Onions and potatoes are today witness to diametrically opposite trends.
Consumers are shelling out Rs 60 per kg for the former, with even wholesale prices in Maharashtra’s Lasalgaon market ruling at Rs 4,100 per quintal, as against Rs 1,350 levels during this time last year. In the case of potatoes, however, farmers are the ones at the receiving end, with the tuber selling for Rs 550 per quintal in the Agra mandi, compared to Rs 1,850 a year ago. Prices were even lower, at Rs 300-350 per quintal in April, while the crop was being harvested.
One way to deal with such extreme price fluctuations is to encourage consumption of onions and potatoes in processed form — as dried flakes, paste or even powder. This is something that even Union Food Processing Industries Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has suggested: If raw onions or potatoes, available cheap during harvest time, are converted into dehydrated products having longer shelf life, they can be sold to consumers in the lean season when fresh produce is costly.
Farmers, too, gain if their excess harvested produce can be made into something that is less perishable, contributing to price stability.
Potatoes are usually harvested from mid-December to April. Given water content of 80 per cent, these would rot in a few weeks unless kept in cold stores. But cold storage entails energy costs and occupation of space, often inadequate during peak arrivals and in times of glut.
The Central Potato Research Institute’s research station at Jalandhar has developed a technology for dehydration of potatoes to increase the shelf life of this semi-perishable crop by up to eight months.
“We have designed a mechanical unit where potatoes can be peeled, chopped and dried automatically. These can, then, be separately packed in polythene bags for storage, processing or cooking,” says Ashiv Mehta, principal scientist at the station. The dehydrated potatoes can fully rehydrated at the time of cooking without losing the original flavor and taste. Also, this technology is amenable for processing all varieties of potato, she claims.
Similar technology exists for drying of fresh onions (which also has over 85 per cent moisture content) and converting into flakes, paste and powder. The Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET) at Ludhiana has since 2007 been offering a special training course for processing of onions. The course incorporates licensing of its technology that gives a yield of 14-16 kg of dried flakes from every 100 kg of onions. The flakes, which can be stored for more than nine months, can be rehydrated in water before consumption to get 5-6 times of rehydrated onions.
What is striking, though, is that there are few takers for these proven technologies. While CIPHET has conducted about 10 training sessions amongst groups of farmers with the idea that they start units based on its technology, not a single of these have so far come up in Punjab. The onion dehydration plants currently operational are concentrated around Bhavnagar in Gujarat and Nashik in Maharashtra. These units export the bulk of their dehydrated onion production, while selling small quantities domestically to institutional buyers like star hotels and restaurants.
According to DN Yadav, senior scientist at CIPHET, Indian consumers aren’t used to the idea of onion flakes or powder. Mehta, likewise, admits that it isn’t going to be easy to change the average consumer mindset, which is oriented towards using fresh potatoes for cooking.
While some consumers may shift to dried onions or potato flakes, especially when raw produce becomes totally unaffordable, they would go back to the latter the moment prices ease to normal levels. This is obviously discouraging for any entrepreneur, who would want some assured or steady demand for his product.
KBS Sidhu, a retired Punjab cadre Indian Administrative Service officer-turned-farmer, believes that onion processing will not pick up unless some big company steps in. “Even if a farmer were to invest Rs 3-5 lakh in a small unit, who will market his product, more so given the current level of consumer awareness?” he asks.
The experience of even big farmer-entrepreneurs hasn’t been very good either. Mandip Singh, who grows potatoes in over 1,000 acres in Jalandhar, set up Satnam Agri Products Ltd in 2007 for producing dehydrated potato flakes and frozen French fries. This plant, costing Rs 52.50 crore and which can process 36,000 tonnes of potatoes annually, is at present operating at a quarter of its capacity.
Singh blames “government apathy” for the unit not doing well, despite supplying its products to the likes of McCain and Haldiram. Running a plant at full capacity requires huge sums of working capital to enable purchase and stocking up of potatoes at harvest time.
“The government can facilitate working capital through banks at reasonable interest rates. Neither has it done anything in this regard nor have we got the promised capital subsidy from the Ministry of Food Processing Industries,” he complains.
Meanwhile, not even a tenth of the 45 million tonnes potatoes and 19 million tonnes onions produced annually in India gets processed — which is bad for both consumers and producers.