Gone are the days when ingredients like parsley, red cabbage, broccoli, cherry tomato had to be imported by hotels and restaurants in India. Hoteliers and F&B managers are happy that these exotic produce can be now easily sourced from local farmers By Saloni Bhatia
India is a vast country blessed with a varied agro-climate, which is favourable for growing large number of crops. Our country has large varieties of fruits in its basket and account for ten per cent of the world’s total fruit production. Fruits like mango, banana, citrus, pineapple, papaya, guava, chickoo, jackfruit, grapes among other tropical and sub-tropical fruits are grown here. Same goes for vegetables, as more than 40 kinds of vegetables belonging to different groups are grown in the country.
But when it comes to ‘exotic’ fruits and vegetables, it is a different story. There is skilled labour required for the cultivation of these vegetables. According to the Indian Cultural Agricultural Research (ICAR), the exotic vegetable market is growing at the rate of 15-20 per cent per annum and is increasing day by day. Reports state that India is importing more than 85 per cent vegetables from the international market. Due to increase in demand there are several regions in the country that have now started growing these fruits and vegetables, delivering it to the metro cities. The last two decades have seen more and more Indian farmers taking up production of these fruits and vegetables. Presently a group of 100 farmers in the country are cultivating these exotic vegetables in different villages.
The local shift
Increased awareness about the nutritional value of these fruits and vegetables has given rise to the demand in the country. The last ten years have seen more farmers take up production of these crops and have generated a good source of revenue from the growth. Fruits such as mangosteen and rambutan which were majorly imported from Thailand and Malaysia are now grown locally along the western coast of the country. Exotic vegetables such as cherry tomato, lettuce and broccoli have also been taken up by farmers in Maharashtra. These farmers are in direct contact with hoteliers and cafes who source these products from them. Kushlibhushan Muridhar Gunjal, who is a local farmer from the Pune region has been growing exotic fruits and vegetables since the past 18 years. He stated, “We got the idea for cultivating Chinese vegetables. We did a bit of research on the demand for products and what we could grow here considering the weather conditions. It took us about one and half years to learn how to yield a good produce and we also got in touch with restaurants in Mumbai and Pune. We have grown exotic vegetables like parsley, red cabbage, broccoli, leek, cherry tomato, etc and have earned sustainable income from selling to the nearby restaurants. We recently started supplying our products to Goa as well.” Talking about meeting the demand he added, “We were in regular touch with the owners of the restaurants to know what to produce. However this year due to the temperature touching almost 43 degrees, it is becoming difficult to get the desired output. The temperature needed to grow such vegetables is not beyond 34 degrees.”
Rajdeep Kapoor, executive chef, WelcomHotel Sheraton, New Delhi talked about the requirement and storage of such fruits and vegetables. He shared, “Exotic fruits and vegetables are frequently used in our menus, depending upon the seasonal availability and menu requirements. We ensure that the best of ingredients are sourced locally and responsibly with zero carbon footprint. Quality and freshness is of prime importance for us.”
Talking about the trends in the industry he adds, “There is a continuous growth in demand of exotic fruits and vegetables in hotels and restaurants. We are extremely confident that India with its natural resources and agricultural expertise has tremendous potential to produce exotic fruits and vegetables locally. Most certainly in times to come, India with its vast biodiversity and climatic conditions, science and technology advancements in the field of agriculture will forge ahead.”There has been a boom in the restaurant business and the young demographic of the country is spending more time eating out. They are also more aware about international cuisines and health benefits. Considering these facts, restaurant owners look to local produce in order to cut bills and the chefs also take the healthy route sourcing organic and local produce. Sourcing locally also means cost savings for restaurants. However, for certain crops the weather conditions are not suitable or the produce is not as good in quality as the imported produce. Renowned Chef Ranveer Brar, feels the same way. Sharing his thoughts on the rise of demand in India, he said, “India is a huge market for the exotic food space and is growing bigger. Lots of producers are now setting up shop in India. Varieties of asparagus, mushrooms and truffles are very popular in India in the exotic fruits and vegetables segment. A major proportion of exotic fruits and vegetables produce comes from Sri Lanka, Thailand and other South East Asian countries, which are huge source markets as the demand is evidently present in India market. However, many exotic produce are now grown locally in India, around Bengaluru. I would definitely support the Indian farmers if the production of these fruits and vegetables is done locally.”
