Thinking Ahead With Digital – Altizon and Suhana Podcast

Altizon recently hosted a podcast with Suhana to deep dive into driving payback in Industry 4.0, how Suhana has benefitted from going digital and sustained the success, with sustainability and culture at the core of their process and progress.

Suhana Tastemakers of India is the largest procurer, processor and marketer of spices in Maharashtra, offers over 50 ground spices and spice blends. Their range of products caters to the varied tastes and requirements of their eighty million plus customers across the world. Raw spices are procured and after a stringent selection process of reputed suppliers from all over India and abroad. The spices are processed in unique customized state of the art facilities designed specifically for the company. The R&D lab works closely with the procurement, production and marketing teams to assure the flow of quality products. Once a 2 person home enterprise, Suhana now employs more than 1,000 people and reaches its consumers through a network of 463 distributors and 1 lakh retailers. It is run by 3 generations of the Chordia family. The founders continue to provide the wisdom and guiding philosophy for an enterprise whose products are consumed every day in over millions of homes across the planet.

Here are snippets from the conversation between Co-Founder & CEO Vinay Nathan (Altizon) and Director Technology and Innovation Anand Chordia (Suhana). Enjoy!


Vinay: Hello everyone. I welcome you all to the Born Digital podcast by Altizon. I am Vinay Nathan, Co-Founder and CEO of Altizon. The Born Digital podcast is about us sharing experiential journeys on digital transformation that we have had the privilege to be a part of, and getting practitioners, in particular the management, to get talking about their experience with digital.

Today we have with us the Suhana group, which just among the pioneering food product companies globally. Suhana has 180 food products, from spices to ready-to-cook instant mixes and has blazed the trail with the sheer diversity of products that they bring to play. Their products that are available globally in about 25 countries, and today their distribution footprint is actually well over a thousand distributors and around 220,000 retail food outlets. So, a phenomenal success story, which began with very humble origins in 1962 and over the years has been handled in a very dynamic way from generation to generation.

Representing Suhana today with us is Mr. Anand Chordia, the director of technology and innovation at Suhana. They are also very popular under the Pravin Masalewale brand name. Anand is a very vibrant personality who has pioneered the concept of food quality – and really building plants with a completely new perspective.

He’s very passionate about food technology and serves as a chair on MCCIA’s food committee. Through the course of his work, he embodies what the modern food technology vision is in terms of building sustainable plants, sustainable supply chains and sustainable agricultural efforts. So, it’s fabulous to have with us on this podcast. Incidentally, just as of a week ago, he has been named among the top hundred influential personalities by the University of Auckland globally for 2020.

Thank you for joining us, Anand.

Anand: Thank you so much Vinay. It’s my pleasure. Looking forward for a fruitful, enriching interaction with you.

Vinay: Fabulous. I am sure this is going to be as a learning experience as much for everybody who’s listening.

So, the food is industry in particular is actively looking at ways in which they can embody embrace digital. And you have been somebody who has been on the forefront of building the next generation of factories in this area, looking at technology, not just for technology’s sake, but from so many aspects it has the impact it has on everything, from culture to execution of operations to sustainability.

So, let’s start with Suhana’s corporate philosophy and how you’ve looked at your role and the role of digital.

Anand: So, if you ask me about the corporate philosophy, the first thing first is, uh, making sure that the customer is served well and is satisfied. So, we are all determined and focused towards that one goal, which we want to achieve and to make it happen more efficiently, more quickly, whatever steps are needed will give us a quick direction. And we are highly flexible and dedicated as a company.

Digitalization definitely has been the most important aspect of that journey to make things happen, to make the corporate functioning more efficient. It is not actually about only the factories or the front end where digitalization is playing a vital role today. A country like India, which we call a Kheshti Pradhan Desh, is driven by farming, by farmers.

Our major economy is also a farm driven economy. But you can still see that there is so much more to happen in terms of digitalization. So, I came up with the idea that we need to work from the purchase point – so we wanted to take a digital approach for the entire process from farm to fork.

