Indian exotica

All exotic foods need not be imported. Thanks to successful experiments with cultivation and production of food products like quinoa and olive oil in India, these might soon become ubiquitous and affordable

IN A vast field, rows and rows of trees covered with lush, green leaves stretch into the distance, as the sun beams down from a pale blue sky. A farm worker kneels down and, fighting off the wind, grabs a thin branch with a few olives on it.

Well, if this reads like the setting of a novel describing some idyllic corner of Europe, think again. This is the view at one of the several fields in India’s desert state of Rajasthan, where the cultivation of olives, a traditional tree crop native to the Mediterranean basin, has been taken up.

Until recently, India hardly had anything to do with olives, as all the oil needed was imported—in fact, India is the world’s largest importer of edible oils. It imported 11.62 million tonnes of edible oil last year through October 2014 (the figure was 10.38 million tonnes in the previous year).

But in 2007, thanks to the untiring efforts of a few votaries, the Mediterranean tree finally arrived in Rajasthan. The desert state now has seven large farms with 74,064 olive plants in all. If all goes well, the first made-in-India olive oil could hit retail shops by the end of this year.

The story is intriguing, for olives are mainly associated with Italy and Spain. How can you grow them in a tropical desert state like Rajasthan? Surprisingly, you can, and the lessons came from Israel.

In 2006, then chief minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje visited the west Asian country to attend an international agriculture exhibition and found olives being grown commercially at Kibbutz in the Negev desert. If the cash crop could be grown in a desert region there, it could very well be taken up in India as well. She came back and, after consulting some scientists, decided on a pilot plantation of olives, called jaitoon in Hindi.

The next year, the state government promoted a company in the public-private partnership mode and Rajasthan Olive Cultivation Ltd (ROCL)—which had the Pune-based horticulture company Finolex Plasson Industries and Indolive of Israel as partners, with each company having a share of 33%—was born. About 1.12 lakh plants were imported from Israel and plantation in seven agro-climatic zones was completed in 2008. Flowering started in 2011.

By 2012, many of the plants had started bearing fruit.

“We sent some samples to Israel and labs elsewhere to find out the oil content in the fruit. It ranges from 9-14%,” says Yogesh Kumar Verma of ROCL. As a state government representative, Verma has been involved with the cultivation of the crop from the first year itself. The oil content of olives in other countries varies between 12% and 16%. “We knew we could make it commercially viable. The government then imported an oil extraction unit from Italy,” Verma adds.

“This will change the agro-economy. To translate the cultivation into a big success, we have set up an oil refinery in Bikaner district,” state agriculture minister Prabhu Lal Saini was quoted as saying earlier.

Currently, olives are being grown in the districts of Bikaner, Ganganagar, Hanumangarh and Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. “At present, olive cultivation is being done on 282 hectares of land and our target is to expand it to 5,000 hectares in the next few years,” Saini had said.

This year, ROCL is expecting about 100-150 tonnes of fruit—enough to begin commercialisation on a small scale.

“The oil is likely to be packaged as ‘Raj Olive’. We will do extra virgin and virgin oils only,” says Verma of ROCL. Both extra virgin and virgin oils are made by mechanical processes and are not chemically treated. The admissible level of free fatty acids is higher in virgin olive oil compared to the extra virgin variety.

Growing with the times

About four hours’ drive from Jaipur is Bakalia in Nagaur district of northern Rajasthan. ROCL’s farm there has about 13,000 trees neatly planted on near-rocky soil. In the middle of the farm rest tiny cabins from where both irrigation and fertilisation can be automatically controlled. The olive tree does not require much water, but, when irrigated, the water does need a specified salt content.

The plants also require different nutrients at different stages. At one end of the farm is an auto-metrological station that gives out climatic data for analysis. “Olive plants require chilling to flower and fruit—the temperature should be close to zero, or less than five degrees at night. The next day, the temperature should be less than 16-20 degrees,” says Verma of ROCL. If any of these variables go missing, the trees may not flower.

The country’s olive oil imports are growing at a rapid pace and were to the tune of 11,000 tonnes in 2014-15, as per Rajneesh Bhasin, managing director, Borges India, and president of the Indian Olive Oil Association (the country imports olive oil mainly from Spain and Italy). The imports are projected to shoot up to 42,000 tonnes by 2025, as more and more Indians choose olive oil for its health benefits. “Awareness about olive oil was very low till about three years ago and it was more popular for cosmetic use than cooking. But this has changed with time and the oil is now predominantly used for cooking,” says Yogesh Bellani, CEO of FieldFresh Foods, a joint venture between Bharti Enterprises and Del Monte Pacific that offers processed food and beverage products in India and other countries under the Del Monte brand.

Olives are rich in oleic acid, which can help prevent heart diseases. A hindrance to greater consumption in India has been its price. An imported one-litre bottle of extra virgin olive oil can cost between R800 and R1,000. A domestically produced oil can be cheaper.

“The difference in my estimation would be 20-25%, not as large as some people would expect because we do not have the economies of scale that Spain and Italy do,” says VN Dalmia, chairman of Dalmia Continental, which recently sold its olive oil brand Leonardo to US food major Cargill.

But others are more hopeful. Borges Group of Spain is one of them. Bhasin of Borges India says he is observing the development in Rajasthan closely. “It is too early to say. But if there is an opportunity, we can launch a locally-produced olive oil. The land used by ROCL is subsidised. So the produce should be cheaper,” he says. Besides launching its own brand, ROCL might allow private companies to bottle and market its produce, say sources.
Subsided farming

Farmers, many of whom had never seen or heard about olives before, are also coming around to the idea. To entice them, the Rajasthan government is offering subsidies. Each olive tree costs about R130 to plant, but farmers pay just Rs 28. About 90% of the cost of setting up a drip irrigation system, which is expensive to install, but uses water more efficiently, is covered.

Fifty-two-year-old Sahabram Saharan grew wheat and cotton for decades. Both require a lot of water. But in April, he planted his first olive trees across 10 hectares at his farm in Madera village close to the Pakistan border. “Olive trees last for 100-150 years. That’s why I decided to plant them. I’ve just started, but in four years, olives will begin to grow. I know people make oil from olives. I will do the same,” he adds.

There is huge potential to increase the area under cultivation in Rajasthan, which is two-and-a-half times larger than Greece, the world’s third-largest producer of olives.

The next challenge will be marketing Rajasthani olive oil, which Gideon Peleg, an Israeli agriculture expert, who has been working with ROCL, describes as a ‘weak point’. “Olive oil from Rajasthan will need to overcome a low-quality perception,” explains Peleg.

Spain, the world’s biggest producer, which last year accounted for around 50% of the total production worldwide, has spent millions of dollars to promote its olive oil domestically and internationally. For India to fulfill its global ambitions, it will have to follow Spain’s example. “Any product requires two things: a good marketing programme and a sales network,” says Dalmia of Dalmia Continental.

Rajasthan’s tryst with olives and its success can now inspire more states to adopt cultivation of this tree, especially on barren terrain. And that could have huge implications on the livelihoods of the people in the region.

Know your OIL

* The country’s olive oil imports were to the tune of 11,000 tonnes in 2014-15
* Imports are projected to shoot up to 42,000 tonnes by 2025
* Rajasthan has seven farms with 74,064 olive plants in all
* Olive cultivation is being done on 282 hectares of land in Rajasthan
* The first made-in-India olive oil could hit the market by end-2015

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.