Agribusiness and food processing in North East

Subhas Bhatacharjee
North Eastern States are small and are in the developing stage which have a long way to go in economic development and trade. Region contributes three per cent of India's gross domestic product. Barely one per cent of the region's agri-output is exported, with a lack of infrastructure for long-term storage. These States have factor endowments and skills which are quite amenable to trade and be further developed and promoted for the purpose of exports and create an international/ASEAN trade image of North East. While the prospects of NE-ASEAN trade are good, the problem to develop them is also quite formidable.
Agribusiness and Food Processing has emerged as a high growth, high profit sector. The vast availability of natural raw material, favourable policy matters and numerous economic incentives & benefits offered by the Central Government have made India and even North East an attractive destination for investment in agro & food processing. Though the sector has huge potential, it is somehow unfortunate that it has remained relatively under developed, due to which enormous quantities of valued farm produces worth INR 95000 Cr are wasted annually.
In order to arrest this colossal National loss, application of improved modern technology to develop integrated food supply chain from farm to the fork of the consumer is of utmost importance for both the North East and the country as a whole.
NE region has a quantum of marketable surplus in a number of perishable commodities which are rated as immune boosters. Being the hub of organic and exotic agro-horticultural produces, spices & herbs North East offers basketfull of opportunities for the unusual. With its proximity to south East Asian markets, being home to diverse and exotic variety of fruits and spices, region can be major centre of agribusiness and can command a high price in domestic and export market. Many of these produces are having GI tags, thus triggering huge possibilities for branded marketing. Presently around 26 agro- horticultural products are having GI tag from North Eastern region.
A dedicated marketing and visibility campaign with proper packaging and branding for products from North East needs to be implemented, which will help in increasing the awareness in target customer segments. These could range from large to small enterprises/start-ups or directly to customers. Further, the agricultural and horticultural produce value chains are marred by several challenges such as inadequacy of infrastructure, unavailability of processing industries, production and aggregation issues, etc.
In the North East, large losses from farm to plate are mainly attributed to poor handling, distribution, storage, and proper packaging. Valued resources that could otherwise be spent on more productive activities go into producing and transporting goods that only go to waste for the want of appropriate primary or secondary processing/packaging. Losses at every stage of the food chain can be reduced by using appropriate processing and packaging. It is estimated that more than 40% of fresh produces are wasted due to various reasons in the region resulting in loss of nutritional value. Monetary loss on that count is also very high.
Appropriate processing, packaging with proper branding, labelling and publicity can pave the way to a great extent. Training & skill development on packaging can facilitate the firstgeneration entrepreneurs of North East in making a dent in marketing of produces. Agro-horticulture potential of North East has not been tapped, mainly due to lack of market led production practices, poor commercial understanding of farmers, insufficient infrastructure at the farm level, poor transportation system, inadequate road network, pack houses, cold storages, sorting grading lines, processing industries etc.
Time bound agro-horticultural projects (vocal for local) through entrepreneurs and its marketing/branding can truly transform this goldmine region into a vibrant hub of horticulture business and trade.
Initiatives of Government of India to promote horticulture development, appropriate strategies like adoption of market driven production system, enhancement of productivity, appropriate post-harvest handling through proper packaging, loading/unloading of commodities and promotion of pack house concept including collection center in the production clusters, cold storage, processing and value addition, creation of adequate transportation infrastructure and organized marketing system are necessary additions to current interventions to provide remunerative prices to farmers.
Fruit and vegetable processing industry offers enormous possibilities to be the mainstay of the economic development so as to directly benefit the farmers and prevent the wastage of the valuable farm produces, create enough direct and indirect employment opportunities for the rural youth.
The emphasis of the Govt of India to introduce intensive cultivation of fruits and vegetables over higher land acreage and enhancing the productivity, with the proactive involvement of the agencies like Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH) and the Mission for Organic Value Chain Development for North East Region (MOVCD-NER), is going to bolster the sector. Processing, preservation and value addition of produces is going to generate additional income of the farmers as well as the FBOs (Food Business Operators) including the first-generation entrepreneurs and the intermediaries as well as the unemployed youth leading to the overall development. One can take advantage of this situation thereby supporting his/her own sustainability and also in turn support farmers/producers who otherwise are in a cornered situation due to unavailability of suitable and immediate food preservation systems.
Influence of Natural & Organic foods of North East on consumption pattern across urban centre and elite groups are already in existence for long. Hence, most important is to reduce the post-harvest losses with their on-farm and near farm cluster processing solutions suitable for Farmer’s Producers Organisations (FPO), Farmers Producers Companies (FPC) and also large individual farmers of the North East.
These sustainable processing and packaging can gear up domestic and export market further and bring a win-win-situation for farmers/producers as well as entrepreneurs of the region. Besides, a plethora of expertise under different Mission and Incubation Centre with innovative hand holding approach can utilise the naturally available resources of North East significantly.
Considering the difficult terrain and the logistic issues, it is always preferred to set up facilities for value addition and processing in MSME sector. One can initiate and facilitate linking the up-coming units with established PAN India brands in the market to avoid initial stress of marketing of the products directly.
Marketing through the established brands will support the processors in bringing up sustainability. However, there is an ample scope to self-sustain the sector considering the potential horticultural produces of North East States.