It actually started around 15 years back by bringing in a customized, fully customized ERP solution and an ERP driven organization. And I think that point in time, we were one of the first from the food industry in India to have fully customized ERP solution. And then on the journey, we kept seeing the impact from digitalization; we had realized the benefits at an early stage itself.

So, one very important aspect or I would say a changemaker for Suhana is that we were not shy. Despite being a family business that comes from humble beginnings of making 5 kgs masala a day, we went on to adopt digitalization contrary to the general trend.

And today we make the same masala but now it’s more than 30,000 kgs a day and more than 150 ton spice mixes every day. I have to sum up our core values as a corporate, it would be that we have been very open to the new changes and were in fact looking forward to newer and newer version of ourselves. Digitalization played a vital role. When we come to procurement, raw material storage, processing and sales, it’s all about numbers. I have seen that the Indian food industry isn’t very strong at dealing with numbers – not only acquiring numbers, rather finding out meaningful insights from the analysis done. That’s how AI or this entire concept of technology revolution. 4.0 has been on my mind for the last two years. I understood the potential and knew that our business could undergo a big transformation or a reform by adopting such principles.

In my experience, I would say that great technology was very expensive 15, 16 years back when I joined the business. It was not so easy. It was not always available in India. It was available with very few multinationals and so they would excel in many things because they had the right numbers, stats with them.

Cut to today where the biggest strength India has today is the availability of technology catering to digitization, automation and robotics at a very great value. We have adopted this largely in our organization in various ways, for example – in the food processing industry, your major investment is in your materials. There’s a lot of mass movement. We have been able to keep track of the raw material stocks, the processes and even something as small yet very significant as weight; in case any excess weight is getting packed in the product, we are now able to assess that through great sensor technologies and conveyor systems.

So, if a unit operation is getting converted to a continuous operation instead of a batch operation, a lot of technology advancement, a lot of sensors can be used; they are giving us just amazing results. And as I said, it’s affordable. So, I urge food and agriculture industries equally to introduce sensor-driven, AI- driven technology for meaningful insights. The main function of the board is to make crucial key decisions for the organization. That has helped me as director technology and innovation of this group to make great decisions in the least amount of time, with the smallest of efforts. Numbers bring in clarity and make decisions almost a no-brainer.

Vinay: So, one of the things that stood out even when we were working with your group is you mentioned about numbers, you intend to focus on benchmarks and then drive change through that. We saw great impact of that when we were working together. Your team was able to drive productivity up significantly, right! So, could you probably share a few use cases, any instances in that area?

Anand: Yes, just one quick example and a very impactful one from a couple of months back! We did that exercise of productivity in our mixing area where we blend spices, around 90 batches a day. We were able to optimize it from the data from your technology sensors. And again, it was a great number game. We got the right numbers in and were able to assess the ideal machine time. And also fathom if we use that time in the shifts, how much more can we produce! I am very happy to share that my team was really enthusiastic about it. We are now able to scale up from the earlier 90 to 140, 150 batches.

Vinay: So that’s the quantum jump.

Anand: Yes, the quantum jump for sure and I would say disruption in manufacturing. I feel with these technologies we can disrupt and suddenly possess great strength as a large scale manufacturer to compete in the global market.

Vinay: Very true! And I mean, it, it goes a lot of our philosophy as well. It is important to disrupt and look at things in new ways and what has been phenomenal about how Suhana looks at it is the receptiveness toward this new set of ideas and being open to experiment and see the impact. And then there is a lot to scale from there, too! It’s just a starting point. You’ve had success. There have been different ways in which you’ve adapted to and adopted technology over the years and all the generations. And now Industry 4.0 and related digital technologies are exciting to you right now. And you’ve had some initial success in terms of growing this.

So how do you think this can help you moving forward? Even if we see from an industry perspective, do you think this can double the productivity of the industry? What kind of disruption do you think this can enable?

Anand: I believe this will really help the Indian food engineering equipment manufacturers. So, there is a lot of potential if they introduce efficiency in their space and provide upgraded offerings to the food industry. This is similar to say when we buy a new automobile – we’ve seen the vehicles getting evolved over time in terms of carbon emission, average horsepower or lately, the introduction of e-vehicles. I would urge all the Indian food equipment and food engineering companies to look at upgradation of their offerings.

