South India

Posted by on Jun 7, 2013


Our arrival in Chennai was uneventful, but as soon as you walk out of the airport India hits you in the face. A sea of faces meets you at the gate and the chaos of traffic is tame compared to what awaits you when you finally get going. Horns honking everywhere, passing and turning at will, it seems to the untrained eye sheer insanity, close shaves aside there is method in the madness, and somehow there are very little accidents, at that point, if it wasn’t for seeing our Aussie guide Mark Jackson, I would have turned around and got on the next plane back. It seemed insurmountable that one would find anything in malay let alone a car and a hotel without first getting run over.

Up early the next morning and back to the Airport to Madurai from there we were picked up by bus and driver. I should mention at this point our guide, host, all round good guy, Indian guru and now our friend Ramesh. He is from Tamilnadu, and owns and operates his own business, selling supplies to farmers, and he also manufactures his own fertiliser, utilising mill mud, a byproduct of the sugar cane industry. They compost it in and turn it into phosphorus in record time.

The bus which was apparently newish, had little in the way of air con and other luxuries but we all managed to fit in and get on our way. Off to a temple, and our first taste of life in India. Everything in the cities revolves around temples this particular temple was built over 800 years ago, and from there the city grew, mainly a trading district, the temple is where it is at.

Then lunch, over the last few days we have progressively ate our way across Tamilnadu, trying all the local dishes, and all sorts of speciality. After a few days of chilli you do actually accustom your taste buds to it, and once you can get past the heat, you really can enjoy the sensational foods on offer. One of my favourites was an Indian coffee joint in Cumbum, was served in a shot glass and was milky sweet and strong. So good.

Ramesh’ family treated us to a special treat, we were welcomed into their home with Jasmine wreaths and some for our hair, blessed us in Hindi, and put the third eye on our forehead, this keeps evil away. Ramesh’s wife Pria served us wonderful lemon tea, which was incredibly sweet but delicious. It was such a privelage.
First night on the road we stayed in Kerala – Thekkady, the accommodation for this part of the trip has been fantastic, with only a few minor hiccups, like the unreliable power supply – Anywhere outside of Chennai, does not have 24 hr electricity supply, many of the hotels and larger businesses have big generators. By the second night nobody even blinked an eye when the power flicked on and off during dinner, just carried on with conversation.

South India is very tropical and has a wonderful agricultural base, mostly farms of 1 or 2 acres, the average dairy heard is 1 cow, and they sell about 7 litres per day, doesn’t sound that much but when you multiply that by 1.2 million farmers, and thats just in one state, you can see the tremendous capacity they have, not only that, but small improvements in production go along way. But they also have the population to consume what they produce. If they are going to feed their people they are going to have to adopt better production methods, animal welfare standards and environmental and sustainable practices. This is where I see a future for Australian farmers to succeed, by partnering with and selling our expertise to countries like India.

Visited one of Ramesh’s clients, he is a farmer with about 7 acres, and producing a combination of crops, including banana’s, onions, and grapes. He was using Ramesh’s compost fertiliser on his bananas and the crop was magnificent. This family was very progressive as they had also invested in irrigation for many of the crops, this save on a huge amount of water. Water at the moment is a scarce commodity with no rain for 2 years, South India relies on its monsoon which starts in June, this year was looking promising for rain, as there was storms coming through in the afternoon. They do have some wells/bores but mostly the water is from the river. Farming in India is all about quantity not quality and there are many companies trying to work with farmers to improve the latter, to keep improving their land and addressing the environmental concerns, this problem is not limited to agriculture, it is regular for waste to be dumped by the road, effluent from plants, biproducts from industry and generally put untreated into the rivers. This is changing and fast as companies start to clean up their act and adopt best practices.

While it this farm we saw a crop of onions being picked, many women in the fields where taking the crop in, they were friendly and happy and curious to see us. Although foreigners are quite regular, 4 western women travelling throughout india is still a peculiarity in the more rural areas.

