Challenges of providing organic food
AuroAnnam was started by Lucas some years ago to
provide organic cultivation of cashews, a predominant crop of the region.
In the recent years, AuroAnnam has developed an experimental organic
farm and also distributes in Auroville a number of high-quality organic
products such as rice, wheat, lentils, kidney beans, whole sugar, gourmet
teas and coffee at affordable and fair prices. These products, some
of which cannot be cultivated in this region, are procured by AuroAnnam
from selected farms all over India. Promotion of organic cashew cultivation
in the Auroville region, however, remains one of their main objectives.
Certified by Skal
Last year, AuroAnnam got 187 acres of cashew plantations in and around Auroville certified by SKAL, an internationally accepted Dutch certification agency. The farmers who had their field certified were happy, for AuroAnnam guaranteed purchase of their produce and paid them 10-20% more than the market price. Word of this spread and more farmers approached them wanting to go organic. Unfortunately, much as they would like to, AuroAnnam was not in a position, financially speaking, to accept them. For contrary to their expectations, AuroAnnam has had limited success in selling organic cashews.
The problem in selling organic cashews points to a larger malaise in the distribution and consumption of organic produce within Auroville. Despite the fact that the Mother wanted Auroville farms to be organic, despite evidence that wholesome organic food leads to healthier living, there are no comprehensive community policies that support the cultivation of organic produce. At Pour Tous, the community store, organic produces from Auroville units have to compete in price and shelf space with chemically grown goods. Restaurants in Auroville, barring the Coffee Shop, show no interest in using organic produce, even though it is available at attractive prices.
Lack of demand
Says Lucas, "Aurovilians are quite unconscious about their dietary habits. They care about the way their food is cooked, they care about the taste, the spices that are used, but they are oblivious to the poisons that they consume with their chemically-grown food. If there were a greater demand for organic, then supply and cultivation of organic food would automatically increase. Lack of demand is the biggest challenge AuroAnnam faces," explains Lucas.
"As it is, matching supply to the demand, especially in this fluctuating initial stage of business can be quite tricky. To give an example, we recently procured two small batches of organic wheat. We did our best to promote sales in Auroville, but it moved slowly. Then finally the Auroville Bakery decided to go organic and wanted 500 kgs a month. But for us to monthly procure and distribute wheat in this relatively small quantity is difficult. Ideally, we should be buying a year's supply after each harvest. But at the moment we do not have sufficient storage.
Storing of organic produce
And then there are problems in storing organic produce for the risks of bug-infestation and spoilage are very high. Even if we were to solve these problems, we would not want to take the financial risk of investing in tons of wheat. If the demand were to suddenly drop, we would become bankrupt overnight. Such problems are faced not just by us, a fledgling unit, but by all organic food distributors in India. Organic produce needs to come into the mainstream of the food business for the demand and supply to even out.
Three or four years
"In marketing organic tea, for instance, it is much easier to cope with demand, for the supply cycle is much more streamlined. Tea is one of India's biggest exports and due to the demand from Western markets, high quality organic teas are available. Similarly, coffee and spices, due to demand from abroad, are beginning to be organically cultivated on a large scale. The organic market for staple foods like grains is slowly growing and can only continue to grow, but it will be at least another three to four years before it is commercially successful. We had hoped to make enough profit on our luxury items such as the gourmet teas, selected coffee, cashew and spices to be able to subsidize the staples, but so far, this has not worked."
Despite the financial crunch it is currently facing, AuroAnnam stays committed to its ideal of fair prices. The sales price on their products has an average mark-up of only 10% over the cost price. This 10% margin, however, does not cover the cost incurred by the unit, and the business runs at a net loss. This pricing policy of AuroAnnam stands out in sharp contrast to that of other businesses in Auroville, especially those who have a monopoly on their products, who are able to charge arbitrary prices given the lack of a central pricing control. "Such arbitrary prices hikes," says Lucas, "are unfair to the consumer, especially Aurovilians who live on a limited maintenance, and promote the belief that organic food is only for the rich."
No competition with AV Farms
"Another policy that we follow is to not enter into competition with Auroville farms. Ideally, locally grown foods should be locally consumed. There is an additional environmental impact when we import food from outside. But essentially, data collected by the Solar Kitchen (Auroville's community kitchen) shows that Auroville procures 65% of the food items from outside. It is this market that AuroAnnam targets. In the long run, we would like to replace this inorganic food with wholesome organic food."
Call to Aurovilians
However, in the short run, AuroAnnam has no choice but to scale down their venture and cut their overheads in order to make their ends meet. It remains to be seen whether Aurovilians will now switch over to organic products, thus promoting environmentally sustainable organic agriculture and helping AuroAnnam to succeed.
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