Food for Thought - Part I

The Times of India - 2005

Middle and Upper income India, the bulk of which is urban, has grown well above the national average in terms of number of households and the quantum of income growth. With this growth, two of the three of the "roti, kapda and makaan" trinity have happened. The Kapda boom is happening. Clothing expenditure and behaviour of this target group has definitely changed and is vibrant with experimentation. Of course, the old and the new co exist very comfortably, but the rigid structures of traditional clothing have definitely changed, be it at weddings or the work place. The Makaan buying boom has happened and the "where in my life cycle do I buy a house" notions have completely changed. The average age of the home loan taker has dropped by ten years almost, in less than a decade, and we could be in a rolling mortgage, perennial home up gradation cycle, just as folks are in developed countries. However, the Roti or the food boom has not happened yet - or has it?

In the home, the cooking process has not got streamlined or changed much. The in-home food market has refused to wake up, despite the many attempts of many prince charmings, be it Unilever or Nestle or Pillsbury or Amul. We still toil away with the hateful task of making chapattis, we still chop vegetables and grind masalas the old fashioned way, and hardly any households I know use ready made masala paste for curries on a regular basis. Or even tea bags for that matter. This is reflected in the small size of cooking aid brands or ready to eat brands. Ready to cook mixes, ginger garlic pastes, tomato puree, and just 'heat and eat' retort pack ready-made food would all be in the region of a modest Rs. 500 crore. In this number, I am not counting packaged commodities, whether they are noodles or tea or aata or basmati rice, or packaged spices or even cooking oil. Relative to the loose they are still a miniscule part of what they could be, or should be, if one were to compare them with the relative level of sophistication of other categories like personal care or household durables. Think about jams, pickles, ketchups and paapads. Given how long they have been around, how long they have been actively marketed, and how many marketing savvy MNCs and how many locally rooted smaller ones have tried, the overall size is way too small.

Is it that Housewife India just loves to be tied to the kitchen stove? Or that Husband India has chained women to the kitchen stove? Or that Indians do not like experimenting with food at all? All three presumptions, we know from experience and data, are not true. Firstly, women have seen a broader role for themselves as CEO of the household, intellectual nurturer of the children, chief health officer of their families, and productive economic members of their households (Clarification: this last comment does not mean that there are more working women, a statement that is blithely made by lots of people - data shows that there is not much increase in the percentage of working married women over the last decade). Women also do not like to cook the routine day to day stuff. Secondly, men are being forced to change by the changing women; Thirdly, if we just look around the eating out places on the street and off it, they are jam packed with people of all demography, stuffing their faces with all sorts of things which are truly innovative, old food jazzed up like chicken dosas, or new foods like momos, or the good old Punjabi Chinese.

I think the truth is that 'Roti' has happened, like kapda, makaan and dukaan, but the winner in the food sweep stakes thus far is the out of home 'eating as entertainment' market. The wholesome, nutrition, hygiene, convenience, functionality "eating in home" packaged food market is yet to happen. And the fault seems to lie with the supply side of things, not with recalcitrant consumers.

Tailpiece: Is there a credible hygiene proposition in packaged oil to justify its price premium? Consumers tell you that they always boil the oil before use, so surely the germs should die before they are eaten!