Long Live The Apple Cart

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After years of crying hoarse over Kashmir’s failure on post-harvest front, the private sector has finally chipped in to alter the way we sold apple. Pioneered by FIL Industries and followed by Harshna Naturals, four controlled atmosphere storage units are taking the capacity to 24400 tons. But it needs to be quadrupled in next five years for a healthy survival in a highly competitive market, reports R S Gull.

With cold storage units opening in Kashmir apple is in safe hands.

With cold storage units opening in Kashmir apple is in safe hands.

It takes three to four years to make people understand the change,” says Syed Altaf Bukhari, the CEO of the FIL Industries, Kashmir’s agri-business leader. “For years, officials talked about cardboard boxes but people started adopting it only after they saw it happening.” Same is the case with the post-harvest technology. But it took slightly longer.

In 2000 when the J&K Horticulture Producing and Marketing Corporation (JKHPMC) started loud thinking about setting up of a 1000-ton CAS facility each at Jammu and Srinagar, it hired a company and almost decided the entire process of financial closure. However, it turned out to be a damp squib.

Syed Altaf Bukhari

Syed Altaf Bukhari

Four years later, FIL set up the region’s first CAS unit with a 1200-ton capacity. It roped in David Bishop, the British who has pioneered the CAS concept. As it started paying and triggering a change, FIL continued adding to the capacity. “Now our cumulative capacity is 13200 tons as we added around 4200 ton capacity this summer,” says Bukhari.

Khurram Shafi Mir

There was a pause as people starting understanding the new concept. Buyers had started landing in the mundis (local fruit markets) in Sopore, Shopian, Kulgam and other places. After CAS store, now buyers started reaching to the orchards with carrying material in their trucks. It marked a change. And then in 2009, it was another leap when Khurram  Shafi  Mir started his Harshna Naturals, a cold store set up in a JV between his father Mohammad Shafi and a Delhi company. It was 2200 tons of CAS and 2000 tons of routine cold store but in last two years it extended to 5000 tons capacity. It has a grading line and a washing and waxing system.

Khurram, now 30, had spent over a decade studying in US and later working as well. “But I thought I should do something beyond earning money that almost everybody is doing,” said Khurram. “My idea was to empower the farmer and that continues.” He says in the first year, the JV purchased fruit and stored it in the facility using almost ninety percent of the capacity,but now it is rented to farmers up to more than seventy percent this year. “People understand the benefits of selling apple to the high end chains at the peak of summer and it pays very well.”Khurram played the game-changer as there were quite a few people in the financial sector of the state who patronized the new entrepreneurs.

2011 proved a watershed year. Two other CAs stores have come up brining the number to three in Lassipora industrial estate. FIL has its entire integrated cold chain facility including refrigerated vans in Rangreth, on the Srinagar of outskirts.

“We completed slightly late but we have 70 percent of our facility occupied,” said Faisal Ahmad Burza, whose 5000-ton CAS store Fruit Master was completed around the peak of apple harvest. “We do not own a single box of what is stored with us because the capacity was in demand and we had it.”

Faisal Ahmad Burza

Burza’shave traditionally remained in the hospitality sector and their jumping into horticulture sector might mark the group’s beginning to have a vertical parallel. The plant includes a grading line that Faisal says is state of the art with a capacity to grade ten tons per hour. He refuses the store is a JV. “It cost us Rs 35 crores and the entire costs we managed from our own resources,” said Faisal. “But we have two tie-ups. We have a tie-up with a group of growers in Shopian for fruit procurement and for marketing we have inked a deal with Suri Agro Fresh, a Delhi based concern.” He says they will be marketing the produce from March onwards.

Kanwal Foods and Spices is one of the major brands in the food sector that has certain off-shore interests as well. It has also diversified into the CAS. “We have a 1500-ton store ready and it will be extended to 5000 tons,” said Farooq Amin of the Kanwal group. Named Golden Apple, this Rs 15 crores store is a JV between Kanwal and a Shopian based entrepreneur Ehsan Javed with equal equity. “What makes us different is that we are installing a grading line that we imported from Italy, we have a juice plant attached and that makes our company the first to have such a facility in south Kashmir,” adds Farooq. The company is in the process of adding to the capacity so that it runs to full capacity demand during the summer. They intend to start with cherry.

Farooq Amin

Bukhari says he is happy. “It took them some time but they finally jumped in,” he said. “But it is too little. We need to have around 150 thousand ton capacity so that we could add value to around 10-15% of the A category fruit.” The CAS pioneer in this part of the world says while it helps “us to make money” and challenge the major brands in up-market, it needs some more time to get the farmers make use of these facilities.

But the rise of CAS in Kashmir has already encouraged some of the best up-market chains to sell the juicy, crunchy, Kashmir apple in May and June. Says Khurram: “For the first time, high-end retail stores in India’s metropolitan cities preferred Kashmiri apple to Washington, Fuji and Himachal produce simply because we competed in that segment.”FIL has a long term tie-up with Reliance Retail, Mother Diary and Field Fresh, Harshna Naturals supplies to BhartiWalmart. Nearly Rs 100 crores has been the cumulative investment in the sector and the new entrants may require additional funds to make the ventures completely fully integrated set-ups. But a beginning was made finally, thanks to 2011.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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