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Vegetables present a great business opportunity in today’s context — Dilip Rajan, MD of East-West Seed India.

Vegetables represent a substantial contribution to development as they provide additional income for smallholder farmers and traders, enhance the health and nutrition of consumers, and present an opportunity for India to become an export hub says Dilip Rajan, Managing Director of East-West Seed India, a Dutch-owned, tropical vegetable seed company in an exclusive tete-a-tete with strifrymba.  

East-West Seed (EWS) is a global leader in the tropical vegetable seeds market with three and a half decades of experience in breeding, producing, and delivering high-quality vegetable seeds. Founded by Dr. Simon Groot, winner of the World Food Prize 2019, EWS is ranked #1 in the 2019 Global Access to Seed Index, which recognizes the commitment and performance in providing the world’s smallholder farmers access to quality seeds.

In India, East-West Seed is on a robust growth path, with a strong focus on quality and innovation, and has eight R&D stations across the country. It has helped more than 20,000 smallholder vegetable farmers by providing knowledge on better farming practices in high-quality vegetable seeds. East-West Seed India is projecting 15% CAGR and aims to become one of the top five vegetable seed companies by 2021.

Why is vegetable farming so crucial in today’s context?

Agriculture in India has changed rapidly over the last two decades. Smallholder farmers (those owning less than 2.0 ha of farmland) now comprise nearly 80 percent of the country’s farmers. Consequently, India’s nutritional security now rests with the productivity that comes from these small-sized farms. Vegetable farming presents the perfect solution. Vegetables are “cash crops” with the average income per hectare significantly higher vs. field crops. For instance, 1,000 square meters of land with bitter gourd generates the same revenue as one hectare of rice.

Also, vegetables have far better productivity than other crops. They can be harvested quickly, allowing for increased yearly production and can be grown as a mono-crop, intercrop, or multiple crops.

Vegetables constitute an essential part of the Indian diet. Then why is it that vegetable farming gets so little attention?

About 40% of Indians are vegetarians according to Government-led surveys, and that in itself is a considerable percentage to take notice. However, for a long time, vegetable farming has been a much less focused part of Indian agriculture. The general awareness about the latest innovations and methodologies of vegetable farming in the agricultural communities was far less a decade ago. This is changing. As per the Government data, currently, the area under horticulture has grown substantially over the last decade to about 25.1 million hectares. As per Hon. Finance Minister, Mrs. Nirmala Sitaraman’s Budget 2020 statement efforts will be made to develop each district as an export hub. Increasing population awareness to consume more vegetables to meet diverse dietary requirements and nutritional needs will also raise the demand for vegetables significantly. So there will be a lot more momentum now.

What actions, in your opinion, are necessary for India to become an epicenter for vegetable farming? What is East-West India’s contribution to this aspiration?

Primarily, knowledge about vegetable farming practices holds the key. There are a lot of developments already. Take, for instance, “Precision Agriculture,” which is fast taking center stage with an underlying theme of integration of information to create management knowledge as a means to address site-specific production goals. Approaches, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), are playing an essential role in responsibly managing pests. Cropping patterns, cropping sequence methods to maximize productivity through improved agronomic practices such as drip irrigation, mulching, staking, net-house, phyto sanitation, plant health, and alternative crops are the approaches in supporting sustainable vegetable growing practices.

Our Founder Dr. Simon Groot created the concept of ‘Knowledge Transfer,’ which would help farmers unlock the potential and maximize the benefits of new vegetable seeds. East-West Seed’s Knowledge Transfer program–is probably only one-of-its-kind in the industry that invests heavily in capacity building for the farmers.

East-West Seed India started Knowledge Transfer activities in August 2016, and currently, we are serving farmers across five states – Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. We have trained more than 22500 farmers in 2019, and we aim to train about 35000 farmers in 2020. Furthermore, in 2020 we are also planning to expand to Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttarakhand.

What are the challenges for vegetable farming?

There are many. The first is pest and disease pressure, climate change, diverse growing conditions, and farming systems, followed by the high cost of inputs, lack of access to credit and finance, inefficient supply chain and lastly highly variable consumer preferences, lack of access to knowledge, technology, and necessary irrigation infrastructure.

What needs to be done to boost vegetable farming further?

The Governments at the Centre, as well as the state level, have taken various initiatives to boost the production of vegetable crops. Despite the steady improvement, the yield of most of the vegetable crops in the country lags in other countries and is even below the world average. Adoption of innovative approaches, hybrid seed varieties, awareness generation, and training programs for farmers will help in the long run. The key is to focus on smallholder farmers.

How is East-West Seed India poised to capture the market potential in the current scenario?

This year, East-West Seed India has adopted a dual approach — new markets and new varieties. In 2020, we will be launching new varieties of Tomato, Okra, and Hot Pepper and planning to introduce innovative technologies beyond disease resistant and high yielding vegetable varieties.

East-West Seed, India, in its efforts to improve smallholder farmer productivity, has been at the forefront of implementing several unique and cost-effective innovations. Take, for instance, the Spun-bound approach. For decades, farmers suffered from sucking pest attacks such as Aphids, Whiteflies, Thrips, and viruses on crops resulting in significant losses.

The conventional solution has always been spraying at regular intervals. The Spun-bound approach uses a non-woven fabric cloth as a protective shield in the initial and growth stages of the plants, which will keep sucking pests and viruses at bay. This initiative is under implementation in smaller acreages in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu in Hot Pepper variety. Farmers are pleased with the results so far.

Another initiative is ProTech that helps in fighting against the early stage of Fall Armyworm (FAW ) pest. As you know, Fall Armyworm (FAW), or Spodoptera frugiperda, is the latest threat that the Indian agricultural sector is facing. FAW, which wreaked havoc in Africa, entered Karnataka last year and spread very rapidly to other states across India. If not managed well, significant yield losses ranging from 20-50% have been reported. The cost of cultivation of sweetcorn growers has increased by 25-30%.

Looking at these challenges, we launch ProTech seed treatment technology in Golden Cob with the chemical combination of Cyantraniliprole & Thiamethoxam, which is Best-in-class early-season insect control for both above and below the ground and also approved and recommended by Government of India. This approach has shown excellent results.

Finally, our primary focus is to serve the smallholder farmers as they form the vast majority who produce vegetables. By offering quality vegetable seeds, both hybrid and non-hybrid to smallholder farmers and the knowledge and training to grow and harvest them correctly, we are making more varieties of nutritious food available to people.

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About Ramdas Shenoyy

Ramdas Shenoyy is a senior marketing and communications professional with over two decades of working across industries and domains.
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