Think Beyond, Stay Ahead

"A good seed is produced and does not happen by magic"

BR Barwale, on how he set up and grew the country’s premier hybrid seed-producing company, Mahyco

While the moniker ‘ladies’ man’ is a common one, you may not have heard much of the ‘lady’s-finger man’. Well, that was me, but I don’t blame you for not knowing. Most of you may not have been born when I was initiated into a life-long activity of pleasure. But if you think my lady’s-finger days were bereft of any pain, perish the thought. While I have thoroughly enjoyed myself in the seeds business, it has been a hard grind. However, when you are obsessed about an outcome that concerns the larger good of society, overcoming obstacles is business as usual. 

I have always had some feistiness in me right from my school days and it has come in handy right through my career. When I was in my early twenties, all I was looking for was a way to increase my family income and put our ancestral land holding to good use. That also was the first step towards becoming the lady’s-finger man. Due to my interest in agriculture, I used to read a lot of related literature and closely followed the latest developments in the field. To know more and get some action, I decided to visit the world agricultural fair that was being held in Delhi.

Naturally I was not going to come back without a visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and it was not without purpose. IARI was, and still is, one of the best in terms of seed research in the country. My intention was to buy some okra (lady’s-finger) seeds to plant back home at Jalna. This was the point when I realised the yawning gap between my theory and actual practice. I was told that the okra strain I had asked for had now become obsolete and a new, resistant strain had been introduced in its place. That learnt, I was also told that instead of the one kilogram I was asking for, at the most I would be given only two packets of the seed. 

Since I was determined to get at least a kilogram of okra seed, I cajoled the concerned person to find a way out. After a while he said, “Saab, ek baat ho sakti hai. I have to account for everything that I have got from the store-house and I am going on leave from today. If you buy everything, then that saves me the trip back to the store-house.” That is how I ended up buying 2 kilograms of okra seed for about Rs.100 along with eggplant and other assorted vegetable seeds. Mind you, this was the early 1960s and Rs.100 was a minor fortune. But my mind was made up about going home and planting it. 

To my surprise, the harvest was wonderful in all aspects and I started selling the output in the market. My royal lady’s-finger sold for Rs.2 a kg at the wholesale market. Then reality struck again. Within a week, the price dropped to Rs.1 a kg and then to 50 paisa a kg. I was left scratching my head with respect to the timing of my entry into the market. The commodity nature of the vegetable market caught me off-guard and instead of concentrating on growing vegetables I decided to concentrate on selling okra seeds. As it was, after my IARI visit, I had quite some inventory of original breeder seeds. So I went about multiplying them, the thought being to plant the seeds during the off-season. 

Making our mark 

The plants turned out extraordinarily fine and to show off my skills as a lady’s-finger man, we took our output to an exhibition in Aurangabad where it caught the eye of another seed seller. On conferring with him, I learnt that he was selling about four to five wagonloads of okra seeds every season. Sensing a ready buyer, I agreed to sell him the vegetable seeds at Rs.5.50 a kg with a 20% in-built commission for him. Although my reseller always used to crib that my seeds were expensive, an even bigger surprise was to come my way.

One day, a few of his customers approached me directly for seeds. I asked, “Why don’t you buy it from my reseller?” Their complaint was, “We are willing to pay even Rs.50 a kg, but he does not have any seeds to sell.” That really opened my eye to the potential of the seeds market and having come to know that my reseller was selling at Rs.50 to Rs.60 a kg, we asked for a rate renegotiation, which he refused. We then decided to go on our own. I contacted an advertising agency in Pune and produced a leaflet, as well as an advertisement that boldly said “Produce double”.

We released the ad in the local papers and in the first week itself we received 750 letters. Mahyco was starting to make its presence felt. While we started in 1964, our first research nursery was already up and running in 1966 and even now, we spend over 10% of our sales on research activities every year.

Coincidentally, around the same time, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) was collaborating aggressively with the Indian government to increase the quantity of food grain grown in the country. The country at that point had slipped to what was widely termed as a ship-to-mouth existence. The first crop that was handled by the RF team here was hybrid maize. Until that point no hybrids were commercially marketed in India. When the first hybrid was ready to go the market after trials, they were looking for seedsmen who would produce the seed, process it, check on quality and market it.

