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The cup runneth over

India's fondness for corn on the cob is being challenged by corn in the cup

Maitreyee Handique  |  New Delhi 

For years, ex-ramp model Sabah Backhache had observed Indian tourists at malls in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
"They were always snacking on sweet corn," she remembers. Some time around end-2003, she walked across her Gurgaon home to the DT Mall to enquire about rent and, in a small 300-sq ft space, began selling her homemade version of steaming, lemon-flavoured sweet corn kernel in 200 gm cups. It was an instant hit.
Backhache's Hot & Juicy sweet corn, priced at Rs 25, still does whopping sales of 500 cups a day at the mall kiosk. "I knew the idea would click," she says.
The corn cup craze is catching on with stunning speed and franchisee wannabes have started making a beeline to nibble at a share of the sweet corn cup pie.
Backhache was so surprised by the response, she had to ask her Lebanese husband Antoine Backhache, the founder of the Pizza Corner brand in India, to put her new venture in order. Today, she supplies her recipes and roughly 40 tonnes of sweet corn to some 90 franchisees across the country.
Her entrepreneurial success has spawned a host of other sweet corn brands. They are spilling to malls and high-footfall markets from Chennai to Chandigarh to feed India's burgeoning middle class hungry for anything novel and new.
But Backhache doesn't think imitation is the best form of flattery. "They've not just copied my model but my banner, cups, price, taste "" everything," she complains.
Backhache is justified in worrying about the dilution of her brand at the retail end, but the real revolution is happening in the fields of Maharashtra (and, to a small extent, in Gujarat) where the Baramati and Pune region is fast emerging as India's sweet corn belt.
Eight years ago, when 34-year-old Rahul Mhaske decided to switch from strawberry to sweet corn farming on his 10-acre farm near Pune, knowledge about sweet corn was virtually non-existent.
"I had to go from hotels to clubs to promote my product," says Mhaske, whose Rs 2 crore Monsoon Bio-Agro Ltd primarily focuses on sweet corn. But in less than a decade, the situation has changed. Mhaske is now collaborating with 200-odd sweet corn cultivators under contract farming to meet the huge demand generated by the domestic processed food and restaurant business.
Taking advantage of the pro agriculture-minded state government and the horticultural subsidy, Mhaske and other progressive farmers like Krishnakant Gandhi are disseminating information and educating farmers on sweet corn.
"At an average, an acre of land fetches 1,500 kg of wheat for Rs 14,000, of which about Rs 8,000 goes as farming expenditure. Sweet corn yields 5,000 kg per acre. At an average price of Rs 6 per kg, the farmer can earn nearly Rs 30,000, of which about Rs 15-18,000 is spent on the production," says Gandhi who runs Hak Agro Foods.
Like Mhaske, Gandhi caught the farming bug in the mid-90s. After giving up his steel trading business in Mumbai, Gandhi and his extended family bought 250 acres of agricultural land near Aurangabad. Today, Hak Agro has 30 farmers under contract farming.
What is the big fuss about sweet corn? "Indian corn is hard and has high starch content, so it is used mainly for producing corn oil and starch, whereas sweet corn is healthier and soft and can be eaten directly," explains Gandhi, who controls 50 per cent of the country's 5,000 metric tonnes sweet corn production.
But the real explanation could be the huge potential for exports. Mhaske, who also runs the Corn Club restaurant in Pune and launched its domestic corn cup brand called Malaysian Cup Corn recently, wants to export frozen products like sweet corn samosa and corn patties to South Korea and Dubai.
Gandhi, meanwhile, is looking at the frozen and the canned sweet corn nibbles market and has tied up with Baroda-based Saraf Foods to supply sweet corn for export to Germany, the US and the UK. Hak Agro's freeze dry processing plant in Mumbai, set up at the cost of Rs 1 crore, can handle five tons of sweet corn a day.
"India's current cultivation area is 1,000 acres, but even if it touches 12 lakh acres, we will still run short of supply," he says.
With sweet corn's fast domestic growth, Mhaske is worried about meeting supply for the next few months.
"There is a huge shortfall of imported sweet corn seeds following a government ban on it in November last year," he says.
As a result of the ban, prices of imported seeds have jumped by 200 per cent, from Rs 8 a kg to Rs 24 a kg, in the past three months, and India's total sweet corn cultivation has shrunk from 1,000 acres in November 2003 to 300-400 acres this year.
"The demand for seeds is 12,000 kg a month, but hardly any was available in the past one year," says Gandhi.
While the seeds restriction is giving smuggling channels a boost, the wholesale prices of raw sweet corn at this week's Mumbai Agricultural Produce Market Committee, the subzi mandi, ruled at Rs 24 per kg, which is 200 per cent cent more than the world average wholesale price of Rs 4-5.
Last week, farmers sighed in relief as the government removed the ban on seed imports. Till March 2002, sweet corn was catergorised as maize, but under the 2004 exim policy, sweet corn has come under the category of vegetables.
"But the year-long ban has disrupted the entire machinery," says Gandhi. Farmers are worried that similar bans in the future will give other sweet corn producing countries like Thailand and Malaysia a big advantage in entering India.
The wholesale rates of Indian sweet corn nibbles is generally Rs 45-50, the same as the Malaysian and Thai prices, "but with the raw product available for Rs 24, we can't supply to the kiosks," says Gandhi.
With no lobbies to promote farmers' interests, Gandhi had personally met agriculture minister Sharad Pawar thrice last month to demand freer access to imported seeds.
"If a small sweet corn unit in Thailand can export to 94 countries, why can't we?" he asks. For that, the government has to wake up to prove its free market credentials.
But as long as entreprenueurs like Backhache are intent on pulling customers to sweet corn, farmers should have nothing to complain about. "Even if more players enter the market today, we will still do good business and survive," says Gandhi.

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First Published: Sat, December 25 2004. 00:00 IST