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Trip Report – India January 2020

Trip Report – India January 2020
Usually, at the conclusion of each origin trip, I would write a brief report on notable things and events that occurred, introduce some of the people I met and speak of the areas I visited. This time I have decided to go with a different format.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending time with Ashok Patre, owner of Ratnagiri Estate located in Karnataka, in the Western Ghats of India. Ratnagiri has a devoted following of some of Australia’s earliest specialty coffee roasters, and Ashok is the third generation custodian of Ratnagiri since it was first established in 1923 by his grandfather, Mr Patre Shivappaiya.

“My grandfather came from a family of coffee farmers and his elder brother already had plantations in the vicinity. It was a large tract of jungle at the time.” The land is situated in the Bababudan mountain range near Chikmagalur, the first recorded place in India to cultivate coffee. According to folklore, a Sufi by the name of Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee seeds out of the Yemeni town of Mocha in the 16 th century and planted them in the hills of Chikmagalur.

The Indian economy was not in great shape at the time. Impacts of the First World War and government policies of the day created tough conditions for everyone. And although still several years away, conditions that would eventually lead to the Great Depression were building. “My grandfather struggled very hard during those times. Finance was the main difficulty as banks were not lending easily for the farming sector. It was difficult to finance the operation and he could not start work immediately.” Fortunately, he was able to make it work. “My grandfather already had another well-established plantation and with that income he slowly started to clear the land at Ratnagiri and started planting the old Kent varietals.”

“Slowly the plantation took shape, and by the mid 1940's there was some crop and income. Unfortunately, my grandfather did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labour and he passed away in the year 1954.”

Ashok’s father took over the running of the estate with the help of a manager. In 1971 they undertook a project to replant the farm using a varietal called SLN795. “We had a very bad disease attack in the year 1983 and it was a fungal root infection called Fusarium Oxysporum. It wiped out about 65% of the yielding plants and SLN795 were the most susceptible plants to this root disease. More than half the farm was without plants and yields had dropped dramatically. We were in a very precarious financial situation.”

In 1989 Ashok was asked by his father to take over and start managing the farm. “I was still in college when I took over the plantation from my father. The manager we had back then was embezzling a lot of the crop so my father asked me to step in and start taking care of the farm. I immediately fired the manager and I started going to the farm by train every weekend and would check what was happening. I had to slowly learn the ropes and it was very difficult to raise funds to run the operations.”

Two years into his role Ashok had an epiphany. “I visited a neighbour’s farm in the year 1990 and I was very impressed with a varietal he was growing and the yields looked very promising. After some research I found that it was a Catuai from Colombia and it was performing very well at his farm. I immediately set upon raising a new nursery and I produced about 60,000 seedlings of the variety for my plantation”. Ashok began to replant the whole estate and also increased the size of the plantation by planting areas that had not been previously. “My father gave me a free hand and was very supportive of all my ideas. I was the first in my area to start irrigation for Arabica coffee. Traditionally only Robusta coffee is irrigated in India and I set a trend to start irrigating Arabica coffee for the flowering. “

In an article for Inc. magazine, editor Jeff Haden described Richard Branson as the quintessential entrepreneur given his record of creating new ventures in disparate industries and the “breadth of his entrepreneurial interests”. In some way, Ashok shares Branson’s spirit, though perhaps a little more circumspect. “In the year 1991, I started a manufacturing company to make satellite dish antennas. Since the Gulf war was on and everybody wanted to watch CNN, there was a big demand for these antennas. Then in 1992 with the cricket world cup my sales for antennas just went through the roof and my company was working 24 hours a day with three shifts and we still could not manufacture the antennas required.“ Ashok was doing well with his satellite dish business, but his real passion lay with his coffee and his estate. “I sold my business as with the advent of cable TV the need for so many dish antennas came down and I exited the business at the right time.” With the proceeds from the sale of the satellite dish business Ashok was able to clear most of his loans and concentrate on his farm. He has no regrets. “Had I invested the same money in real estate or the stock market it would be worth a huge fortune but I have no regrets as I love my coffee plantation more than anything else and the happiness it gives me is far greater than any amount of wealth.“

For the next few years Ashok concentrated on building and improving infrastructure and increasing yields on the farm.

In 1994 the Indian Government allowed growers to market their own produce to the world, prompting Ashok to form Ratnagiri International and begin exporting. Ratnagiri, which loosely translates as pearl mountain, is a name inspired by the landscape surrounding the farm. “My first buyer was a company in Germany and I still do business with them till date. In the year 2000 I visited Australia and met with Mr. Andrew Mackay from Cofi-Com and I started selling my coffee in Australia and it has been growing over the years.”

Australia would eventually grow to become a substantial and important market for Ratnagiri, accounting for more than half of production. “The Australian market has grown considerably for me and it now is quite a major consumer of my coffee.” Along the way, a fanatical following blossomed, prompting one roaster to call at 3:00AM in the morning wanting a shipment of coffee. “It is a very proud moment for me to see such a following in Australia for my coffee. The demand has grown year on year, and I am extremely happy to serve the Australian people with my coffee. Since the benchmark for good coffees in Australia is quite high, it is a really proud feeling to be a part of that growing market.”

Innovation has been depicted as the “secret sauce” of business success * . The implication being that in order to have any chance of success a business needs to come up with new ideas and keep operations, products and services “fresh”. In 2012 Ashok became very interested in and made it a goal to start producing specialty coffee. “I started working towards that and I found that each year has been a tremendous learning experience. I have improved my coffees many fold in the last couple of years. I am now producing various types of specialty coffee which include honey process, carbonic maceration and anaerobic fermentation methods as well. The results this year are very promising and I hope to continue to produce some very unique coffees in the years to come.” Ashok hopes to introduce his specialty micro lots to the Australian market this year. “I feel there is tremendous potential for these micro lots.” In addition, Ashok continues to improve the farm’s infrastructure. “I have also installed a complete dry mill and packaging unit and my micro lots will all be packed in 15 Kgs vacuum packs.”

In 2016 Ashok also engaged the services of an agronomist to help improve farming methods and ultimately yield. “I started to work with Mr. Graeme Sait who is an agronomist based in Australia and his discourses opened my eyes to different methods of farming and how I could increase my yields by paying simple attention to our soil. I started working with his team and after many visits by his team to my farm, I have been able to achieve yield and quality increases by over 50 percent.”

We speak of the challenges facing the coffee industry today. “The main challenge facing the coffee industry both at home and in the world is climate change and it has had significant role to play in our crop yields and it is getting more and more difficult to grow Arabica coffee. There has been a substantial increase in the average temperature and this is going to be a big problem for Arabica coffee.”

Late one evening at Ratnagiri, after a full day of walking around the estate absorbing as much of what goes on as we could, we sat around a campfire and recount the day’s events. The sky was clear and the stars glistened brightly in the darkness. Considering what he has achieved thus far, Ashok is undoubtedly a humble man. “I feel I owe everything to my grandfather for all his struggles in the early days and I am sure that he would be very proud of the farm he created as its coffees are being sold in many countries in the world.”

• The Innovator’s DNA by Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen. Harvard Business Review December 2009.