country. We offer seed production technologies to farmers in Karnataka’s Ranebennur, Koppal and Chikmagalur. Seed-producing farmers enjoy a better hierarchy as they earn better compensation from sales of seeds when compared to fresh produce farmers. Our R&D presence is combined with about 30 research breeders. These are MSCs and PhDs holders. Then we have scientists who work in molecular labs, pathology labs, and tissue culture labs. We have 20 different research stations across the country, focusing on different climatic conditions, where we screen and test our plant material. Between a lot of trials and testing, the typical gestation period for bringing a product into the market is between five to seven years. A few of the varieties we focus on mainly include tomatoes, okra, chillies, watermelons and gourds.
How many farmers do you work with in Karnataka?
We work with farmers via the production and marketing routes. In terms of production, we work with about 25,000 to 30,000 farmers across the country. On the marketing side, we work with 800 distributors and 15,000 dealer touchpoints who in turn work with many farmers across the country. As a policy, Namdhari’s aren’t allowed to give out region-wise numbers.