How CSIR-CFTRI is making farmers the new entrepreneurs
The story of CSIR-CFTRI, a food research centre focussed on all-India agricultural production based in Mysuru, begins with a princess.
In the early 1900s, the beautiful Renaissance style palace that now hosts CFTRI (Central Food Technological Research Institute) was Princess Cheluvambamani Avaru’s residence. Back then, food shortages were ordinary troubles, as inefficient transportation caused crops to go bad before reaching the place of consumption. In her last will, Princess Cheluvambamani donated her palace to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which funded the CFTRI, hoping this would help find solutions to the wasteful food supply system.
Almost a century later the centre still stands proud and tall. But now that better streets and means of transport have eliminated great part of the princess’ time problem, what’s the new role of CFTRI?
Access to remote rural areas increased the competition over the profitability of agricultural resources. Farmers, industrialists and middlemen are the players involved, but in quite paradoxical dynamics. Professor Ram Rajasekharan, Director of the centre, told us: “At the moment, most farmers buy refined food at double the price that they sell as unprocessed products to big corporates.” For example, they sell rice to industries for Rs10/kg and buy it for domestic consumption at Rs20/Kg!
India figures as one of the biggest producers of cereals, vegetables and fruits, spices, and fibre in the world. However, the loss incurred by farmers is estimated to be around 40%. Current laws prevent farmers from selling directly to end consumers giving rise to multiple levels of intermediation, despite government’s attempt to prevent this.
CFTRI does not want to revolutionise the market rules, but to improve farmers’ economic situation and ultimately increase their purchasing power. Rajasekharan says: “Our efforts are to strengthen the farmers’ knowledge base and technical skills, and to migrate from crop producers to entrepreneurs who sell primary/secondary processed foods. The mission is to change farming in India from an occupation to an industry.” New technologies and new crops are the first steps for making this happen.
One of the most significant steps was to provide 100 farmers in Karnataka with free quinoa and chia. These crops are not only ‘super food’, but also very versatile as every single part can be processed and commercialised (for example, stems and leaves can be used for medicinal purposes or to make soaps and detergents etc.).
The issue of accessibility to technology is a delicate one. Rajasekharan said: “Farmers who choose to set up their own processing plants will need to take the subsidies provided by the Ministry of Food Processing, Government of India; funding from banks and other financial institutions.” But this may not be easy for all.
To simplify the process, CSIR has recently launched CSIR-800, an incubator for technological scientific solutions with a focus on marketing to help 800 million people below poverty line in Indian villages.
It is still at an early stage and the main aim now is to survey different areas and spread awareness about the massive potential of technology. Renu Agrawal, CSIR-800 coordinator, said: “I have myself taken teams of scientists to the remote areas, including Naxalite ones, and we’ve observed diffused interest in scientific solutions, especially regarding yield enhancement and prevention of post harvest losses.”
The centre has undertaken a very innovative task and it needs to be extra-accurate to make the project viable. “CSIR-CFTRI evaluates all the technologies thoroughly before we talk about it to the public. We develop not just the technology, but work on cost benefit analysis and business plan before we disseminate the information to farmers and industries. Our efforts are of continuous improvement on existing technology solutions and innovative research to develop newer technologies” explains Rajasekharan.
The mission is sponsored by the government and can have a great reach. So far, All India Farmers Association Presidents, Horticulture Departments, and independent farmers have approached CSIR-800 for collaboration.
Their action is disrupting – despite a positive connotation. Middlemen would not just passively observe the change and will try their way to maintain the business. Questions are numerous, not last involving the behaviour of farmers themselves and the way they apply technology with business models. The new farming industry CFTRI is contributing to create needs to have solid support from consumers and legal support for bureaucratic complications, beside technical aid, to disrupt the existing market effectively.
The good news is that CFTRI’s objectives include so many aspects of farming that there is ample space for private contribution. Smaller enterprises can contribute to an effective transformation of farming industry by tackling specific issues.