The quest to find a balance between healthy and delicious foods has driven many players in the agri-processing industry to seek alternative ways of planting, growing, harvesting and processing certain foods that make all the difference. In Assam, this has meant an increase in the production of black rice, black garlic, and black turmeric in recent years, a move looking to revolutionise culinary habits in Assam and beyond.
The importance of rice to the people of Assam can’t be overemphasised; it is not just the state’s most important crop. It accounts for at least 95 per cent of total food grain production and around 61 per cent of cultivated land in Assam. Rice cultivation is a way of life for many farmers, with the value chain affecting several million until it gets to the dining table. Garlic and turmeric, meanwhile, are among herbs that enjoy cultural and culinary importance in the state.

The black rice revolution

Black Rice is considered a luxury variety with immense nutritional value. It is rich in antioxidants, carbohydrates, minerals, and fibre. Organic black rice, found in Manipur, of late, has seen huge demand not just in India but across the world. This valuable food grain is now being cultivated by many farmers in Assam and this has helped them secure more income.

According to Jyoti Bikash Nath of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), these changes were inevitable especially considering the recent economic liberalisation, changing agricultural markets, and evolving society. “It has brought about an avenue for new entrants, innovation, and entrepreneurship development opportunities in agriculture. Although the potential of Assam’s special classes of rice like Joha (aromatic rice), Bora (glutinous rice), and Chokuwa (semi-glutinous rice) is yet to be fully exploited, there are scopes for value-added products of black rice in Assam,” he says.

Nath informs that veteran farmer Upendra Rabha from Goalpara, known for popularising black rice in lower Assam, has been roped in by the IRRI to promote the premium varieties of black rice that have the potential to give international market linkage to the farmers of Assam. The black rice varieties brought from Manipur and Odisha have been planted under the World Bank-supported Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART), implemented by the state agricultural department. 

“We plan to introduce new black rice varieties from different parts of the country and encourage cultivation in more areas in Assam. The aim is to link the farmers with buyers for higher returns and make available good quality seeds for future use,” he adds.

Black rice from Anindya Baruah’s farm

Assam has very suitable soil and climate for black rice production. Growers like Anindya Baruah are taking advantage of this. Baruah quit his job in 2012 in a bid to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship. Today, he leads the Rong Birong Foundation in Dibrugarh, along with his wife and his father. Dealing in Agri-Horti-Flori and allied services, the firm went into black rice production as a pilot project and Baruah says the results have been encouraging.

Black rice entrepreneur Anindya Baruah and his wife Priyanka Khargharia Baruah

“Black rice was a pilot project, which luckily has been a great success because I got an 80 per cent yield. It is early days for us, and we’re just taking our first steps in this ever-growing and competitive market,” he observes. But like many others, he has soon realised that the cultivation of black rice is an age-long farming tradition involving technical processes and methods. He says one must be skilled to get involved in the business.

Farmers at Anindya Baruah’s farm

“My father has played a pivotal role in this entire black rice project as he used to do dhaan kheti (rice farming) as a teenager. He has guided us from the scratch and helped us keep track of all minute details such as choosing the right time to transplant saplings, de-weeding process, supplying water to the crop, age-old measures to tackle pest problems and so on. There’s a lot that goes into black rice cultivation and needs dedication, patience, and passion,” he adds.

Chayan Sharma, co-founder of Purvai – one of Assam’s fast-growing Agri startups and producer of black rice – shares a similar opinion, but adds that packaging and branding are ways to penetrate the global market. Established in 2017, the firm already has about 18 unique SKUs (stock-keeping units) in five product categories of rice grains, Jalpan (Assamese snacks), beverages, pickles, herbs, and spices, but their black rice venture is a special product.

Chayan Sharma, co-founder of Purvai

“It is good to see more Agri startups from the Northeast. This helps in the creation of a vibrant startup ecosystem. I feel that our focus on building a solid supply chain, the defined process and our technical infrastructure for the long run sets us apart at this point. We’re Tezpur-based and sell our products through both online and offline channels. We have listed our products on leading websites like Amazon and Flipkart along with our website, and recently we have launched our mobile application available for both Android and IOS users,” says Sharma.

The growing market for black garlic and turmeric

Just like rice, India is a big producer of garlic and turmeric. In fact, it is the world’s largest producer of turmeric, accounting for almost 80 per cent of global production. With about 50,000 tonnes of turmeric exported annually and more than Rs 1,000 crore attracted in revenues every year, the country understands how important the spice is. It is necessary to note that India is also the world’s largest consumer of turmeric in the world.

