“Efficient supply chain and better access to agri inputs is crucial for agri-tech startup growth”

INI Farms is an Indian origin Horticulture Company working with over 5000 farmers and exports in over 35 countries. INI Farms has become a leader in pomegranate and banana exports from India. Kimaye bananas and pomegranates are also available with Indian retailers in all major metros. Founded by Pankaj and Purnima Khandelwal, it is a venture funded company with Unilazer (Ronnie Screwvala), Aavishkaar and Aspada. INI Farms has subsidiaries in Dubai, the Netherlands and a joint venture with Future Group. INI has brought technology at the forefront of horticulture, automating farmer aggregation, demand-supply mapping and the entire supply chain helping farmers achieve better returns through superior quality products. Pankaj Khandelwal, Chief Executive Officer, INI Farms shares with AgroSpectrum, his views on the contribution of agri-tech startups in fruit export. Edited excerpts;

How is INI Farms contributing to the fruit export supply chain?

We are an integrated end-to-end horticulture company that works with over 5000 farmers across eight states in India. We move non-seasonal fruits from ‘farm to table’ and own and control the entire supply chain — from sourcing (directly from farmers) to sorting and grading to packaging, branding, and exporting to 35 international markets. INI Farms works with farmers right from the initial stages where we train them to grow export quality produce that meet the international quality standards, in terms of the quality of produce and the level of pesticide used in growing the fruit.

We export around 40,000 tonnes of bananas and 5000 tonnes of pomegranates annually to Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, alongside North America, Australia, and New Zealand, with over 700 domestic modern-trade partners in these markets. We also have subsidiaries in Amsterdam and Dubai. Almost 60 per cent of our exports go to Middle Eastern countries. Today, we are amongst the largest players in fresh fruits, controlling and directing the operations in banana and pomegranates across the entire value chain.

INI Farms is primarily exporting bananas and pomegranates. Any specific reason for selecting only these two fruits?

When we launched INI Farms, we wanted to focus on a one-fruit-at-a-time approach, instead of going for a basket of fruit products. Pomegranates and bananas are round-the-year fruits and have a huge demand in the international as well as the domestic market. Both these fruits have a shelf life of over 30 days, which makes them the ideal fruits to deal with in exports.

While India is the largest grower and producer of bananas, until a few years ago we had almost no presence in the international market as we lacked best practices, post-harvest mechanisms, and export channels. We saw a huge opportunity for growth for export quality bananas. This led us to launch INI Farms by involving the farmers at the root level and helping them improve the quality of the produce at the farm gate. With regard to pomegranates, India is the only country in the world that produces pomegranates round the year, giving us a huge advantage in the international market. Today, INI is amongst the largest exporters of bananas and pomegranates from India.

INI Farms rolled out a QR code-based origin traceability feature for all its fruits in the international and domestic market under the technology programme ‘FruitRoute’. How will it help in increasing exports?

Given the world we are in today, and the current pandemic situation, there is a growing demand for consumers to know where their food is coming from, and how it is grown. As consumer awareness grows, safety of the fruit, and hygiene becomes a priority. In order to address these concerns, we invested in using technology to implement traceability in fruits through QR codes and labelling. This enables the end consumer to trace the fruit back to the farmer.

Through our ‘FruitRoute’ technology QR Code, our consumers can get a transparent insight into the journey of the fruit, from the farmer who cultivated the fruit, the harvest, handling, packaging, transport, and retail. This has helped in building the trust that customers seek while buying fruits from the market.

Furthermore, 100 per cent traceability and direct farmer connect, create a strong brand that is focused on 100 per cent safe fruits for consumption. By allowing to engage directly with our farmers, consumers in both domestic and international markets will become aware of the sustainable and ethical practices through which our farmers grow the fruit.

Through our engagement right at the farm level, to monitor production, packaging, storage and distribution, we have control over quality at each stage ensuring the highest quality fruit reaches our end consumer. We are a brand that offers ethically sourced produce with 100 per cent traceability for our consumers across the globe, as well as offer fair price to the farmers, which are the norms in  trading in the export market.

