Small Pop Makes It Big

16th Jan, 2018

| by Aditi Chavan , writesolutions

Silently, it’s being acknowledged as the Makhana Man’s White Ball Revolution.

The slightly burly Satyajit Kumar Singh comes across as an affable, guy-next-door. But he’s far from that. In 2002, the Jamui-born, Patna-based Singh—then the owner of a BPL white goods agency—met Janardhan on a Delhi-Patna flight and the rest is the stuff business case studies are made of. The two men got chatting.

Janardhan, who goes by his first name only was a principal scientist at the Research Centre for Makhana, Darbhanga. This was a small initiative started by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. Over the course of his conversation with Singh, Janardhan started discussing his work at the Research Centre for Makhana and got so involved in the talk, he told Singh that given time and investment, makhana could strike it big in the country’s food retail business.

What prophetic words! The seeds of a new industry got sowed that day, at least in the mind of Satyajit Kumar Singh. Thereafter, there was no looking back for the new born-entrepreneur.

In the next few years. Singh traveled far and wide to all the makhana-growing hamlets,  Madhubani, Katihar, Sitamarhi, Purnia and Samastipur, signing up farmers and setting up small procurement centers in the manner of Reliance Fresh and other big corporates. Singh made an impression, wherever he went and got even the usually suspicious and wary farmers excited with his ideas. His farmer-suppliers’ number has swelled to 15,000 across 12,000 hectares in Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh belt – the top three makhana-producing states in the country.

Four years later, in 2006, Singh was ready to set-up his own makhana-processing unit, Shakti Sudha in Pataliputra with a whopping initial capital investment of Rs.70 crore. To build ample stock for the demand that he foresaw, he forged strong procurement linkages with farmers spread over eight districts in Bihar.

His current network reportedly covers over four thousand farmers and his khet se bazaar tak (Field to Market) procurement centers have made him strike rich, not just for himself but the entire farming belt. An expert in negotiating with the village panchayats on one hand, and keeping the local mafia at bay, on the other, by 2012, Singh has made a huge killing with his small processing unit turning it into Rs 100 crore/annum money-spinner.

Whoever does business with Singh has to necessarily enter into a tripartite agreement with the local panchayat, the farmer and his company and each entity’s stake are clearly-defined, from the documentation, training in agronomic practice to issuing purchase guarantees. Singh is undoubtedly a savvy businessman. He also issues ID cards to all farmers in order to build a robust supply chain. These days, he’s reportedly in talks with Reliance Fresh for bulk orders.

He lifts stock from farmers by the kilos — of sun-dried, beautifully roasted makhana or fox nuts as they are known in some parts of the world (Biological name Euryale ferox) processed from seeds of the lotus or water Lilly family and from his unit, they either go to the wholesale market or to retailers who re-brand and package them.

Over 60% of the 75,000 hectares of ponds in these districts are owned by the government, and the rest is with land mafias that leases them to fishermen co-operatives. The co-operatives, in turn, lease the ponds to scores of impoverished Mallah community (fishermen) who are adept at makhana underwater harvesting. They have been doing it for generations for centuries.

The seeds are popped manually and sold through agents and middlemen across the state.

“If we were to tap the online market for export, we can easily turn into Rs 1,000 crore business,” Singh once chimed to a Mint correspondent.

Thanks to Singh, today, the humble makhana, called Gorgon nut in the overseas market, can be had in a fancy ready-to-eat pack in several spicy variants – Black Pepper, Peri Peri, Chaat Roasted and Barbeque — retailed at PVR cinemas and swanky suburban malls, or can also be bought at departmental stores in powder, whole or flakes form. A growing fad, among the health-conscious, they are known for their high-energy, fat-free, carb-loaded nutritional properties.

In Persian and Punjabi cuisine makhana was traditionally and sparingly used as a rich ingredient in creamy gravies, as well as deserts. Chefs at five stars have begun experimenting with makhanas in mixed vegetable tarts and matar-makhana malai served with duck khurchan. From deserts (kheer etc.) the flirtatious makhana have jumped into spicy, savories and creamy curries, as in dal moth makhanamakhana barfi, and gur makhana patti.

(After Write Solution 2017’s pro-bono series on Unsung Women, which became a huge hit on, in 2018, we are kick-starting a new series on uncommon food retail business models and the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead in scaling them up. Through meticulous research, we have identified 12 such unique business models, and like our women series will profile one each month, so stay tuned and hit plenty of Likes and Shares, so that in 2019, when we run a new series on another industry, we hopefully have it sponsored to at least cover our basic cost in writing this series. Till then, be our guest!)


Radhika Sachdev

Content Strategist

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