India’s agriculture is at the crossroads. Hundreds of farmers who had tried “chemical farming” are turning to multiple-crops and organic farming, not only because of the high cost involved in synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and the seeds supplied by the large multinationals, but because they see their soil is not really producing the high yields once promised by the chemical arsenal.  Between 2007 and 2009 the area devoted for organic agriculture more than doubled to 1.2 million hectares. The forecast for 2012 is to reach the 2 million hectares. With the National Program for Organic Production (NPOP) the government is committed to strengthen India as key player in the organic sector.  Several states have declared themselves as organic or are promoting organic farming with strong enthusiasm.  Export value of organic products nearly quintupled from 2003 to 2009 to 350 million rupees and the International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (ICCOA) expects those figures to grow seven times this year. The atmosphere at the last BioFach India celebrated in Bengaluru (Bangalore) together with India Organic was of commitment and real business, according to Rubi Vatcha, representative of Nuernberg Trade Fairs, Indo-German Chamber of Commerce.

But demand for organic certified foods is growing not only for exports, but also in their own backyard.  India is the fourth largest buying power worldwide. With the opening of its economy over the past decade, the progressive “westernization” of India’s urban middle class of 150 to 200 million people with a high disposable income is ready to assimilate the LOHAS lifestyles.  Many of the 30-45 well educated professionals studied or have travelled abroad. “With almost everyone with access to a cellular phone there is a tremendous change in India”, says Rasesh Trivedi, founder of the new blog and online news platform Spread Organic. “Modernization took away our traditions and ways to properly feed our people; now we are going back to our roots, but with a fresh new style”, says Sri Swapan of ORGANIC HAUS, importer distributor and retailer of some of the best known German and Austrian organic brands. “Our store is showcasing great quality brands. We brought them to India as role models, to show how the sector has developed there.” Organic Haus opened its first store in Ahmedabad last November.  In a bright area of 300 sqm cheerfully decorated local consumers may now enjoy the taste of Rapunzel, Allos, Bionade, Biodo  and Sonnentor quality foods, along with natural cosmetics from Logona and Santi and herbal medicines from Schoeneberger and Salus, as if the Alps delicacies just moved around the corner. A second store will open soon in Mumbai.

ORGANIC INDIA has taken another approach. Founded 15 years ago by Bharat Mitra (Yoav Lev), who emigrated from Israel and was joined later by Bhavani (Holly B.), his wife and business partner, Organic India  is dedicated to holistic sustainable development, supporting marginal farmers to produce quality health products in and from India. ORGANIC INDIA is a unique business model  nurtured by knowledge and experience from East and West, where everyone receives a fair share of this collaboration”, says Krishan Guptaa, global ceo and managing director. “We have developed wellness products with the highest organic certified ingredients; even our packaging projects our commitment to sustainability”. The company exports 60 percent of its production and sells 40 percent in India, mainly to doctors and retialers. ORGANIC INDIA is one of the first and few lines from a developing country imported to Germany under its own brand, by the firm Lebensbaum, also the firm’s customer.

After five years gaining good experience in the IT sector and working for ebay in California, Nishant Nayak, his wife Tina and their young daughter returned to India to realised that there was no easy access to organic, natural and eco-friendly products like they could find easily in North America. Excited to see that many other young people and expats shared the same thoughts, the couple launched www.naturalmantra.com in November last year. “Our goal is to identify key brands and lines of home fashions, accessories, cosmetics, remedies and safe baby toiletries, toys and accessories made in India or imported to India, that do not have enough exposure to the core of the market, simply because of lack of enough retail space devoted exclusively to organic and eco-friendly products.

We thought about opening a store, but we would be limited to those who can actually go to it, while we have a system where we offer free delivery of any item to their door and with cash on delivery. This has been a way to build loyalty among new customers not used to shop via the internet, especially not for home products. “The market is still small now, but it will take off”, says Nayak, who envisions developing a company like Whole Foods one day. “People want access to better products that improve their quality of life. The time is right.”

Like in every industry there are newcomers and pioneers. Raj Seelam is one of the pioneers in India’s organic sector.  Seelam’s iniciation in the agribusiness sector was selling pesticides, fertilizers and seeds to the farmes, when working as national sales manager for a corporation. During the decade he was employed there, he barely are vegetables such as cauliflower or broccoli, aware of the high amount of toxic substances each crop received before harvest time. Discontent and a clear vision of a better way to earn a living Seelam started Sresta Natural Bioproducts in Hyderabad in 2004. “Commissioned farmers who had not been using chemicals before, embarked in organic farming for Sresta that opened one retail store”, says ceo XXX Bala. Soon production increased and the company opened four additional outlets. Soon Seelam realised that a shop-in-shop concept inside supermarket stores offered a better business model . 24 Letter Mantra was born. Sresta focused on the farmers, production and logistics to ensure on time delivery of spices, masalas, chutneys, pickles, curries and ready-to-eat meals. Advertising and promotion to attract traffic to the stores was responsibility of the supermarket chain.  “Today, Sresta has 350 shops across India in 32 cities and a distributor based in the Netherlands serves the EU market”, says Bala. Currently the company targets more partnerships with supermarket chains in Germany, France and Holland. There are also some attempts to create a market in the USA and later in Canada.

India is a vast country with a complex society, several languages and cultures. How do the certification agencies conduct business in India? “It is certainly a challenge to provide assistance to the farmers in their own context and especially now that organics will not only serve the export markets”, Daniel XX of Ecocert India says.  The organic sector in India has two distinct groups of farmers: Those well educated entrepreneurs that feel their call is farming as a hobby and very poor farmers who depend totally on subsistence farming and have tried promising technologies before without success.

Taking advantage of the internet and that every farmer carries a cell phone these days, Ecocert  is developing a virtual office and training courses in seven of the 24 official languages and several regional languages. “Help centers” with multilingual translators are contacted by phone to provide assistance to the farmers. And how will the National Food Security Bill passed in December by India’s Parliament going to affect the organic sector?  “The bill is meant to provide subsidized food grains to the less privileged. It will ban some food commodities from exports,” says Daniel. In this new scenario, some large traders might end up moving offices to Dubai and exporting commodities from Africa.  Although still out of reach to most people, consumers want change and new ways to interact and do business”, says Sri Binay , of certification agency Control Union. For fresh produce, dairy and meats refrigeration systems and transportation are still a challenge”, he says. . Most organic firms offer grocery and non perishable specialty items. “Organic farmers markets in the larger cities are now more popular and a couple of local weekly basket deliveries begin to pop up.  India seems ready to embark organics big time. An example of this commitment from both private and public actors is their participation as Country of the Year at BioFach in Germany this coming February 15-18.