What is the INI Farms innovation in the field of agriculture?

INI Farms was the pioneer in bringing modern production systems, technology and venture funding into Indian horticulture space. From 2009, INI started building farmer collectives, developing pre- and post-harvest infrastructure and international sales leading to conversion of fragmented industry into modern organised integrated supply chain.

We are implementing best practices like drip irrigation for water management. All of our farms are 100 per cent GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified and suitable for exports. The fruit goes through five inspections before reaching the customer. Modern integrated pack houses and cold storage units are installed for post harvesting, sorting and packaging of fruits. We are using cold logistics in our supply chain. The introduction of the 'FruitRoute' technology has put our Indian farmers on the global horticulture map. This technology has also helped bridge the gap between the urban and rural, while helping customers get superior quality products. INI Farms was the first to introduce this technology in India.

Automated farmer aggregation and demandsupply mapping are few such features that further help farmers in producing superior quality products.

What are the plans and growth strategies of the company for FY 2021-22?

INI Farms is currently expanding its base in the Barmer district of Rajasthan as a key sourcing hub for growing export quality pomegranates. We are closely engaged with farmers, training them to provide technical knowledge on the sustainable methods of cultivating the fruit to reap maximum benefit. Last year, we also launched our D2C e-commerce platform Kimaye.com for our customers in Mumbai. We plan on expanding the e-commerce services to new cities in the coming months.

How does INI Farms help the farmers?

Our farmers are our most important partners. Working with them, bringing advanced technologies to farms, de-risking their business, improving their livelihood and celebrating them is central to our journey. Today, we work with more than 5000 plus farmers and are located in eight Indian states i.e. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Rajasthan. The business model is focussed on organising the entire supply chain from farm level to retail stores. We solve problems at each stage of the process and help connect the farmers directly with retailers. This includes farm level interventions like training and providing them with technical guidance. We also demonstrate and inform our farmers about the standard practices required to produce export quality fruits. Our farmers are provided premium over market price, for improved quality of produce, increasing their income by 30-40 per cent. This has helped us with high farmer retention of  over 95 per cent over the years.

What is the contribution of horticulture startups in the agri-supply chain?

For a smooth supply chain, monitoring the end-to-end supply chain operations by using smart farming technologies is vital. Startups in horticulture have adopted digitisation and automation from farmer aggregation to supply chain management which helps to improve post-harvest efficiency and reduce crop wastage.

Controlling and directing entire operations right from farm-gate to consumer's plate includes large scale farm-level aggregation, managing the supply chain, and delivering quality products. Deep  engagement with farmers helps improving the quality of the products and increasing farmer income.

For example, INI Farms has devised a mobile pack house at farms, where the fruits are packed within an hour of harvest and are cooled and stored within 24 hours. This has succeeded in reducing the supply chain wastage to 1.6 per cent of produce compared to 25-40 per cent initially. In addition to this, large scale farmer education programmes, innovations on India specific supply chain solutions like mobile pack houses, partnerships with local and state government and mobilisation of financial support for farmers has transformed the horticulture exports industry from India.

What inputs are required for the growth of agri-tech startups in India?

For the growth of agri-tech startups in India,  the goal should be to make supply chain efficient and provide better access to agriculture inputs for the farmers. Technology adoptions are important to bring forth farming-related advanced technological mechanisms that will help local farming become a sustainable and profit-yielding venture. Certain measures like micro-funds for innovation support for incubation, acceleration and catalytic funding need to be implemented by the government.

What are the opportunities for agri-tech startups in India?

The agriculture sector contributes approximately 20 per cent to the national GDP and almost 60 per cent of India’s population depends on agriculture as its primary source of revenue. Also, the export market for agricultural produce is huge. The agri-tech sector in India has enormous untapped potential and startups in this sector are playing a pivotal role in easing the burden of farmers by digitising the  complete supply chain with the help of new-age technologies.

Dipti Barve
dipti.barve@mmactiv.com

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