Growing in India: Food for the world

Thursday, June 1, 2006

By Anand Giridharadas

by Anand Giridharadas

Within days, the monsoon will arrive in India. If generous, it will lend another year of survival to hundreds of millions of villagers. If miserly, crops will wither and bankruptcy will run virally through the villages.

One-tenth of humanity resides in rural India, in villages haunted by the perennial specter of harvesting too little food. But now a country that long struggled to feed itself is making preparations to feed the world.

Multinational companies from Wal-Mart to Rothschild Group to PepsiCo are wagering that India could parlay its tropical climate and the latent energies of hundreds of millions of farm dwellers into a position as an agribusiness powerhouse, exporting fruits and vegetables, spices, flowers, wine, ice cream, poultry, shrimp, fish and even pasta.

“To my mind, this opportunity of agriculture is an opportunity which is larger than telecom, which is larger than IT,” said Rakesh Mittal, vice chairman of Bharti Enterprises, a $16 billion Indian holding company that is heavily invested in both telecommunications and information technology.

Bharti runs a mobile phone company with 22 million subscribers and has new-economy interests ranging from call centers to offshore software development. But in a strategic shift, the company recently announced that it was investing with Rothschild Group, a European private equity group, in a venture called Field Fresh, which will export onions, chilies, okra and other vegetables to Western retailers, including Tesco of Britain.

The venture has already leased 1,860 hectares, or 4,600 acres, of land and sent its first shipments to Europe. It expects to be a leader in an Indian food export market for fruits and vegetables that the company expects will reach $5 billion by 2011.

“India has become the back office of the world,” Mittal said during a recent interview at his headquarters in Delhi. Referring to business-process outsourcing, he added: “What we are trying to create here is BPO in the agricultural sector. We will grow for the world.”

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Source: International Herald Tribune (link opens in a new window)