A lease of life

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An integrated cold chain storage facility inaugurated last week has taken Kashmir’s cumulative CAS capacity to 13800-mts with the avowed objective of giving fresh lease of life to apple. Kashmir Life meets the young man who is the soul of the new initiative called Harshna Naturals.

Khuram Mir at his office in Lassipora.

Khuram Mir at his office in Lassipora.

He is the brand new honcho keen and confident to make it big in horticulture. He left Penjoora, one of Shopian’s apple-prospered villages at the age of 17 to do his bachelors in Industrial Systems Engineering from the US. From the Indiana based Purdue University he did his Masters in Operations Research. For next three years he handled ‘optimization of supply chain problems’ of the Washington based Micron Technologies. At slightly over 27, Khuram Shafi is back home to run his father’s just established controlled atmosphere store (CAS), only the second facility in the state.

“In Kashmir periphery you have plenty of rags to riches stories and they all owe it to apple,” said Khuram. “But my father and his business partners decided to pay a bit of it back to the peasantry and they started working on the project.” Harshna Naturals is a 4200-mt facility (2200-mt CAS and 2000-mt cold storage) and its capacity is already sold out to MNCs.

The interesting aspect of the Rs 18 crores project is that its loan component was sanctioned only after it was completed. “The delay in sanctioning of the loan actually drained every single penny from the two families but we were committed to it,” he says.

The CAS is a joint venture between Kohli’s (Rakesh, Naresh and Aman) of Delhi and the Mir’s of Penjoora – Mir Mohammad Shafi and son Khurram. The youngest in the team is the Managing Director given his better understanding of the back-end supply chain and the front-end channels. “I told the families that though I am enjoying being a worker in US, having the blast of life, travelling every week but let me give it (project) a year,” Khurram said. “Now I am in the middle of second year and I am really enjoying what I am doing.”

A controlled atmosphere storage works on a different concept from cheap chill storage or controlled ventilation storage and is comparatively costlier. It offers protection against senescence, rotting or shriveling because it involves controlling oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that keeps the fruit as fresh as it is at the time of harvest at least for a year.

The project in the sprawling Lassipora industrial estates on the border of twin south Kashmir districts – Shopian and Pulwama, was formally inaugurated by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah last week though part of it was operational since October 2008. But it was at the peak of this summer, the partners decided on the in-thing the CAS. “This could be one of the few projects completed in the shortest possible time.” With Italy based Fruit Central, the project was upgraded to CAS by Internal Coil Ltd (ICL).

But a store, traditional or otherwise, as Khurram says, is nothing much beyond ‘garbage in and garbage out’, so the promoters opted for a grading line. “We roped in the Italian major Unitech. They said they will send the machinery by sea that will take 90 days but for us it was too late. So we decided to fly it in and perhaps this would be the first such machinery that was actually flown in,” says Khurram who was totally against not catching this harvest.

But the pre-sort equipments like washing and waxing facilities are yet to be installed. Khurram says this part is more required when the apple is ready to be marketed in May and June but they will add up the same by the end of January.

Right now, Khurram is busy to manage the fruit that his family and agents are procuring in south Kashmir, mostly in Shopian belt. He already has tied up with a number of MNCs for the supply of fruit in mid-summer when the huge Indian market solely relies of imports from Washington, Australia and New Zealand. “We have already entered into agreement with Field Fresh (a Bharti AirTel concern), Mother Diary, Adani’s, Reliance Fresh and Mahindra Shulbulab Ltd (MSL),”discloses Khurram. In fact, Rakesh Bharti Mittal was present on the inauguration.

All these groups have rented the space from Khurram’s 200 thousand apple-case capacity store. “But all these parties have authorized us to make purchases on their behalf,” he said. In future, the group plans to have 60 percent space for MNCs, thirty percent to growers and retain the balance ten percent for their own produce. “We could consume the entire space ourselves but it does not make a viable proposition because it would involve a whopping sum to make so much of top-line purchases,” says the young MD. “We are actually hedging the risk by not taking everything home.”

However, for growers rent rates could be little more expensive (more than Rs. 32 per case per month) if they have less than 3000 apple cases ready for CAS storage.

Khurram says they plan to break even in next five years even though the store would only have six-month utilization in a year. “It is a great technology that will get us very close to the apple that USA and Fiji export,” believes the young man who has spent weeks watching American apple growers using a whole lot of technology in growing the best fruit and packaging it in fascinating fashion. “Credit must go to the Government of India that levies over sixty percent of duty on apple imports. The day that will end, we will face the worst so it is better we start changing the way we grow and sell our produce.”

Harshna Naturals is the second major CAS facility in Kashmir. FIL group that has pioneered the technology in this part of the world has already set up 9600-mt facility and is in the process of adding up 5000-mts more. Right now, it is running the facility to its maximum in partnership with Italy based Unifruiti. Off late, the group has acquired a fleet of refrigerated trucks for ferrying the stored fruits at the peak of summer – a system Khurram is keen to procure. Dr Haseeb Drabu, the chairman of the J&K Bank who is the banker for all the projects said three more projects with around 9000-mts are at various stages of implementation, right now.

After the successful implementation, Khurram says his priority is to involve the Field Fresh experts and get them to evolve the standard matrix for Kashmir apple involving yield, shape and size. This is a must, if we need to survive as India’s major apple basket, he insists.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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