More than 200 years ago, famous economist Thomas Robert Malthus, made a doomsday prediction that food production would increase by arithmetic progression and human population by geometric progression that there would not be enough food for mankind to survive on. What Malthus couldn’t foresee was the innovative spirit of man to apply scientific knowledge to develop technology and use it for agriculture.
Shivdas B Menon, Managing Director of Kochi-based Sterling Farm Research and Services Pvt Ltd, an agricultural engineer by profession, has been in the forefront since 1987 in developing new innovative products such as Neopeat, a soil substrate, several organic products and fertiliser blending units.He received an award from Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam in 2004-05 for R&D and also from Ministry of Agriculture.
He worked for leading multinational companies like Shaw Wallace and Pierce Leslie. He sold his Research, Testing Lab Sterling Test House to US based Neogen Corporation, for an undisclosed amount two years ago. He is quite active in Kerala Management Association and The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE) nurturing new talent.
Mr Menon shares his thoughts with Sreekumar Raghavan of Corporate Ethos on how technology can create new opportunities not only for agri-business but even for retired people to be happy and productive.
#Sterling Farm and Research Services is a pioneer in organic cultivation and research. Looking back what helped you attain a global stature in agri-business despite being small?
I had worked for Shaw Wallace and I was in UK for some time. At that time, peat moss was used as soil substrate. The industry went into crisis when peat moss mining was banned on environmental grounds. That was when we developed coir peat substitute for the first time in India for which I won the R & D award from the President of India. My company survived because of this unique product but when I was doing well I developed new products. Now our products are sold across the world.
I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket- we are into exports, domestic marketing, consultancy and lot of projects related to agriculture and food processing. We don’t remain complacent after developing a few good products. We greened 1.5 sq km in Jamshedpur where coal waste was dumped and smoke used to come from there -this was a project we took up three years back. In Doha, we greened 2500 ha of desert land. So unless you think out of the box you can’t do new things.
Our R&D investment paid off- I sold my Sterling Test House to Nasdaq listed Neogen Corporation of USA. All products we developed were tested in our lab and this helped take our products across the world. We also tested food and water in the lab and it became a profit center. How many companies spend money on R&D in India despite the incentives given for it? Therein lies the problem. If curry powders were seen to be profitable more than seven hundred companies were started one after the other in Kerala producing the same thing without any value addition. In business, the success depends on value creation.
#Now agriculture has become more capital intensive and technology intensive? What are the opportunities for new entrepreneurs in this scenario?
I feel there are lot of opportunities in agriculture not only within the country but in other nations too now with drip irrigation, fertilization system and modern techniques. Worldwide technology is being used to improve productivity, reduce cost and safety (reduce chemicals or pesticides).
If Israel with no water and soil can export fruits and vegetables in large quantities and Srilanka with same agro-climatic conditions can do better than us, why can’t we?
Forty years ago, plumbers, electricians, masons, laborers, carpenters went to Gulf mainly from Kerala. Now many of them have returned but they may have built houses, bought cars and jewellery but not made any productive investment. Now countries are going eco-friendly-by 2030 only electric cars may be there, there will be more use of solar energy, other forms of renewable energy. This means the oil boom is not going to happen again. Dubai, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have already diversified and set up alternate infrastructure. They may now concentrate on new areas such as agriculture. They may want to use vast desert areas to cultivate fruits and vegetables. Or they may invest in nearby African regions such as Ethiopia. Now they may require plenty of trained people in agriculture which India can provide. Lower level jobs will be catered to by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Philippines. We can provide the technology, skills and talent to help Gulf nations to grow vegetables and fruits.
#You were a resource person at the recent TiECon event in Kochi that shapes new entrepreneurs. Do you see a shift in interest towards agri-business among our youth?
Lot of people are shifting to agriculture and food processing. Lot of IT professionals are showing interest in agri-business. They have made money, they have good bank balance, wealth, house and what not. But they want to do something creative and satisfying. In fact, the Jackfruit 365 company that plans to fully utilise jackfruit through value addition was started by an IT professional Mr James Joseph with several years of experience in IT industry including Microsoft. The idea came at a Dinner Meeting at TiE and we suggested he take up the project. He got venture funding from Eastern Group, the leading spices company. Lot of people have a genuine passion for agriculture not that there is huge money to be made from it.
#Do you have suggestions for new entrepreneurs to succeed in agri-business?
Even today people are a little shy getting into agriculture. A cluster model may be good for new businesses-10 or 15 people can cultivate different crops using latest techniques in rain shelter or polyhouses. They can bring it to a central processing center, wash it clean, it process it, grade it and brand it. Now lot of vegetables and fruits are sold as organic in organic shops. But who knows or certifies it as organic? From which farm has it come from as there is no branding? Government should not get into this business but it can facilitate such ventures. It can regulate and do the certification.
#Do you regret doing business in Kerala?
I studied Agriculture in Anand, Gujarat when Varghese Kurien was there at the helm. If had worked in Shaw Wallace and leading companies in India and spent time abroad. But if I had started in Gujarat I would have been a small fish in a big pond. Now our business is in small-medium category but I have got a better recognition being in the home state. It is to our credit that a major US company took over our Research Division. On their second meeting with us when they were staying in Hotel Le Meridien, a bandh was declared unexpectedly. Then I jokingly told them we work from Monday to Saturday while you have a 5-day week. Bandhs are opportunities for us once in a while to take a leave from our daily work! Eventually, they examined our track record, accounts and tax compliance, felt satisfied and the deal took place.
#How do you think interest in agriculture or farming can be created in childhood?
We have created a table top greenhouse – for creating interest in agriculture among students. We provide it free of cost. They can put the seeds it, watch it grow, nurture it and learn. We adopted a school of handicapped and provided these kits free.
We did a survey and found that elderly people who have retired and not doing any job or business, find the time between 8 am to 1 pm is the most difficult time for them to spend. They have had their breakfast and some of them may watch TV or simply while away time till noon. We have developed a small hobby green house kit for them which they can use in their balcony or outside their house. They can go in the morning water it, put manure, plant new seeds and they can take the produce to the kitchen. It will also make their wives happy.