How ITC hit the ground running when Centre's millets initiative took off

ITC unleashed an array of millet-based haute cuisine at the G20 Summit last year

48-S-Sivakumar Honouring innovation: S. Sivakumar, head of ITC’s agri-business, Kailash Choudhary, minister of state for agriculture and farmers’ welfare, and Manju Kumar, chief post master, releasing a stamp at an event in Delhi on July 25, 2023 | Sanjay Ahlawat

BUSINESSMAN, agriculture innovator, professional entrepreneur, social reformer. The last one is one epithet S. Sivakumar, head of ITC's agri-business division, may do a double-take on, but it is certainly true.

In the early 2000s, ITC's e-Choupal empowered lakhs of farmers through digitisation. An internet kiosk installed in select villages provided valuable information on anything from weather conditions for farming to procurement price at various mandis. While it became a much feted bridge between technology and the farming community, few actually know that it almost came unstuck because of one stark Indian reality―caste.

Initially, the internet kiosk was installed in the house of a Choupal sanchalak, a coordinator selected by the company, in each village. That sparked off the first roadblock―many villagers complained that at least two kiosks should be provided, for each of the two dominant castes in the area.

After much deliberation, the company put its foot down. “Our belief was that we were building an economic institution, and it should be agnostic to social and political aspects,” said Sivakumar. “We said we would follow the screening parameters for an ideal sanchalak, and then see if other [castes] would use it or not.”

While those not from the same caste as the sanchalak kept away during the following sowing and harvest season, the differences slowly started to dissolve by the second and third seasons, as the economic benefits of getting on the platform became evident to the villagers.

“First, farmers sent their sons to ask about prices; then by next season, it seemed as if the caste differences became secondary. I think social equity was an indirect benefit which came through because of this economic primacy. So long as the value was demonstrated, the other issues took a back seat,” said Sivakumar.

Another pleasant outcome of e-Choupal was women empowerment. Even in the conservative villages of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, women started participating “a lot more, in terms of decision-making on when and where to sell.” They also started asking about additional source of livelihood for women, beyond agriculture. This led to ventures like incense sticks.

Using the internet and technology to further progress, be it in a boardroom or on a farm, may today sound so commonplace. But e-Choupal pioneered it in more ways than one, as does its post-millennial avatar, ITC MAARS (Metamarket for Advanced Agriculture and Rural Services). But for Sivakumar, who is on to his fourth decade at ITC, it has always been about staying ahead of the curve and innovating to make that decisive impact.

Nothing exemplified this better than how the company hit the ground running when the government’s millets initiative took off, with the UN and its Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declaring 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India was “honoured to be at the forefront of popularising millets”, while FAO Director General Qu Dongyu pointed out how millets can “empower smallholder farmers, achieve sustainable development, eliminate hunger, adapt to climate change, promote biodiversity, and transform agri-food systems”.

Not to forget its superfood benefits. “Bajra boasts gut-friendly fibre and kodu millet aides in cholesterol control. Ragi provides vital calcium and fibre, which is particularly beneficial for new mothers. Millets are naturally anti-acidic, rich in niacin, are gluten-free and low on the glycaemic index,” said nutritionist Suman Agarwal.

Sivakumar already knew that. While the data tracking division of ITC had noticed the consumer trend towards wellness, the agribusiness and its push for climate-smart agriculture had hit upon millet cultivation as a panacea for many ills plaguing the system―their cultivation consumed less water, and the crops were more climate resilient, hence providing high productivity. Also, a good chunk of existing millet crops were going off as animal feed, for malting or for the farmer’s own consumption at home, with only a small portion going out into the market.

In fact, Aashirvaad, ITC's atta brand, had come up with a millet-based variant even before the UN announcement. But there was an impediment―most consumers did not know what to do with it.

“We realised the consumer was used to rice and wheat, but did not know what to do with kodo and bajra and all that,” said Sivakumar. “Even simple things like making a (millet) roti is a complex process because there is not enough gluten to roll them into proper rotis.”

Entered ITC’s other divisions. While chefs from its hotels (as well as many other leading star hotels in the country) whipped up recipes incorporating millets, the consumer foods division unleashed a campaign to raise awareness, releasing millet-based products from biscuits and noodles to poha and even chocolates. “The government provided both the highway and the fuel. And so we built the right car, and hopefully it will scale,” said Sivakumar. The crowning glory was when ITC was enlisted as the caterer to the world leaders at the G20 Summit at Delhi’s Bharat Mandapam last year, where it unleashed an array of millet-based haute cuisine.

“The vectors of growth will happen slowly,” said Sivakumar. “If you look at the total consumption of all grains to that of millets, millets is still a small fraction. (But) consumers who are using millets have adapted to it. But what it used to be versus what it is now, it has grown manifold.”

The ITC agribusiness team is already on to its future forward ventures. “In terms of value-added products, we are working on medicinal and aromatic plants that are major ingredients in nutraceuticals,” said Sivakumar. Focus now is on scientific segregation of properties and efficacies of traditional Indian formulations, the various herbs and spices, and also, with a backend traceable value chain, all cultivated sustainably using climate smart agriculture methods.