With tissue-cultured banana varieties becoming successful, there is no fear of this fruit dying. V Jagannathan meets Dr N Barathi, the man who penned the success story
Chennai: Banana is big business. "India has around 200 banana varieties and there is no risk of this fruit dying as predicted by some foreign researchers," says Dr N Barathi, CEO, Growmore Bio-Tech.
The Rs 1-crore turnover Growmore Bio-Tech tissue-cultures around 14 banana varieties. "Now we are looking at tissue-culturing the mountain plantain [an exotic banana variety]. Nearly half of our turnover comes from exports," he adds.
A former professor at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, Barathi is content with the trend of farmers going in for tissue-cultured plants though the initial cost is slightly higher.
"The investment-to-profit ratio is high when a farmer raises tissue-cultured banana plantation," he says. For an investment of Rs 70,000 per acre, the harvest will fetch the farmer around Rs 2 lakh and in two-and-a-half years a farmer can raise three crops, thereby improving land usage. And the encouraging news is that Growmore Bio-Tech's banana plantlets are finding favour with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu farmers.
Hailing from an industrial family with interests in matches, chemicals and yarn, Barathi promoted Growmore Bio-Tech in 1998 after gaining commercial experience at the tissue-culture outfits of A V Thomas, RPG Enterprises and Spic. "The family wanted me to get into a hi-tech area and hence this plant-cloning venture."
A total of Rs 5 crore has gone into this venture that consists of a 10-acre farm, greenhouses and most importantly the 6-million plantlet production lab (which is certified by Australian Quarantine Inspection Service [AQIS]) - all located in Hosur.
The AQIS certification enables Growmore Bio-Tech to export plants to Australia without major hurdles. The company also exports tissue-cultured ornamental plants to Japan, Australia, Germany, Holland and the US.
Some of Barathi's innovative ideas have brought down not only the capex but also the operating expenses of the lab. For instance, the lab is the first commercial one to use natural light for plantlets' growth. This has brought down the monthly power cost drastically from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 1.2 lakh. (Around 700 tube-lights burn round the clock inside the plant growth room.)
Apart from bananas Barathi cultures ornamental, medicinal, fruit and commercial tree crops. "Our aim is the make tissue-cultured plants affordable. We sell a sugarcane plant for Rs 3, the lowest in the world."
According to him pharmaceutical and ayurvedic companies have evinced interest in mass cloning of medicinal plants. The one that shows good prospects is Stevia, a sweet herb brought from Paraguay.
The leaves of this thulsi look-alike plant are dried to produce a white-coloured sweetening powder, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Barathi says one can get 2,700 kg of dried leaves per acre.
The sale price per kg ranges between Rs 200 and Rs 500. While the first year investment is put around Rs 4 lakh, the second year outlay drops sharply to Rs 75,000 but the yield remains the same.
The other plant on which Barathi is betting heavily is Paulownia tree. The wood is quite light but has a very high-calorific value. "This actually reduces the wood transportation cost while giving higher heat."