Every morning, as 36-year-old Saket Kumar looks out into the 2-acre expanse of his agricultural land, his heart is filled with nothing but gratitude. A small farmer from Purnia district of Bihar, Saket bought this land only a few years ago to cultivate an aquatic plant, lotus. More than the flowers, this plant is a source of a valuable superfood — makhana — also known as lotus seeds, gorgon nuts or fox nuts.
Unlike his fellow farmers, who mostly grow wheat and paddy, Saket’s decision to grow makhana not only helped his family emerge out of a debt-ridden state but also empowered him to provide quality education to his children.
“Prior to growing makhana, I used to cultivate just wheat and other grains. I didn’t even have my own land, so had to cultivate on the landowner’s plot. But, the earning from makhanas helped me upscale and after a few years I was able to not only buy 2 acres of land but also provide a better life for my family, especially my kids who go to school now,” says this farmer, who now earns Rs 3.5 lakh annually just from selling lotus seeds. He adds that once popped, these seeds sell for 30% more, bringing his annual income to Rs 4.5 lakh per annum.
Saket is just one in a network of 12,000 farmers across 38 blocks and 8 districts of Bihar, who have adopted makhana cultivation under the guidance of a company, Shakti Sudha Industries, founded by Satyajit Kumar Singh, a visionary who is also known as the makhana man of India.
Although popularly consumed all across the country and beyond, Bihar alone accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s production of makhana. And, Satyajit claims that his 19-year-old company contributes at least 50 per cent of this total production. “The way we are going, in the next 2 to 3 years, we will successfully be able to contribute 70 to 75 per cent of the total makhana production in the world,” he says.
Making of the Makhana Man
Born in Bihar’s Jamui district, Satyajit comes from a family with a strong agricultural background. Growing up, he recalls being single-mindedly focused on doing something that would impact the world positively. So after completing his college education, he sat for the prestigious Civil Services Examination (CSE).
In the second attempt, he managed to crack the exam and secured a place in the elite services. However, after much contemplation, he realized this was not the path for him.
“I realised this was not something I could give my 100 per cent in so decided to part ways with civil services and instead venture into entrepreneurship,” says Satyajit. After having explored the business sector, he came across the idea for makhana cultivation, by accident.
“I was travelling on a flight from Bangalore to Patna, when I happened to meet Dr Janardan Jee who is the head at ICAR Research Complex For Eastern Region, Patna. He was a stranger sitting in the seat beside me and by accident, we got talking. He was researching sustainable farming methods on gorgon nuts or makhana and that conversation opened my eyes to the potential of its farming. There was this goldmine of potential just underwater of Bihar’s water bodies that were still untapped and I decided to pursue it,” he adds.
The next two to three years he dedicated himself to research working alongside Dr Janardan. Travelling all across the state, from district to district, village to village, he delved deeper into the grassroots problems of farmers and how to upscale the lotus farming.
“At the time there was hardly any resource mapping available on its production. It was only done in pockets by a few communities amounting to some 1000 to 1,500 tonnes of production. The returns coming from makhana production was also not good, owing to the rising reluctance of farmers to adopt it. So from 2005 to 2015, we adopted a model of backward integration, working closely with government agencies, the World Bank and NABARD. The aim was to train farmers to grow high-quality makhana on a larger scale with less effort, support them through an organised production cycle and finally create more demand in the market, thus influencing a hike in the returns they received,” he explains.
With Shakti Sudha’s involvement, the selling price of makhana in the local markets increased from Rs 40 per kg to Rs 400 per kg. So the programme that started with just 400 farmers eventually was able to bring 12,000 farmers within its fold empowering them financially.
Credit Crop to Cash Crop
Saket says that previously, the market for makhana was largely based on a credit-based transaction, but after Shakti Sudha’s involvement, farmers began to instantly receive a cash payment for their produce.
“They completely changed the dynamics of the market, because before the middlemen would take the produce on credit and only pay after months based on the sale. Shakti Sudha did the opposite and they would immediately pay us a higher rate. More and more farmers began cultivating makhana and shifting their sale towards Shakti Sudha, forcing the rest of the wholesale or retail buyers to adjust the pricing to these new competitive standards. Harvesting lotus seeds or makhana is quite a task and finally, after so many years, we were getting our due credit and the fair price for our hard work,” he says.
Satyajit adds that Shakti Sudha was able to bring about this change owing to the research on makhana that helped them market it as a superfood, rather than just a healthy snack. Thanks to them, from a credit crop, the makhana in the last 19 years has grown into a cash crop for farmers in Bihar and now from 1,500 hectares, the crop is now grown across 16,000 hectares of land. By next year, Satyajit is hoping to expand it further to 25,000 hectares.
He adds that this level of upscaling was made possible when they started to convert the usual paddy fields and wheat cultivation lands into lotus farms.
“Traditionally, makhana was mostly grown in big lakes or ponds. With some solid research, we were able to find ways to make it more sustainable and transfer the farming to the existing paddy and other grain cultivation lands, especially in areas that suffer from waterlogging and are flood-prone. These aquatic plants need 1.5 to 2 ft depth of water to grow and we made sure these existing farmlands were adjusted accordingly to fit its needs. These not only helped more farmers to adopt makhana farming but also aided in rapid expansion. Now almost 80 per cent of makhana is grown in these lands while 20 per cent continues to be grown in ponds,” he explains.
Does the Humble Makhana Have the Potential to be India’s California Almond?
With the rising impetus of makhana cultivation in Bihar, Shakti Sudha this year has ventured into creating its own brand and marketing it across the world. Satyajit’s dream is to make makhana as popular across the world as California almonds by marketing it as a superfood.
Owing to this, the company has introduced a range of products focused on makhana. Be it the classic popped makhana snacks, cookies to multi-grain flour with makhana or ready-to-make varieties of makhana-based sweets, Shakti Sudha now has a total of 28 products sold both offline and online.
“We recently launched our online segment in July and have already received some 560 orders so far, with a turnover of Rs Rs 3.25 lakh in just one month and 33% repeat orders. The retail launched in Jan in Patna has also yielded a turnover of Rs 7-8 lakh in a month. Additionally, we have also exported 2 tonnes of makhana in the USA and Canada and are driving efforts to upscale that as well. By 2024, we hope to increase our annual turnover from Rs 50 crore to Rs 1000 crore” says Satyajit.
Satyajit’s new model of upscaling the business is bringing makhana on an international front, making it both a premium product while also maintaining a strong base of affordable range.
“We want makhanas to be available for all, both in premium and affordable varieties. Unlike other companies that keep makhana as an extension of their health foods or snacks range, our full focus is on providing the best quality makhana you could ever find. Even the packaging is transparent so that customers can see through it and ensure that each nut is of good quality with no dents or damage, unlike locally available counterparts. Our quality is our pride and we make sure that the customers’ interest is always at the forefront,” he adds.
Now looking to expand across 15 states and 50 cities across India, Shakti Sudha believes that it can reposition Bihar’s image to the world as the repository of this white wonder ball of nutrition.
“I used to feel very bad about the negative things and stereotypes propagated about my state. There is so much untapped potential in Bihar that not many notice and by fueling the entrepreneurial spirit I am trying to change that. Some of my friends in the civil services call me the Makhana man of India, and I quite like the moniker, because I am glad to be associated with this amazing product that can not only positively impact one’s health but also empower thousands of families and bring them out of poverty. I am living the dream I will never retire from,” he concludes with a smile.