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Jan 01

 

Food-processing unit
desperately seeks new location

- by Carel

 

Jars jam the shelves of the crammed area in the Bharat Nivas restaurant where Auroville's food-processing is located. The unit has to move out soon, but there are no funds for a new building.

"We are being shown out. This building will finally get finished, starting some time next year when the government grant arrives. And that might mean the end of Auroville's food-processing service as we have no money for a new building. It's just too bad," says Martina.

 

 

It all started eight years ago when kindergarten teacher Martina, unhindered by any professional knowledge, decided to do some food-processing - making jams, pickles and marmalades, learning about nut butters and other consumables. The location that was offered to her - a shed adjacent to the Pour Tous building - was sub-standard by any yardstick, but she managed there - for three years. Then she moved to the Bharat Nivas restaurant - one of the grand unfinished structures dating from Auroville's early years - where she was given a small corner. The unit has done well and now employs 16 people.

"This unit was started in order to serve the needs of Aurovilians, but soon spawned a commercial arm called 'Naturellement' to sell its products in Pondicherry," explains Vishwanathan, the unit's accountant. "Now roughly two-thirds of the products are sold in Auroville, and one-third outside. The profit margin is extremely small, less than 10%, and the unit has never been able to make any substantial savings."

At first glance this is surprising since the products are highly priced by Indian standards. A 400 gram jar of marmalade or peanut butter costs slightly under Rs 50.

"The prices in fact are not high enough," retorts Martina. "We make high-quality products which, in Europe, would be sold in exclusive health food stores and in delicatessens for high prices. You can't compare them with industrially-made products."

"Our prime aim is quality. We check our raw materials with minute care, selecting out the bad and even slightly damaged products, and washing non-organic fruits in vinegar water before processing. We do this in order to prevent there being pesticides and aflotoxins in the end product. The presence of pesticide residues is common in the produce we buy from Pondicherry. For example, they sometimes add a handful of DDT to a bag of sesame. Aflotoxins are another great source of concern. Aflotoxins result from mold growth on foods. These toxins remain in the food long after the mold producing them has died and can be present in foods that are not visibly moldy, and they survive cooking and processing. One variety of aflotoxin, aflotoxin B1, is most frequently found in food [particularly in peanuts] and is one of the most potent carcinogen known. Liver cancer due to aflotoxin ranks high in India. So we try to prevent this. The Auroville laboratory in Aurobrindavan regularly tests our products for the presence of pesticides and aflotoxins.

"Another of our aims is to contribute towards the self-sustaining city Mother had envisaged. When we started, we decided to support Auroville farms. We always try to buy as much as possible of their products. In return they support us by giving us a good rate during peak fruit seasons.

"And then there is our employment policy. We operate throughout the year which is unusual for food-processing units. Usually such units close down when there is no supply of raw material. But we care about our employees. We work with 12 ladies from the nearby villages, who have shown an exemplary dedication to the unit. They all have gained a lot of status and self-esteem because of their work. We do not want to send them home when there is nothing in season, so we struggle to keep them usefully occupied in the slack seasons. The two main fruit seasons are from May-June (mangoes) and July-August (lemons). Out of season I deal with any other fruits that are offered, such as starfruits, papaya, kumquat, nartanga; with seeds such as sesame and mustard; with groundnuts; or with eggs for mayonnaise. In all, we make over 40 different products."

"All this would not have been possible without the financial and moral support from two donors in particular, the Dutch Stichting de Zaaier and an Aurovilian, Ila. If it were not for them, the unit would not be what it is today. But notwithstanding their supports, today we are at a crossroads. If our unit is to continue as a service unit, the community has to come forward and help.

Auroville, in fact, has already come forward. A location has been found without any of the usual problems that go with trying to find a site in Auroville. But money is needed, about 24 lakhs (US$ 50,000) for the building and 11 lakhs (US $ 23,000) for equipment which includes a generator and steam boiler. "If we do not get donations or soft loans from within Auroville, there will be no option but to go in for a commercial loan, something I would not like to do," says Martina, "for we would have great trouble repaying it. It would mean that we would have to become 100% commercial, and sell our products exclusively outside Auroville in exclusive shops in Bombay and Bangalore, for that is the only way we would be able to repay our loans. It wouldn't be too difficult to find and supply that market - but it would be to the detriment of Auroville."

Quo vadis? Nobody yet knows.

 

(For more information contact Martina at: avfoodpro@auroville.org.in or write to Auroville Food-processing, Bharat Nivas, Auroville.)

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