Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXI No. 13, October 16-31, 2021
Among Asia’s largest perishable good markets, the Koyambedu Wholesale Market Complex (KWMC) was in the news last month following reports that traders had dumped unsold stock of vegetables and flowers on the road. Wholesalers pointed to a drop in demand, underlining that apart from other factors, commercial demand from hotels and catering services had dropped by 50 per cent during the pandemic – a figure that is presumably recovering at a slower rate than expected given the volume of wastage. The President of the Koyambedu Market Licensed Merchant’s Association S. Chandran said in a quote to The Hindu, “We receive the same quantity of products daily. We cannot keep the stock for more than one day as there will be demand for fresh stock.” Earlier in May this year, it was reported that the Koyambedu market generated 250 tonnes of vegetable wastage on a daily basis.
A paper published in 2020 states that around 5 to 10 per cent of goods arriving at the KWMC are wasted due to inadequate cold storage facilities even though such a unit was established in the complex as far back as 1994; in fact, a sum of Rs. 2.14 crores was allocated to renovate the facility in 2018. Different varieties of produce need to be stored at different temperatures but, traders claim, the protocols are not adhered to as required. Spillage, poor transportation, handling and unloading and low-quality packing material are also named as factors leading to wastage at wholesale points. The paper further pointed out that in 2014 alone, Tamil Nadu wrote off fruits and vegetables worth Rs. 8,100 crore. Such a loss affects not only the farmers but stakeholders across the entire supply chain including retailers, consumers and of course, the economy.
It can be argued that KWMC’s problems need holistic solutions that ameliorate conditions at the market as well as other points in the supply chain that connect to it. That the cold storage facility at the complex itself needs better maintenance and more capacity is a given. It may also help, as the paper above concluded, if the administration actively encouraged transportation vehicles to equip themselves with refrigerated carriers that have proper stacking and packing systems. There is a clutch of Indian companies working on innovative decentralised and customized cold storage solutions – it would be worthwhile to understand how wholesale markets like KWMC and their stakeholders can make use of their products.
The second avenue of curtailing wastage seems to lie in collaborating with the retailers – especially large-format grocery stores – and commercial buyers. For instance, they have the potential to be powerful players in generating data around demand forecasting for key perishables, information that can help optimise wholesale supply to markets around the city. Such an approach may also have the added benefit of providing better support to localised markets – more efficient stock allocation can curb transportation costs, allowing the sale of fresher and more affordably priced fruits and vegetables, benefiting local shops and consumers alike. Delivery apps such as Swiggy, Dunzo and Zomato are great (if peripheral) examples of how the larger business community can successfully collaborate with wholesale vendors – by taking on the delivery of fruits and vegetables they allow local shops to expand the radius of their customer base, arguably facilitating the trade of perishables that might have otherwise gone unsold. Similarly, it would also be useful to take a leaf from the books of new-age ventures that try and minimise food waste by collecting healthy, uneaten food for charities in need; surely, the same can be done for fruits and vegetables too instead of dumping them on the streets.
The third possibility lies in diverting perishables on the clock to better purposes. Take overripe bananas for instance. They don’t look particularly appealing – the fruit is mushier than firm and the peel changes to a rather depressing colour. But they still make great banana bread. While such produce may not be the first choice for the average consumer, businesses such as cafes and restaurants can still make good use of them. A system to offer commercial buyers the chance to buy good but ageing produce at a discount can help reduce wastage to a great extent too, provided that quality checks are formulated and followed.
It is high time that KWMC’s issue of wastage is recognised as a challenge to Chennai city and not just the market complex itself. Only then will we be able to forge a collaborative solution across the entire supply chain with the potential to benefit not just the KWMC stakeholders but also consumers, charities and local businesses.