Rajgopal Irappa Patil aims to decentralise sugarcane juice production, organise the unorganised sector, and provide organic sugarcane juice with a shelf life of up to one year.
Indian summers are synonymous with tall glasses of cold sugarcane juice, a seasonal delicacy that disappears from the market all too soon. But sugarcane lovers take heart! A recent innovation could mean you can stock up your refrigerator with bottled sugarcane juice for up to a year.
Rajgopal Irappa Patil has adapted technology that can help preserve sugarcane juice for 12 months without using any chemical preservatives. He says: “This technology leads to shelf-stable, ready-to-serve bottled sugarcane juice that is healthy and hygienic, especially when compared to what is offered by roadside vendors.”
Rajgopal, 53, is trained and certified by Punjab Agricultural University in Food & Science Technology. A former private consultant with Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board and Karnataka State Small Industries Development Corporation, he aims to decentralise sugarcane juice production, organise the unorganised sector, and provide organic sugarcane juice with a shelf life of up to one year. He’s now looking for investment to buy machinery and set up his unit.
Speaking on why he focused on sugarcane juice, Rajgopal says the juice is extremely popular and nutritious. “However, availability of fresh juice through the year and at places where sugarcane is not cultivated limits its commercial potential,” he says.
The deterioration of fresh sugarcane juice is a problem as are unhygienic production conditions. The juice – mostly sold on pushcarts and at roadside stalls – can be a health risk; it is known to spread leptospirosis and Chagas disease.
Rajgopal says the present existing technology developed by Central Food Technological Research Institute and other agricultural universities has preservatives. The technology of Punjab Agricultural University involves a storage tank, a pasteurisation system, and a homogeneous system (to add flavours). Natural flavouring agents, salts, and anti-oxidants (from natural ingredients such as mint, ginger, and lime) are added to the juice before it is bottled.
The prototype has been patented by Punjab Agricultural University, and a 200ml bottle is priced at Rs 20. “The proposed bottling unit can produce 10 tonnes per day,” he shares.
Surrounded by more than 5,000 acres of sugarcane farm land, Rajgopal’s unit is situated in Kerawad village, in Khanapur tehsil in Belgaum, Karnataka. Rajgopal aims to work with over 180 farmer families and make them “an equal in his company” - shareholders rather than employees. He wants to work with marginal famers, who own less than five acres of land.
“There are no industries here; the closest is 50km away. While the crop is surplus, given the water availability here, there are no buyers for crop for marginal farmers. And even if they get orders, the amount of raw material required doesn’t match the cost of transportation. Hence they make no profit,” he shares.
Rajgopal has created a legal provision through which each of the 180 farmers associated with him will be recognised as an equal shareholders in the company who will provide him with 30 tonnes of cultivated produce per acre. The bagasse will be composted and given to farmers to use as organic fertiliser.
Since the proposed manufacturing unit will engage with farmers within a 10km radius, raw material can be transported through their own modes of transportation, making it economically feasible. There will also be zero to negligible cost of harvesting, Rajgopal explains, as household people can help farmers.
“A fixed cost of Rs 3,500/tonne will be given to the farmer as compared to factories that give Rs 2,700/tonne. The reasons for the price difference are low costs – when it comes to labour, transportation, operations, and manufacturing,” he explains.
Rajgopal has been involved in social work since 1996, and has provided livelihood and skilling opportunities to youth in Belagavi district, covering over 200 villages through his non-profit Prerna. By collaborating with government initiatives and programmes, he has trained villagers to start small businesses focused on embroidery, candle making, tailoring, and making local food products.
Rajgopal has been associated with Agriculture Grand Challenge, 2017, a Startup India initiative; and his innovation was also recognised by Smart Fifty in 'Top 3,000 Startups’ in India category, organised by IIM-Calcutta, and Department of Science and Technology.
While his plan has received approval from FSSAI, funding remains a key problem for Rajgopal. He feels that agritech startups based in urban areas and metro cities get access to funding more easily.
In 2017, $53 million was poured into agritech startups over 17 deals. This year, too, saw a few startups bag funding for the innovation they are bringing to the farming space in areas like storage, supply chain, quality seed procurement, increased production, logistics and distribution, and so on.
Like Rajgopal, many entrepreneurs have tried to cash in on the popularity of sugarcane juice in India, but no one has met success. Some, like Cane Crush in Bengaluru, have small standalone sugarcane kiosks where cane sticks are passed through a crusher and served in different flavours. They offer one-litre takeaway packs, but these have to be consumed within hours. The same is the case with CaneXpress. Raw Pressery also sells sugarcane juice in 250 ml bottles using cold-pressed technology; the juice has a twenty-day shelf life.
But Rajgopal is hopeful he can solve the pain points associated with sugarcane juice when he sets up his unit.
“I have invested Rs 25 lakh personally, along with my other directors, till now and I now need Rs 70 lakh to set up the plant and for the machinery. Everyone wants to fund agritech startups but no one wants to invest in agriculture or rural India,” he says.