Sunday, June 23, 2024

Pensive about pineapples


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A trip to Shillong gets Prateek Swain thinking about developing supply chain for horticulture produce

THIS SUMMER holiday, I travelled from Delhi to the Northeast with my first stopover at Shillong, the Scotland of the East. And I experienced why the state is called Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds.

     After landing at Guwahati, we left by road for Shillong. The road was flanked by Assam type houses with slanting roofs and many windows and wooden floors looking like pieces of art. As we approached Nongpoh, I was struck by the sight of a large number of vendors, mostly women, selling pineapples on the roadside.

     Fairly large, juicy and aromatic pineapples were being grown on the hill slopes on both sides of the road. We stopped and bought half a dozen as pineapples cost thrice as much in Delhi. After the purchase, I started asking about business to the vendor. As we started talking, other vendors joined the discussion. The lady replied that they hardly manage to meet both ends from pineapple business; they grow the seasonal fruit on their lands from, January-February and June-August and in the absence of a proper market linkages, they have to sell it either on roadside or to the village commission agents at lower prices as carrying them to the nearest major markets such as Guwahati and Shillong for better prices is a fairly an expensive proposition. Reasons: small scale of harvest and a shelf life of three-four days after harvest.

     As we travelled to Shillong, I kept thinking how cultivators of pineapples and other horticulture produce in the Northeast could get better returns for the hard work they put in.

     The pineapple, originating in the Amazon basin (Brazil and Paraguay), reached India by the middle of the 16th century. As per the publication ‘Pineapple – Postharvest Operations’ published by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), globally pineapple is the second harvest of importance after bananas, contributing to more than 20% of the world production of tropical fruits. Horticulture database for 2012-13 says India is the sixth largest global producer of pineapple behind Thailand, Costa Rica, Brazil, Philippines and Indonesia producing nearly 15.70 lakh metric ton.

     As per Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority under Ministry of Commerce, USA is the major importer of pineapple followed by European countries of Belgium, Netherland, Germany and Italy, etc. Costa Rica dominates in pineapple exports with major chunks shipped to USA and Europe involving big multinationals such as Dole, Tesco, Walmart-Asda and Delmonte.

     India’s export of pineapple is mainly to Gulf and neighboring countries such as Qatar, Nepal, Maldives, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE. World Bank in its study ‘Competition at Home to Competing Abroad – A Case study of India’s Horticulture’, pointed to lack of overall export competitiveness of India’s horticulture produce on account of lack of integrated cold and supply chain facilities coupled with high transport cost for linking this perishable item to very distant destinations despite production advantage.

     Many are aware that this fruit is rich in vitamin A, B, C.  What many may not be aware of is that pineapple has a plethora of other health benefits. It has properties that help fight various illness and sicknesses such as sinusitis, arthritis, gout and indigestion. It helps ease indigestion because it is rich in proteolytic enzyme called bromelain that breaks down plant and animal protein. Pineapple juice can be used as a marinade and tenderizer for meat and poultry items. Pineapple is rich in manganese that is necessary to build strong bones and connective tissues. One thing to note is that high acidity in the fruit can irritate and inflame mucous membranes of the mouth, including the tongue, lips and gums, which can lead to mouth ulcers or canker sores. Pineapple is consumed fresh or in the form of juice, jam, squash and syrup as well as used as ingredients in cakes, pastries, yoghurt, ice-creams, punches and pizzas. Given its health benefits and wide form for consumption, pineapple appeals widely to all ages.

     Literature tells us that optimum temperature required for successful cultivation of pineapple is 200-300⁰C. Pineapple production is usually confined to altitude up to 800 meter above sea level. It requires sandy soil with good drainage facility. Moderate slopes are suitable for pineapple growing as pineapple is highly sensitive to water stagnation. This is the reason why Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim produce more than half of India’s total pineapples. In Meghalaya, primarily giant Kew variety of pineapples is grown followed by queen variety in the areas of Ri-Bhoi, East Khasi Hills and East and West Garo Hills. As per Indian Horticulture Database 2013 published by National Horticulture Board, area under cultivation for pineapple in Meghalaya is nearly 30% of total area in the state for horticulture production, while the volume of production is more than one-third of volume of total production of horticulture items. This signifies the importance and dominance of pineapple in the state economy.

     Meghalaya is predominantly an agrarian economy with nearly 80% of population depending for their livelihood on agriculture and horticulture, which contributes about 14% to the state economy, as against all-India average of 58%. The relative low level of economic contribution of agriculture and horticulture sector in the state is due to limited use of modern techniques, relative low productivity marked by near absence of food processing and marketing linkages. While regulated wholesale markets play an important role towards ensuring reasonable pricing to the farmers for their wholesale produce, there are only two regulated wholesale markets in the entire state with density of more than 11,000 sq km per regulated wholesale market as against the recommendations by National Commission on Agriculture of availability of a regulated market within a radius of 5 km (80 sq km area). In addition, there are 60 other listed markets for agriculture and horticulture produce in the state, which when compared to the size of the state, seems highly inadequate.

     As per FAO, nearly 70% of the pineapple is consumed as fresh fruit in producing countries. Hence development of domestic market linkages for pineapples from Meghalaya assumes greater significance. Though North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation (NERAMAC) under Ministry of DONER had been set up with objective to promote the productivity and marketing of horticulture produce in the region, the volume of pineapple trading through NERAMAC is insignificant as per its annual report. A comprehensive nation-wide study carried out by Indian Council of Agricultural Research on quantitative assessment of harvest and post-harvest losses for 46 agricultural produces indicates postharvest losses of 5.8-18% in fruits.

     As per Report of the Task Force set up by Ministry of Agriculture on Development of Cold Chain in India (August 2008), the shelf life of pineapple enhances substantially up to three-four weeks under 50-55°F (equivalent to 10°C-12.8°C) temperature. As per AGMARKNET portal, the entire state has three-four cold storages located away from the pineapple belts. This clearly demonstrates the difficulty that majority of farmers in Meghalaya might be facing in marketing their perishable horticulture produce on account of lack of proper storage facilities as well as the physical markets being located far away. Setting up agricultural wholesale market is a capital intensive exercise due to requirements of establishing requisite marketing infrastructure for variety of produce.

     Hence it is important for the state to establish commodity specific value and supply chain by way of establishment of appropriate cold storage rooms of smaller size along with common pool refrigerated vans and trucks for fruits and vegetables near to production belt for storage and transportation under ambient conditions for a longer shelf life after postharvest production. Private firms may be encouraged to set up processing plants for canning and juice and pulp productions for better value additions while achieving attaining better shelf life and marketing. It is essential to create commodity specialized markets and collection centers near to respective production belt while connecting them on IT platform to facilitate both post-harvest handling and marketing thus improving the gains to the producers. The common cold chain infrastructure facilities may be provided near to production belt   to be operated by groups of producers forming either cooperatives or small producer company in federated form for enhancing their market linkages and market access thus improving bargaining power of small-scale producers with the market to receive remunerative price for their produce.

     Such commodity specialized markets and collection centers may also be provided with computers for entering daily price data for enabling the corporate customers, food processing industries, hotel and restaurant chains etc located even very far away from production belt to decide the bulk purchase through internet and email based on information of volume, quality and price of commodity after factoring transportation cost. This market information for specialized commodities may be disseminated even through mobile phones and televisions involving private initiatives. As physical markets have limited geographical coverage, today physical marketing system is evolving gradually into virtual net based marketing connecting instantly buyers and sellers across the globe thus widening the reach and choice for the producers to market their produce effectively and for the buyers to procure the items as per their need.


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