This firm from Bengaluru is helping potato farmers in Assam

Priyanka Chakrabarty

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Guwahati: Potato farming in Assam received a major fillip when the first dispatch of 50,000 metric tonnes was sent to PepsiCo's manufacturing facilities for Lay's chips production, announced by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

The development occurs against the backdrop of PepsiCo's Rs 778 crore investment in Assam for a food-focused manufacturing plant in Nalbari district. The unit is expected to begin operations next year and employ scores of locals. PepsiCo's latest with Assam, even before its plant began operating, has firmly put the spotlight on the potato farming sector in a state that is mostly known for its tea and rice production.

Production of potatoes rose from seven metric tonnes per hectare to 17 metric tonnes per hectare in 2022. Around one lakh hectares of land in the state are under potato cultivation and production is around 7.50 lakh MT. With the addition of 3 lakh hectares more, production could reach around 30 lakh MT after four years. The numbers, although satisfactory, do not tell the whole story.

An official at 'Rang De', a Bengaluru headquartered firm that works closely with Assam's potato sector, observed that Assam's cultivation pales in comparison to the national average of 23.96 MT yield per hectare. "The major reasons for low productivity in Assam were found to be poor quality seeds, high disease incidence, low knowledge about scientific methods of cultivation, lack of storage facilities, fragmentation of the value chain, and poor farm mechanization", the official told Business North East. Credit has also been a major challenge for the farmers to progress from paddy subsistence cultivation to potato cultivation on a commercial level.

Rang De, however, claims that its initiative has taken potato farming to a "new height" in Assam. The organization facilitates peer-to-peer (P2P) lending with a special focus on the financial inclusion of underbanked and unbanked communities. Rang De Consortium has also introduced 11 varieties of seeds imported from the Netherlands tailored specifically to thrive in Assam's unique climate to boost production potential. The introduction of low GI Carisma varieties for diabetic consumers is seen as another landmark by the organization.

To boost the potential of the sector, the firm partnered with Siddhi Vinayak Agri Processing Pvt Ltd which focuses on seeds, potato storage, and supply solutions. "[The partnership aims to pioneer] a sustainable future for potato farming, strengthening the potato value chain, and empowering farmers with innovative solutions and financial inclusivity", said the official. From seed production and marketing to procurement, storage, and even food processing solutions, this partnership aims to revolutionize the potato farming landscape in Assam.

Rang De Consortium also seeks to establish a safety net for farmers. Through MoUs, they guarantee a Minimum Support Price of Rs 12 per kg, ensuring that the farmers' hard work does not go unrewarded due to market volatility. They also offer training programs for farmers according to the variety of seeds chosen to ensure that farmers are "well-prepared and protected against unforeseen adversities." Moreover, the establishment of storage facilities addresses one of the critical challenges in the potato value chain—preserving the harvest and reducing post-harvest losses.

While SV Agri addresses the agricultural challenges, Rang De tackles the financial barrier of access to credit. Traditional financial solutions often fall short of meeting the immediate and specific needs of potato farmers, who require substantial funds at the onset of the planting season. Rang De offers immediate and affordable credit at 6-8% interest.

The company says that 647 farmers, including 303 first-time borrowers, have also benefitted from the initiative. It needs mention here that the credit is powered by Rang De's social investors.

Rafiqul Islam is among scores of farmers from the state who want to connect with the Rang De initiative.

The owner of a Farmer Producer Company (FPC) in Goalpara that specializes in potato production, Rafikul told Business Northeast that he is "very happy" about his decision to choose the crop. "One of our FPCs was formed only for potatoes. We have around 1,200 bighas of land producing around 50 quintals of potatoes each."

Assam's efforts to boost potato production are being supported by the International Potato Center under the Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART) for the next two years.

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Priyanka Chakrabarty