Create a market
Vipul Mittal, national category head – Food & Vegetables at Supermarket Grocery Supplies (Bigbasket.com) throws some light on shift of trends over the years. He said, “The classification of exotic products keeps shifting as the product gains acceptance and popularity in the market. Washington Apples were classified as exotic, few years ago, but today they have wide acceptance across the country including small towns in India. In terms of demand, other top rankers are pears, kiwi fruit, grapes and plum. Cherries and berries are now gaining acceptance with their availability improving through air freight. Avocado, especially the Haas variety is also gaining acceptance. Sales is headed by apples from Washington state in US, followed by China, Australia, Chile and now Belgium. We have also realised that the pears from both China and US are popular. Kiwi from New Zealand, Italy and now from Chile are gaining prominence. Oranges from Egypt, South Africa and Australia are popular, though I am not sure if we can term them
Bigbasket.com has over 10 per cent sales constituting from exotic fruits including apples. Mittal added, “We currently source exotics through importers. We shall soon start direct imports as well. Some exotics can be locally sourced. They are naturally cheaper and hence enhance their growth in the market faster. However there is enough room for all players – domestic as well as imported. There is a huge opportunity for growth in the market, as well as create new opportunities which are now nonexistent. Apple Washington Commission (promotes Washington Apples around the world) and Zespri (promotes kiwi fruit) are case studies which clearly prove how to create market for exotics in India.”
Despite the demand for these product by caterers, local restaurants and hotels, Indian farmers are not fully equipped with the resources to have the desired output. However, growing fruits is economically beneficial for the farmer as the cost of production is comparatively low. Not many trees require pesticides and can start bearing fruit from the third year itself. Vegetable production also requires certain climate and soil quality for good production.
Gurbachan Singh, chairman, Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, Indian Council of Agricultural Research said, “In India the share of exotic fruits and vegetables is next to negligible, approximately one per cent or less. However, there has been a consistent increase in demand in the country specially in the urban areas and among upper echelons in the society.”
He added, “There has been a keen interest in farmers to raise these crops but they face the challenge of quality of seeds, planting material, food safety issue and high cost of production. The production of these crops is scattered and mostly around the metropolitan cities and they are usually cultivated during the winter season. But with the increase in demand these crops have tremendous scope in protected cultivation and vertical gardening. Even the farmers raising these crops can grow their income significantly.” SuriAgro Fresh has been dealing with the import of fruits from various countries like China, USA, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Belgium and many more. Manav Suri, vice president, SuriAgro Fresh adds, “65 per cent of our fruits are imported from outside and the rest are purchased in India. Kiwi was never produced in India, but now the production has started in Himachal. However the production volume is low and it is not yet commercialised.” Talking about the demand, he added, “The demand for these fruits has been consistent in the country since people now are more aware and need more variety. Due to the nutritional value in these fruits they are needed all around the year. So apples, kiwis, peaches, grapes etc are in demand while Thai guava, cherries etc are not sold in high volumes. Hence the imports will never stop because these products are in demand. It is a delicate market as there are several challenges in the industry. Rules and regulations change frequently that often the containers are stuck at the ports which deteriorates the product’s quality. We do have cold storage facilities in the country but the longer we store the products it is bad for quality.”
Mittal added, “Sales for exotic products generally needs to be developed over time. The key challenge is in educating the consumers on their usage and benefits. Hence star hotels usually become the first customers. Also price is often a barrier for wider dissemination of the product. Not only is the demand for exotic fruits and vegetables growing, but the customer is now ready for more. The growth of kiwi fruit, for example, has been exponential. More vegetables are getting added to the list and now enterprising farmers are trying to grow them locally e.g. lettuces.”
With the growing knowledge of international cuisines and raised awareness about nutritional diets there is more demand for these exotic fruits and vegetables. While it is difficult to replicate the products imported from international markets, it is best to source them locally and cut on import costs. The market is bound to grow as more farmers have taken up the production of these crops. However there needs to be better facilities for farmers and favourable weather conditions in order to increase production.