As well we went to Conemara Tea Plantation, very beautiful. It certainly left me with a new appreciation of tea. Australians we are really missing out on quality tea. Its something I will definitely be looking for when I arrive back in Australia. Tea should be appreciated just like wine, it has its own set of characteristics, aroma, briskness….. and the art of making a good cup of tea was also explained. The tea factory has changed little in the last century, the books were still being down with a ledger, minimal workplace health and safety was adhered too, such as ear muffs for those operating the machinery for long hours… but this is India. From a business point of view, the advantage they have is that the local population can consume all of his product, he doesn’t have to worry about marketing or getting into export markets, 90% of his product is sold locally. Thats what we don’t have in Australia.

Off to a spice plantation, where every inch was covered with something, with taller palms over head, the lower layer was filled with cardamon, rubber, ginger, turmeric, and pepper, plus, lots of others, this is all harvested, processed and consumed locally, they have no need to search for markets for their product.

This spice plantation, being in Kerala, also catered to the tourist trade, with spice tours and elephant rides. So who could resist having a ride on one. I was pleased to note that elephants can no longer be caught from the wild, these elephants were all older 25 plus years and have been reared in captivity. That was a magical experience, elephants are just so majestic, they have a piece of your heart instantly.

We had not yet experienced any tribulations of being a woman amongst men, except to say we now know to take the toilet paper to the dunny!!!! Until about the 3rd night in, we almost caused an international incident when we all arrived in the hotel bar, a dingy smoke infested, blue lighted bar, as I proceeded to walk directly up to the bar I was briskly escorted along with the rest to the furtherest back cubicle they could find, and then hastily put a stack of chairs along the entrance so nobody else would come down to where we were. Also the gym was coincidently always having maintenance whenever we asked about it. Certainly being a western woman here draws attention to itself, and in many cases we were ignored, or we have to get our hosts to ask for things, but generally we were very much accepted and shared their experience and knowledge with us. Many of the farming families we spoke to, were putting their children through to university level, including the girls which was fantastic to see. One farmer had a daughter studying vet science and she was going to take over the farm when finished. Education varies from state to state, but in many of the towns the literacy rates were very high, and most students go through year 12 or onto university.
4 hours on a bus, got lost on our way to an apparel park, late…… we were now on Indian time. The apparel park was fascinating, with a turnover of half a billion dollars its big business, the park has good infrastructure, and clothes manufactures can rent/buy space in the warehouses. The facilities were modern, with modern manufacturing methods, and a lot less staff than I expected, even India has shortage of skilled labour, so it is having to lift its standards too. One of the larger companies JC Marcs had 4 of the warehouses, and appeared to flourishing in the clothing market, again they did not export selling most of the clothes within India, this is the wonderful advantage India has, the population.

Hatson dairy was a great business, Hatson is a dairy processing company, selling over 70 products derived from milk including ice-cream, butter, and ghee, it has about 25% market share in Tamilnadu with about 140,000 farmers. All of what they produce is consumed in India, however the Indian government has allowed them to start exporting again. The milk is collected 2 ways, either at the farm gate if they produce more than 60 litres, or at collection centres, farmers bring milk to a central point, weighed and fat% taken, they are then paid in cash. There is nothing to stop the farmer selling to someone else, and can change on a daily basis, consistency in supply and the logistic nightmare of dealing with the sheer numbers is staggeringly difficult. Trying to have farmers adopt new technology is equally different. Actually that sounds a bit like us really.

Our final day in the South was a 6 hour bus ride back to Chennai, not the greatest thing before having to go into a meeting, we were dusty, and sweaty a very bedraggled lot that arrived for lunch at a research park in Chennai. We were quickly invigorated when we met with some researchers that developed the technology to quickly compost the wast material from the Sugar cane mill, greatly reducing the compost time. From there they have an incubator model, where they provide technical support and some funds to get the business into commercialisation. They try and partner with businesses that can take the idea forward and make it work from a business perspective, very quick to point out, that in their opinion scientist should not be involved with the business process as that is not their speciality. This was an hour of talking science and the sharing of ideas and problems was invaluable, this is what Nuffield is all about, connecting us all to solve common problems.

With a couple brief hours to visit the Bundi Bazaar, for a sari and a brief look into how the other half lives, and a ride in one of the little three wheel taxi’s, it was time to call it a day at the roof top dining room. Tomorrow we head to Dehli.

For those from India I apologise for making a hash of the spelling.

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