A juicyopportunity

ndian entrepreneurs are hoping to woo customers with high-quality branded fruits, says Aarti Dua

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 19.10.14

When housewives in Hyder-abad went shopping for their weekly supply of fruits at supermarket Heritage Fresh earlier this year, they were in for a surprise. For nestling among the Washington apples and Zespri kiwi fruit from New Zealand were boxes of Saboro grapes. But wait a minute. Saboro's not another international brand wooing the Indian fruit lover. Rather, it's among the first Indian consumer brands in fresh fruits. And it's been launched by Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M).

"India is seeing the start of a new phenomenon called branded fruits. And we're pioneering this category with Saboro, which stands for premium quality fruits," says Ashok Sharma, chief executive, agri and allied businesses, M&M.

The company first launched Saboro — sabor means tasty in Spanish — apples last year before introducing Saboro grapes in March. And while these were costlier than the local grapes, the firm and juicy fruit flew right off Heritage Fresh's shelves.

  • Pankaj and Payal Khandelwal are winning over the country's fruit wholesalers with their Kimaye pomegranates and bananas; Pic by Gajanan Dudhalkar

"The Saboro grapes were clearly differentiated on quality and consistency. Customers who bought them were really happy," says K. Ravindranath, head, buying and merchandising, fruits and vegetables, Heritage Fresh.

Cut to Delhi and its outskirts, and you can take your pick from Kimaye pomegranates at supermarkets here. And in Mumbai, shoppers at Star Bazaar, too, had a taste of Rallis-Star Bazaar grapes earlier this year.

We've all had our fruit platters invaded by imported fruits in recent years, even if global brands like Dole and Del Monte are yet to hit our shelves. But now, Indian players like M&M, INI Farms, which owns the Kimaye brand, and Rallis India are adding a brand new flavour. They're launching branded fruits and wooing affluent customers with their promise of consistently better quality.

  • Mahindra Mahindra's Ashok Sharma says that its Saboro fruits brand has pioneered branded fruits in India; Pic by Gajanan Dudhalkar

Says Pankaj Khandelwal, who set up INI Farms with his wife Purnima five years ago: "Branded fruit in India is still an extremely nascent business. But the opportunity is humongous." The Khandelwals are pitching Kimaye — it means 'divine' in Sanskrit — which they launched in India two years ago, as a trade brand for wholesalers. But the pomegranates with Kimaye stickers are visible at NCR supermarkets.

The seed for branded fruits will take time to flower in India. But the players are bullish. After all, the country has a Rs 2-lakh crore fruit market.

For M&M, launching branded fruits was a natural step as it had been working with farmers for years. It first helped farmers near Nashik to grow international quality grapes, which it began exporting to Europe in 2005.

Three years ago, it turned its gaze to India given rising incomes and the growth in modern retail. "There was a need for quality fruits. And we knew that we could fulfil it," says Sharma.

Meanwhile, Pankaj and Purnima got into horticulture by chance when, as management consultants, they helped Swiss-German investors to acquire trading firm Desai Fruits & Vegetables in 2005. Pankaj then ran Desai Fruits for them for three years, growing it into a leading exporter.

But by 2009 the couple revived their own dreams and set up INI Farms. "The sector excites us. The technical challenges associated with the way nature works are phenomenal. And on the management side, it's extremely complex because perishables require split-second decision-making," says Pankaj, who's from IIT and IIM. "Plus, you can make a real difference at the farm level," adds Purnima.

They began with pomegranates as they're available 10 months a year and have a long shelf life. They also set up their own farms besides having contract farmers. They exported to Europe first — thus building stringent quality — before entering India in January 2013. Last year, they also launched Cavendish variety bananas.

Now, branding in fruits is all about providing a consistent supply of quality fruit. "Anyone who can crack this can crack the branded fruits business," says Ravindranath. For instance, with the yellow Cavendish bananas, visual differentiation is clear with an evenly golden, unblemished skin. The players are confident of delivering this. That's because they've invested in best farm practices and post-harvest ripening and packing centres.

Sharma's happy with the "quite phenomenal" response to Saboro apples and grapes in Hyderabad. Now, he plans to leverage the group's joint-venture with Belgian fresh produce firm, Univeg, and use its cold chain expertise to expand the brand to Mumbai and Delhi this year. "With this tie-up, we will create a new standard for high quality fruits," he says. He will also launch bananas soon.

M&M's domestic fruits business, including imported fruits, is around Rs 25 crore currently. Sharma expects this to touch Rs 150 crore in three years. Meanwhile, Pankaj expects INI's pomegranate sales to double to 2,500 tonnes in 2014-15 over last year, and its banana sales to touch 4,000 tonnes from 1,000 tonnes. Exports account for 85 per cent of INI's revenues. But Pankaj says: "Our domestic business will grow faster."

The players know that branded fruits will account for a minuscule share of the country's fruit market. "We've only taken the first step of making a branded product available. It will take time before it registers with consumers," says Pankaj. But that's not stopping them from nurturing ambitions. Says Sharma: "We see ourselves emerging as one of the largest fruit companies in India."