Black turmeric plant | Courtesy: MLV Plants

With Assam identified as one of the states showing a lot of potential and productivity, farmers and processors are now looking to newer variants such as black turmeric. On the other hand, garlic is also a big commodity in Assam. In fact, the state was India’s 5th largest producer of garlic in 2020, contributing up to 5.6 per cent of the total garlic output in the country. Like turmeric, there’s now a growing demand for black garlic..

Black garlic by Tholua

Founder of Guwahati-based Tholua Pratisthan, Trailukya Dutta, has gained immense popularity for his enhanced aged garlic product – Candy Garlic. He says, “We’re simply taking part in the $5.63-billion global market by investing in a variety that is important to the people of North-East India. We’re building an ecosystem where people can get well-grown and packaged black garlic and enjoy both the nutritional and tasty benefits of the herb. There’s a growing popularity of black garlic not just in Assam, but across Asia-Pacific markets, and this is what is driving the growth of the industry.”

Trailukya Dutta, founder of Guwahati-based Tholua Pratisthan

Aged garlic, known as “Black Garlic” says this is not new to Assam or North-East India. Few indigenous tribes used to expose the heads of garlic to heat and humidity to age. They could achieve aged garlic by filling bamboo holes with garlic bulbs and keeping them near a fireplace known for several months under constant temperature. Thus, the production process was very sensitive and for those who had a lot of patience.
Aged garlic and its derivatives are rich in Vitamin C, D, B1, B2, B2, B3, B4, B6, B9 and minerals such as zinc, iron, potassium, folate, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, etc. People can adapt this product in daily life to add micronutrients to their diet. To make sure of the quality standards, Dutta and his team have entered strategic partnerships with farmers to grow crops. “We use only simple food preserving technologies similar to spray drying, freeze-drying, heat pump dryers, solar dryers etc, during processing,” he adds.

On their part, black turmeric producers and traders, Mahalakshmi Live Plants are getting a lot of attention in the industry. The Dibrugarh-based company has partnered with farmers who grow the commodity, in a bid to provide a link between supply and demand. They now can supply as much as 60 tonnes of black turmeric every year. As Saikot Kumar Paul, founder of the company, says, “We sell black turmeric in raw form, which can be used for plantation or medicinal purposes. For cultivation, we need the best quality rhizomes of the dark blue variety. If seeds are less than 15g each – plants will grow up to 2.5 ft. approx. We select rhizomes of at least 30g each for better results. The process of cultivation is similar to yellow turmeric. There has been a high demand for black turmeric from the last few years.”

Saikot Kumar Paul, founder of MLV Plants

“It can be consumed in powder or raw form under expert guidance in small quantities, but must be obtained from a reliable source and must be 100 per cent organic,” he says. For businesses like Mahalakshmi Live Plants, it is all about demand; and there’s been a significant increase in recent years. In fact, Paul says his business was inspired by the rising demand for Black Turmeric as discovered on Indiamart.

Industry challenges

With every stride towards success comes a stumbling block, and players in the black rice, black garlic, and black turmeric industries have had their fair share of challenges. From financial constraints and promotional challenges to a not-so-buoyant seed system, these entrepreneurs overcome obstacles to put these local Assamese commodities on the global food map. This is very important because, as Nath from IRRI informs, “the domestic market is not big enough for the supply. There is a need to boost infrastructure for processing and entrench quality control to attract global markets.”Tholua’s Dutta adds that getting the skilled personnel needed to produce black garlic was a major challenge. “Even when you find the skilled labour, there are usually the issues of laziness and lethargy. This hampers productivity and reduces output,” he says. This is what Baruah also talks about when he says many people lack adequate skills to carry out the processes. For his black rice venture, he highlights pest control as a technical process that farmers must learn. He reveals, “My father had to show us how to make a bamboo torch with tender green bamboo stems filled with kerosene, to draw out the insects and pests from the crop to burn them. Some people even suggested that we soak dead frogs in the water and leave them on the perimeter of our crops so that the insects and pests would be drawn to those stinking dead frogs instead of the crops. Well, the idea seemed quite gross to us and we skipped trying that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was also a major challenge for agribusinesses engaged in the production of these superfoods and crops. Baruah, Dutta, Sharma, and Paul all agree that the pandemic had a major negative impact on supply and distribution.

A stellar future

The future looks bright for agribusinesses dealing in these renowned variants of rice, garlic, and turmeric. Experts are looking toward a formidable growth trajectory that will not just boost the domestic market and revenues for players, but also boost the local Assam agricultural sector and economy. For Purvai, this also means investing in their Black Rice cakes and chips as they continue to develop ideas to introduce innovative products to Assam and the rest of the world.

Government support and scientific research are also needed to develop improved seedlings to boost production for the ever-growing demand for black rice, garlic, and turmeric, among other farm produce.

Also read | How ultra-processed foods are trashing our health and the planet

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