Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Vegetables offer a better economic choice for smallholder farmers'

East-West Seed India, a Dutch-based tropical vegetable seeds company with 35 years of experience in breeding, producing, and delivering high-quality vegetable seeds, sets a new direction

Published: Jun 9, 2020 01:57:08 PM IST
Updated: Jun 19, 2020 06:14:18 PM IST

'Vegetables offer a better economic choice for smallholder farmers'
Dilip Rajan, Managing Director, East-West Seed India

It has been a busy two years for Dilip Rajan, the Managing Director of East-West Seed India, who, in this short span, has propelled the company with market-leading growth in India. East-West Seed India aims to grow faster than the market to become one of the top three vegetable seed companies in India by 2023. Edited excerpts:

Q. I understand you made a career shift from pharma to farming. How has the journey been so far with East-West Seed India?

While I hail from a farming family, I spent more than two and a half decades in healthcare and much of it outside India and was looking to return back to my roots. My journey took a very inspiring turn when I joined East-West Seed India as Managing Director in 2018.

Being new to this industry, I spent most of my initial time traveling across India to meet with farmers, colleagues, and partners to listen and learn. I was fortunate to have a fantastic team that not only took me in but also taught me so much to enable my transition from pharma to farming.

The opportunity to lead a purpose-driven organization is a source of great joy for me. Mobilizing people around a common purpose has always inspired me. In leading East-West Seed India, I have tried to reinforce our core belief that farmers deserve access to high-quality vegetable seeds. Our efforts over the last 2 years have put us on a robust growth path and positioned us to better serve the millions of smallholder farmers in India.

'Vegetables offer a better economic choice for smallholder farmers'
Dr. Simon Groot, Founder of East-West Seed, World Food Prize Laureate 2019

Q. Tell us about East-West Seed? What makes it stand out among its peers from your standpoint?

East-West Seed is a global leader in the tropical vegetable seeds market. Founded by Dr. Simon Groot, winner of the World Food Prize 2019, East-West Seed’s focus is on developing improved vegetable varieties to help smallholder farmers increase their production and incomes. East-West Seed is #1 in the 2019 Global Access to Seed Index, which recognizes the commitment and performance in providing smallholder farmers across the World, access to quality seeds.

Vegetable farming is not just a business model for East-West Seed, and we have a unique social development approach towards farmer training. Through our Knowledge Transfer, we have helped more than 10,000 smallholder vegetable farmers by providing knowledge on better farming practices with high-quality vegetable seeds.

As a pure-play tropical vegetable seed company, our approach to breeding is unique in that we look at highly specific local factors and breed particular varietals with those factors in mind. We do not believe in a "one-size-fits-all" approach—we look at our work as an investment in the success of farmers in these regions, and breeding seeds that will thrive in those areas is critical to that work.

Consequently, we are working closely with the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research in Varanasi, and collaborating actively with Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, and Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, besides Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC), Taiwan.

Q. Can you tell us more about the 'personal-sized vegetables' that East-West Seed India has introduced? What is the rationale behind this?

The personal-sized vegetables were in response to the emergence of the 'nuclear family' in urban India, where smaller households required nutritious vegetables but did not want to buy/store the currently available large sized vegetables. For example, a typical snake gourd is 50-60 cm long, and that would be a challenge to store and consume for a small family. We introduced Covai, a short (24-28 cm) but high-yielding snake gourd variety with a 200-300g weight that met the needs of a small family and those of the smallholder farmer. Similarly, we have personal sized cucumbers, bitter gourds, watermelons, and pumpkins that are perfect for a family of four and one-time cooking.

Q. Tell us about your Knowledge Transfer initiative?

Smallholder farmers have intimate knowledge of the land they work, often passed down over multiple generations. The goal of our Knowledge Transfer work is to honor those traditions while showing farmers how hybrid seeds and improved methods can provide even more value. Once they see the improved harvests, and the higher prices that diverse vegetable varieties can yield, they know they can trust the seeds that EWS sells. Seeds that are more resilient, protect against the unpredictability of farming—weather, pests, disease—and that means peace of mind for farmers.

So far, we have trained more than 10,000 smallholder farmers across five states by providing knowledge on better farming practices in high-quality vegetable seeds.

Q. How can vegetable farming offer a better opportunity to farmers in these troubled times?

Vegetables represent a real contribution to development and offer a better economic choice for the smallholder farmer - high-value crops grown on smaller farms can yield better returns. For instance, a thousand square meters of land planted with bitter gourd will give a farmer roughly the same income as one hectare planted with rice. Vegetables can be harvested quickly (45-55 days), 3-4 crops can be cultivated throughout the year to meet the increased demand for vegetables, and changes in food consumption in these troubled times.

Q. What is the opportunity for India?

ICRA projects the vegetable seeds industry to double from the current levels to around Rs. 8,000 crores in the next five years - registering a CAGR of around 10%. India, as the second-largest producer of vegetables in the World, must seize this opportunity to increase its vegetable exports. India would need to adopt newer technologies and practices, existing policies must be repurposed and infrastructure built to foster increased exports. Vegetable production offers additional income for farmers and traders, enhances the health and nutrition of consumers, while reviving our stalled economy - a triple win… when vegetables rise, people thrive.

Disclaimer: The views, suggestions and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.