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Interview with Mr. Burjis Godrej, Executive Director, Godrej Agrovet Limited

Mr. Burjis Godrej, head of special projects at Godrej Agrovet Ltd, focusses on agrochemical projects for Astec Lifesciences Ltd. and Godrej Agrovet Ltd. crop protection businesses. His role involves evaluating products, synergies, technologies, business models, geographies, consultant engagements and capital expenditure plans. He was appointed as Executive Director of Godrej Agrovet from November 1. An MBA from Harvard, Mr. Godrej joined Godrej Agrovet in 2017 working on new product development in the strategy division. In this interview to ThinkAg, Mr. Godrej talks of Godrej Agrovet’s work and plans.

At the outset, congratulations for taking over as Executive Director of GAVL. What would you be your focus at GAVL in the near term?

It's a great honour to have achieved this and a great responsibility going forward. I want to be mindful of our rich legacy as we boldly step forward into the post-pandemic future.

Most of my time is spent on evaluating strategy for our two agrichemical businesses - Astec Lifesciences and Agrovet Crop Protection. This includes evaluating business performance, capex, products, synergies, technologies, business models, M&A, geographies and consultant engagements. These sectors have strong macro-economic tailwinds due to geopolitics favouring India as a manufacturing destination (due to issues in China and Europe) as well as India's strong talent in the chemical industry (evident from global success in pharmaceuticals, chemical refining etc.)

I also spend some time on doing strategy for the other Agrovet businesses and for analysing other ideas that may be relevant for Agrovet as a whole but do not fall under the purview of any one business.

Earlier, you have worked on new product development, monitoring R&D activities, product quality improvement, new product trials and innovation partnerships with external organisations. Would you like to share your experiences and learnings? 

One of my key learnings is to pay attention to customer perception beyond functionality. Sometimes a business focuses so much on what a great product it has created without paying enough attention to ease of use to the customer and the sense of identity it gives the user. There have been many cases where I thought that a product was great based on how it functioned but I was not sufficiently mindful of these smaller details, and the product had to be re-thought.

Another learning is that formalising and benchmarking synergies and innovation projects are key. They won't happen organically, and need many people across the organisation to champion and monitor them. I'm always looking out for suggestions on how our organisation can improve with respect to this.

Finally, never assume that competition is static and that your changes can go under the radar. Always assume that competition is trying what you are and one should always strive to be a few steps ahead of them rather than their follower. Having pricing power, economies of scale and an established brand position are the key advantages of being a "first mover" company.

You have experience of working with AgTech ventures in India and abroad. What's your assessment on the current Indian AgTech sector?

Indian AgTech has finally hit its stride and has more room for growth than many other sectors in India. Thanks to pioneers like Omnivore, VCs now realise the financial potential that such start-ups have. AgTech start-ups are blessed with clear value propositions, large market sizes and limited competition. The only issue is that founders and investors are often unfamiliar with the rural context, farmer mindset, volatility in the sector and the government regulations. 

The start-ups getting the most traction seem to be digital marketplaces as VCs are more familiar with such models. My hope is that life science and sustainability start-ups get more traction in the future as those challenges facing farmers are also very significant. 

The biggest difference between my experience working in AgTech abroad and in India is that farmers abroad have much more disposable income and are willing to try new ideas because of different risk profiles. The consequences of failure from trying a new technology are low abroad but very high in India because farm size is so small and farming is so weather dependent. Thus, AgTech start-ups in India cannot be mere copycats of western ones and have to be much more persuasive when dealing with the farmers.

As one of the largest conglomerates in Indian Ag & Food sector, you have also initiated pilot projects with many Indian AgTech start-ups across different divisions. What's your thought and consideration on taking some of these engagements to the next level in the form of partnerships, vendor-seller relationships and investments, as well as expanding more engagements?

We are extremely pleased with the many partnerships we have started thanks to ThinkAg and they have catalysed more creative thinking among Agrovet employees. They have helped us analyse our business more deeply and act more nimbly like start-ups do. They have inspired many employees across businesses to independently think out of the box and come up with new ideas that they are currently piloting.

Start-ups have also benefitted from our established brand name, industry positions and employees with deep knowledge of the sector.

We want to take time to evaluate the partnerships and the people behind them carefully before we scale them up. We are very happy to collaborate (vendor/seller) on anything that can be a win-win for us and the start-up. However, we will only invest and acquire if we see strong synergies in our current activities or future plans.

What would be the innovation focus areas at GAVL?

There are many and they vary across businesses. A key priority is anything to improve affordability and efficacy of dairy, poultry and aquaculture feed. We are the largest pan-India feed seller but have a long way to go towards #1 leadership in key regions and categories. We are keen on experimenting with different ingredients to improve animal health and productivity.

We are looking to become the leading player in India across the sustainable oil palm value chain from planting in the field to the cooking pan of the consumer; so, are open to innovations across all parts of the value chain. We are leaders in crude palm oil production and are now targeting leadership in other aspects of the value chain.

In the crop protection businesses, we want to become the #1 Indian collaborator with foreign companies to develop molecules for global and Indian B2B and B2C markets, building on the success we have had with contract manufacturing in Astec and in the in-licensing business for successful formulations with Japanese partners for our Gracia and Hitweed Maxx products. 

How important is research-industry collaboration for GAVL, and how would you like to build and scale this? 

It is extremely important. We have a 10-year-old animal research facility in Nashik (Nadir Godrej Centre for Animal Research and Development) that does biology and chemistry research as well as feeding trials pertaining to animal nutrition. We recently started an aquaculture research centre in Andhra Pradesh so that we can replicate our cattle and poultry R&D success to fish and shrimp. We are building a state-of-the-art crop protection chemistry research centre in Rabale that will conduct research on process chemistry and safety, flow chemistry, formulations, fluorination reactions and pressure reactions. We have spent ₹125 crore on this and have over a 100 scientists working here. We have a 40-acre model farm and a lab at Chintampalli for oil palm research related to soil, leaf, microbe and waste analysis.

Aqua Feed R&D Centre

We are always looking to partner with different institutes for projects. We have done projects with IIT, NCL, UICT and Jadavpur University, among others in the past. We also have a chemical council in partnership with GCPL R&D and Godrej Chemicals for collaboration with other companies and driving joint R&D projects.

The Government has been taking a lot of efforts in increasing Indian Ag & Food exports. Aligned with this, what would be GAVL's focus items and markets?

We already have a strong export focus in Astec Lifesciences, which derives about 50-60% of its sales each year from exports. We export triazoles that protect crops from fungus as well as a variety of intermediate products for all kinds of pesticides to leading agrichemical innovators such as Bayer, Corteva, ISK, Sumitomo, Mitsui and Farm Hannong.

We are evaluating exports for our formulated products in our B2C business as well and are pursuing registration opportunities in the US and Africa as well for biostimulants and cotton herbicides. Our aquaculture feed business is exporting to Sri Lanka and Nepal. We are also in talks with companies to export feed to the Gulf region. The dairy and poultry feed businesses will get more competitive for exports if we can reduce the costs of key crops like maize and soya. 

The food businesses of Agrovet are exploring export opportunities in West Asia for dairy, poultry and vegetarian products as those regions are geographically close to India and are deficient in many food products. They are eager to import food from India for their rapidly growing populations and booming economies. Plus, the large Indian diaspora there also wants more branded desi food items!

My hope is that the recent free trade agreements that have been signed open up foreign markets so that they can experience the rich variety of food and other agro products that India has to offer. With the average foreign farmer much older than in India and foreign populations declining, India is well poised to become the leading farming country of the future. 

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