Fortunately, I came in contact with them and Mahyco ended up being the first company in Maharashtra to produce maize hybrid seeds. When we launched our first maize seed, it was classic direct selling at play. We used to hold meetings in every nearby village and ask farmers to buy our seeds. Mahyco started making a profit right in the first year. That is because we had constant guidance from experienced American seed industry hands at RF.

As RF found me dependable, our association went from strength to strength. So, when the time came to launch a jowar hybrid, I was one of the first to be called. That was because the male seeds were fewer in number and they did not want to experiment with different seedsmen. At that time, drought-like conditions were prevailing and most crops ended up as fodder. Since the RF team wanted the seed to be ready by the next kharif season, the onus was on Mahyco to make it a success.

Here Dr Wayne Freeman, seeds production specialist at RF and my second guru (the first being Dr Harbhajan Singh, head of the department of plant introduction at IARI, whose ‘Pusa Sawani’ okra seeds led me into the business), stepped in to my rescue and we ended up with another major success. Our seed variety called Jowar 51 sold 50,000 quintals, a first for any seed company.

When Mahyco was growing, we were periodically starved for working capital. While we did have some bank credit, there was never enough packing material. The limited cloth that was ordered would go for conversion into packaging bags and the seed processing would stop. Then inspiration struck — what if we sold our seeds in advance? While that in itself was a risk, we were banking on high demand as well as our processes to pull it through. The uncertainty arises because seeds are not a manufacturing product. Since they are produced in the fields, it is not possible to guarantee production. The delivery depends on the overall harvest, processing and field test.

Despite a lukewarm reception and some ridicule from our distributors, we went ahead. To make the 10% to 40% advance booking attractive, we added an incentive that even if the seed price were higher during the season, we would provide it at the agreed price. If it went down, we would match the lower market price. The response in the first year was not great, but those who had booked earlier were better off because they got quality seeds at cheaper prices.

So, in the next year, we received a tremendous response. Our working capital problem was resolved for good and then it was the bankers who complained about us not utilising the sanctioned credit limit. The entire industry now follows this practice, with the exception of the state of Maharashtra, where the government stopped it as some rogue elements misused it. 

Money farm

Our research efforts intensified once we were on a strong footing. We extended our field tests for testing genetic purity to cotton, jowar and bajra. This helped weed out substandard seeds and maintain final product quality. The next big push came via our tie-up with Monsanto. Though it was a technology partnership to start with, it later culminated into an equity partnership. Through Monsanto, we introduced Bt technology in the production of cotton seeds.

Later on, to speed up the process of adoption, we decided to license the Bt seed to other seed companies who agreed to maintain the necessary quality. The results have been nothing short of revolutionary, despite the tremendous resistance. 

I still remember the one constant demand at every cotton federation meeting that I attended. The question would be, “When will this stagnant yield of 300 kg per hectare become a part of history?” After Bt cotton came in, this average galloped to 550 to 600 kg per hectare, a jump in yield that had never happened before with any crop in India’s history. The only exception was Dr Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat. But there was a big difference.

Increasing the wheat yield was entirely a state initiative, while its role in increasing cotton yield was restricted only to regulation. The government did not have to push it; the farmers accepted it on their own. Like any other industry, it is profit that drives the farmer. Today, despite all the protest, the penetration of Bt cotton is 90% and India is the second-largest producer of cotton after China. That said, as a country, we are still very low on productivity compared to our acreage, and there is still a lot of work to be done.

A good seed is the foundation of farming and does not happen by magic. It requires intense research and development, right from the breeding stage till commercialisation. That is why Mahyco has always been focused on the development of the seeds industry in India. All of us have a debt to pay to society and are egged-on by help from various quarters. When I started, divine guidance came to me in the form of Dr Harbhajan Singh and Dr Wayne Freeman, who taught me the initial lessons of seed production and processing. 

But we are also aware that ensuring good seed availability throughout the country is such a big task that we cannot do it all by ourselves. That is why we have set up training sites at Jalna and Hyderabad through our foundation. Almost everybody in the private and public seed sector has been through quality control classes at our learning centre. 

In life I have learnt that if you are chasing a passion, failure is not an option. In my lifetime, I have seen seed companies thrive and go bankrupt as well. When there are setbacks, and you still want to win, you just put your head down and keep pushing. That is what our research team at Mahyco has done and will keep doing. I never studied in an agricultural university but have continued to will my way through. At times I feel that God has given me life only to produce seeds. That is how it has played out.