Monday, May 20, 2019


"Adaptability to Indian conditions made us look at capers," says Arakal
Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Harcha Bhaskar, Mumbai

Capers, a little-known condiment in India, is native to the Mediterranean region. Predominantly used in American cuisines, they have an earthy flavour. In India, it is mostly imported by hotels and restaurants.

Analysing this scenario, Fiona Arakal founded Ishka Renewable Farms Private Limited, of which she serves as director. The company produces capers from farm to fork. She stated that running the company was akin to living a dream.

Talking about her decision to choose the unique condiment, Arakal said, “The exercise to find this new sector started in 2010 after a great deal of deliberation and research, including visits to different parts of the world.”

“From then on, it was about fine tuning the vision. Our commitment to the decision materialised when we bought the land in 2013,” she added, stating that the objective was to run a transformational business and not another me too one.

“We were clear that we won’t go for the regular items that are sold in the mandis with zero processing or as a vanilla product. We would only go with products that have a scale and potential for multiple stages of processing,” Arakal stated.

Caper is sustainable and subsists in water-scarce areas. The environment plays a key role in the flavour of the produce grown.

The land and climate in Niravi Pudhupatti (a village in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district) are perfect for capers. The heat intensifies their flavour. The plant thrives in the southern state’s blistering heat and black cotton soil.

Recalling the days when she was setting up the company, Arakal said, “The company was formed in 2012-13. We purchased the land in 2013-14 and started a Moringa farm in May 2014.”

“By April 2015, we started our Caper farm, and are proud of and thrilled by the fact that we were able to launch products for retail in India in January 2017 (i e within 21 months of the full-fledged commencement of the plantation,” she added.

“Considering we managed to do this with no domain knowledge (which many management gurus extol as a virtue. To be considered seriously, we had to demonstrate, and my husband, Srikanth, was very clear that it had to be done with 100 per cent equity,” Arakal said.

Arakal said, “Inspiration and encouragement were rooted in the family. The question of traditional career choices didn’t arise in a family of dreamers. The question most often fielded is, ‘Why not?’ and not, ‘Why?’”

“Moreover, to watch ideas produce tangible results has me bounding out of bed every morning. To see what few thought could be done actually getting done keeps both Srikanth and I going. The freedom to innovate in our processes, products, practices and sales strategy is liberating and motivating,” she added.
Gut feeling
“What caught our fancy was the fact that no one has done this in India till date. The challenge and the gut feel was what drove us to learn more about capers, before finally jumping into this crop with our eyes wide open,” Arakal said.

“Sometimes, pure market research cannot replace the entrepreneurial gut feel or obsession to be successful. The fact also remains that there was no data in India to substantiate this crop,” she added.

“Capers, an odd choice in a region that is known to harvest sunflower, black gram and chillies, was courtesy of a chance meeting between Srikanth and an Argentine farmer in St Petersburg,” Arakal said.

“Srikanth then travelled to large caper farms in Argentina, Mexico, Italy and Australia, before deciding on this plan of action. We wanted a crop that would produce throughout the year and require less water and was different from what everyone else was growing in India,” she added.

“The challenges were many, from amending the caper plant import rule to finding a place for the said plants to be quarantined. Indeed, the crop has given us a good produce every year. As the plant gets older, its yield increases,” Arakal said.

Indian scenario
Arakal said, “The market in India is not that big, but certainly a growing one, with the food experimenting nature of India’s youth increasing.”

“Capers are one of the most desired ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine, and now Indians too can savour their unique flavour,” she added.

“The reason we decided to look at capers is that they grow very well in Indian climatic conditions and nobody has done it in an organised manner,” Arakal said.

“As far as the market is concerned, I wouldn’t say it is like tomatoes or potatoes, but a niche market,” she added.

“Currently, it is imported into India by restaurants and hotels. We substitute the imports with our capers, which are superior, organic and sustainably grown in our country,” Arakal said.

The caper, which is harvested year-long, is the unopened flower bud that is handpicked, dried and then pickled in brine or packed with sea salt.

The process of curing eliminates the bitterness and enhances the flavour of the caper, which is a combination of piquant, mustard and salty.

“The farm produces small, medium and large and extra-large capers. Our processing facility is within the farm,” Arakal said.

“Our harvest to processing time is under an hour thereby, ensuring freshness. We wash, grade and process them in brine or as a dry cure in sea salt, as per their grade and type,” she added.

Talking about the challenges faced, Arakal said, “The biggest challenge was the availability of knowledge about products that have never been grown in India.”

“Since our supplier was in a time zone that meant a minimum of 24 hours from the identification of the problem in the crop to finding a solution, we had to innovate and work on the ground with solutions on the fly,” she added.

“Pest management and nutrition management were major challenges, and knowledge on these didn’t, and still doesn’t, exist in our universities or government bodies,” Arakal said.

Expansion and exports
“The company is working on building the acreage and plant numbers capacity, and since the plantation is young and new, we will be exporting it soon. The company’s proximity to Tuticorin port is an advantage in reaching global markets,” Arakal said.

“During this time, we are getting our quality certification (QC) processes right and certified. We have sent our capers to large buyers in Australia and the United States, and have passed the taste and quality tests,” she added.

“It is also good in terms of laboratory certification, and if we can meet the European Union (EU) criteria as far as chemical residues and pesticides are concerned, we have pretty much nailed it. The target countries are the United States, Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom and Russia,” Arakal said.

Revealing her expansion plans, she added, “Over the years, we will set up a bottling line for the retail markets, both domestic and overseas.”

“We are expanding our farm acreage from the present 52 acres to 1,000 acres by 2020, and naturally, we will be looking at different models of expansion and scale. We may consider any acquisitions only post-2020,” Arakal said.

First order
Arakal said, “For our products to be accepted and recognised only reiterates our effort and hard work.”

“Of course, there are moments of achievement and satisfaction when newer restaurants and markets are open to trying our products and share positive feedback. It only strengthens our belief that we have created something unique,” she added.

“Capers by Ishka Farms have made their way to high-end restaurants and hotel chains across the country, and anyone can buy our variety of products online on or,” Arakal said.

“Our current client list includes The Bombay Canteen, deGustibus Hospitality, Olive Group Kichens, Masque, La Folie, Park Hyatt Hyderabad and The Westin Mumbai Garden City Goregaon,” she added.

Strong points
“I have the ability to look at the micro-elements of the business, while my husband looks at the larger execution of the project. This works very well for the business,” Arakal said.
“Attention to detail and the ability to switch from options A to Z without batting an eyelid, based on what happens on the ground, have helped. To remain unfazed as each new thing unfurls is a huge bonus,” she added.

“India is a very small market compared to the global demand. It is a foreign or Mediterranean product, pretty much like olives,” Arakal said.

“It will evolve further with time, as Indians are very innovative in using new products. For instance who thought puris would be deep fried in olive oil a decade ago,” she added.

“A few clients have tried to use it in traditional pickles, and have found it a versatile product with a very traditional taste,” Arakal said.

“So it is a product that can be adapted as per one’s taste. My husband’s family is from Tamil Nadu, and the only way we could see his mother trying it was by incorporating it in curd rice. It was a hit with my mother-in-law,” she added.

Future plans
“Innovation and planning are constant processes, and at this stage, we are developing products from the same plant, like caper berries. We have just launched it within six months of launching our initial products. Soon we will start work on developing variations with Indian spices and sauces/mixes,” Arakal said.

“Scale, scale and scale, coupled with value addition and moving up the value chain from farm to nutraceuticals - our roadmap is pretty much set for the next decade,” she added.
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