Dutch Treat For West Bengal Farmers

Kolkata, Sept 28: | Updated: Sep 29 2003, 05:30am hrs
Dutch expertise combined with local entrepreneurship and government backing has spawned a potato-flakes project that promises to bring relief to farmers plagued by overproduction and lack of processing units.

Coming up in Burdwan district, one of the states four designated agri-export zones (AEZs), the venture between Amazan Agro Products Ltd and Tummers Management Engineering & Sales of The Netherlands is designed to gobble up local varieties of potatoes and churn out 1620 tonne of potato flakes a year.

The Rs 12-crore project will have its own high-humid cold storage with a capacity of 7,000 tonne. Tummers is providing the plant and management expertise for the project, which will buy potatoes directly from farmers around the site.

Tummers will market and export the entire production of potato flakes, a powdery form that is widely used in soups, bakery products and as plain mashed potato.

Unlike potato chips, which have to be made from potatoes of a uniform shape, flakes can be made from any type, with the only restrictions being on water and sugar content.

Mr Jim Krijger, a director of Tummers, said his company is very happy with the Union and state governments for paying so much attention to the food processing industry. He said the Amazan project, scheduled to be operational by next March, is very viable for Tummers. The Netherlands is the largest exporter of processed/ frozen potatoes, for which it buys produce from neighbouring Belgium and Germany. However, Dutch companies have been shifting operations to areas with lower cost of production.

Tummers has similar projects coming up elsewhere in Indias potato growing areas, and expects the Bengal unit to begin commercial production in March-April next year.

Mr Joydeb Garai, chief executive officer of Amazan, said the project will consume the Kufri Jyoti variety, which is the most commonly available one in the state. It will process 6kg of potatoes to give 1kg of flakes. The Amazan project and four similar ones coming up in other AEZs will be a boon for West Bengal, the countrys second-largest producer of potatoes with a crop of 82 lakh tonne. According to Mr RS Mukherjee, deputy director of the food processing industries department, his department provides technical assistance, escort services, financial linkages and domestic marketing support. The state has declared the districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, East Midnapore and Howrah as AEZs.

We have approved seven potato processing projects so far, and four are being implemented, Mr Mukherjee said. Each unit involves an average investment of Rs 6-8 crore, and can consume 50 tonne a day, he said. The Dutch company is happy with the potato variety available in Burdwan, he said. Mr Krijger, explaining the flaking process, said the automated plant clean, peel, blanch and cook potatoes brought out from its own cold store. The cooked potatoes will then be conveyed over huge drums with an internal temperature of 190 degrees centigrade, creating a sheet, which will be sliced up into flakes.

The flakes will then be packed in drums and loaded into containers for shipment, Mr Krijger said. He said it is important to keep the moisture content at around 6-8 pr cent, and the sugar content is also kept within a specified band. The blanching helps reduce the sugar content, but sometimes we have to add sugar, he said.

Praising the Indian potato, Mr Krijger said the hand-picking method followed by farmers is a boon for processors as they get relatively clean produce that reduces the need for expensive pre-work.

It is so much cleaner than machine-harvested potatoes that we get in Europe, Mr Krijger said. He said the Bengal unit will be viable for Tummers despite the cost of shipping the product to distant markets. At the same time, farmers stand to gain by way of better prices, he said.

Mr Krijger said Indian demand for flakes is expected to grow, as eating habits change. Unlike in Western countries, where up to 70 per cent of the potato crop is processed and only 30 per cent sold as fresh table stock, Indian farmers have to deal with distress sales and watch potatoes rot in the absence of an adequate cold store chain.