It's about Converting 'Potential to Commercial'

Mr. Samir Somaiya, Managing Director, Godavari Biorefineries Limited, speaks to Business of Agriculture on the potential of India's agriculture sector, his companies USP and much more. Excerpts...

Please share your views on the Agri Business Scenario.

India has a large amount of arable land, and a very large farming community. There is a great opportunity in looking at our agriculture sector as an asset and discovering its hidden potential. We can look at agri-business from various perspectives – farming, then there is farming itself from food and non-food agriculture and finally, important areas of making efforts to increase the value of the farm produce. The potential of each of these areas is obvious, but converting 'potential to commercial' comes with several challenges including policy changes, labour and infrastructure.

What is unique about Godavari Biorefineries when it comes to agri business?

I would say, 'Our Approach'. We put sustainability at the core of our approach to agri business. Godavari Biorefineries Limited uses agricultural feedstock and biomass to produce foods, fuels, chemicals, power, compost, waxes and other related products. These processes are collectively called bio-refining. By using renewable agricultural feedstock, we are adding value to an agricultural produce, and by doing so we are increasing the value for the farmer as well.

Our approach in sustainability makes us approach farming, farmers, the land and the soil differently. As a science and technology driven company, we undertake ongoing research and innovation on different aspects of agriculture, including soil health, plant health and plant varieties which we use in our own farms as well as share with the farmers associated with us. We believe that if the farmer and the soil thrive, so will the company.

Our experts analyse the areas of agriculture technologies, chemistry, biotechnology, microbiology, chemical engineering and marketing. They use agricultural feedstock and biomass to create value added products including triple bottom line, which makes us unique.

In the use of renewable feedstocks cultivated from the earth, we ensure that the earth has the ability to generate resources and regenerate herself.

Godavari Biorefineries manufactures more than twenty products from renewable resources. Please elaborate.

Godavari uses agricultural feedstock to produce sugar; ethanol; electricity; numerous ethanol based chemicals such as ethyl acetate, acetaldehyde, ethyl lactate, 1,3 butylene glycol, paraldehyde crotonaldehyde; mining chemicals; different acetals for various uses; waxes; compost; and other value added products. The company is working on next generation bagasse-based biorefinery and also the biotransformation of sugar to biopolymers.

What role does innovation and technology play in agri-business?

It always was, and will always be a world where knowledge is the key differentiator. Our growth plans are based on creating and applying new knowledge on the foundations of research. Our research competencies include sociology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, biotechnology, molecular biology and engineering scale-up. We have developed competencies in the physical, chemical and biological transformation of biomass to meet customer needs and exceed their expectations.

For us, research begins from the first step. We fund an agriculture research institute named KIAAR, where research is performed on developing new varieties of sugarcane or even energy canes, soil testing, agronomy, and intercropping with other crops and other practices.

With the introduction of mechanisation and drip irrigation, ongoing research in crop geometry decides plant population, leaf area index, radiation utilization and land space utilization. Meristem culture (tissue culture) and heat therapy are used for creating disease free foundation seeds that increase yields. Further, drip irrigation saves water and gives increased yields. These are all different aspects pertaining to the use of technology to ensure healthy crops. As I had mentioned earlier, value addition and waste reduction are areas where innovation plays a great role.

Could you share something about how 'Godavari Biorefineries' has grown in the last decade and the future growth plans?

Godavari has grown 'four-fold' in the last decade by focussing on creating and adding value to biomass. We are hoping to grow in the same way over the next decade.

Food security is a major challenge for India. How can organisations like yours contribute in achieving this endeavour?

The challenge of food security is immense. What we are doing is also teaching the farmer how to farm sustainably, and to ensure that the soil is healthy for both long term and short term produce. These techniques apply not only to sugarcane farming, but also to other kinds of farming. These practices when taught and disseminated widely, help the earth to grow more food sustainably and also maintain the health quotient.

For food security, we must ensure that farming is a lucrative livelihood for the farmer. Only if the farmer prospers, the country can enjoy food security. The challenge in India is the small size of the farmlands, the costs of logistics and infrastructure like cold-storage, packaging etc. This implies that millions of farmers in India are unable to reach the markets, at least in a way that is profitable.

Jivana, our food brand, also aims at connecting with the farmers and giving them access to urban markets. By encouraging farmers and using sustainable means, we are creating a pipeline that connects the farmers' produce to the markets.

Finally, how is your company contributing to the welfare of farmers or society at large?

Our company follows the ethos of our Founder - we must give back to the society multifold!

We empower the farmers to have a better quality of life. We work closely with the communities on an ongoing basis and participate in the development of the villages.

We do this by providing training to farmers on best practices, partnering with them to increase value of their farmlands and making farming inputs available at affordable costs.

We believe that education, healthcare and livelihood are three important aspects for improving the quality of life in rural areas. In the areas that we operate and in the nearby villages, we support early, primary and college education through supporting schools, or creating and managing a scholarship programme. We work actively with an education trust called 'Somaiya Vidyavihar', and have donated land and buildings for the smooth functioning of rural schools. A program called 'Help A Child' that is managed and supported by us, facilitates higher education for underserved children in remote villages. This program has witnessed phenomenal success.

We are also encouraging sports in our schools as a medium for social development. Sports not only help children learn lifelong skills but create great pride amongst families and villagers. It gives children an environment that unites people across gender, race, religion and other socio-economic background. We also conduct medical camps and livelihood programs for women on a regular basis.