As a company, we are curious, keen and fast in upgrading ourselves constantly. That’s why we integrate their machines with our solutions and achieve results. But yes, they also can definitely look at upgradation. Another important area that has potential is the digitization of sales and marketing and getting the right data from the customer. There is a lot more.. The market is evolving rapidly in the area of e-commerce and digital platforms. Getting the right numbers get right stats and right data from that can be even easier and more effective to decide where to place the products and which product category to place in which market. One can’t blindly guess and make such decisions. So, I am looking at a very aggressive adoption of technology on that front. To your question around disruption, I personally feel that the industry has already been disrupted by new technology, in the area of quality assurance. There still is a gap and uncertainty around raw materials. The agricultural commodities being produced in India aren’t standardized. That’s where technology and automation can play an extremely vital role in the production statistics across different areas of the country. For example, statistics could tell us which market is coming up with the best quality in which month – can we start digging out or tracking for an industry player like us to decide where I should invest the most. For the raw material being brought in to the factory, we could probably make use of a camera or video scanner integrated with AI to be able to segregate the good and the bad material. This will be a good mix of mechanical, electrical and digital technology. I think most of the application in the food industry will be like that if you are talking about production. So, this is a good mix of mechanical electrical and digital technology.

Vinay: Absolutely! You mentioned about the state of the Indian food industry, right! So, with technology being democratized and with the language barrier by and large gone, there’s a lot that can happen from farm to fork in this particular sector. How is this being driven down by industry? There have been a few early adopters and pioneers like you are. So how do you feel the next set of people seem to be catching up and how can they benefit?

Anand: The spectrum or the bandwidth of food industry – SME, MSME and large scale – is quite vast in India. In fact, today some Sukhshma Khadya Udyog Yojana has been announced. It is meant for very small food entrepreneurs, manufacturer or even self-help groups producing some sort of food. Something like this will get percolated. I see that the next generation food entrepreneurs or agricultural entrepreneurs are ready to accept and embrace digitalization because irrespective of age, everyone’s life has been highly influenced by the digital technology. It is the consumers’ demand. There isn’t any other option. And I think it won’t be hard for young Indians to really accept and go move ahead aggressively on adopting technology. The technology now is easily accessible it’s in a simplified format, available for people and is not even expensive. So, there is a huge growth prospect in India for digitization now.

Vinay: So, one of the key ingredients to making this work is the culture of the people within the organization and the change management that is required around wanting to do additional work and do things in a different way. What struck us in our work with Suhana is that the organization was primed and always ready for new experiences even faster than us at some point. So how did you build that culture? It doesn’t come naturally, I guess.

Anand: At MCCIA where I am chairing the food industry committee, we had an event about a year and a half back for food factories of future. It was all about all spectrums wherever this technology 4.0 can bring huge change, be it cold storage, frozen food industry or dairy industry, even in the area of plot selection through satellite imaging or even horticulture. Digitization or rather technology 4.0 in its entirety can play a vital role in all areas from construction to marketing.

One of our founding principles is valuing relationships, right from the farmers to our suppliers and customers. My grandfather lived by this principle and so do we, the third generation in this organization. We build a lot of trust in our team. We believe in the whole ideology of working as a team and as part of the management team, I personally feel a leader is a true leader only when he can build leadership quality in people. If he’s not able to build good leadership, well he’s not a leader but rather someone who is just building followers.

This is what I’ve been consciously trying to practice. You must have experienced that as a culture in our organization; I was part of an initial meeting and since then the project has been on an autopilot mode, moving in a really fast manner. The team feels responsible and understand that the leaders value and trust them, which makes all the difference. Everyone working with us is valued and respected. I think that’s the reason that the organization stands out differently and I am glad to hear positive feedback on the culture and experience from industry players like you.

Vinay: I am very happy about it. I know that sustainability initiatives are close to your heart, to the point that you have built your factories in a way that they are sustainable. If I may start with the origin, why did this matter to you?

Anand: I feel that it is very logical, and I always say that if things are logical and if they are eco-friendly then that’s ecological. So, the work actually started with a simple vision in mind of making my industry completely waste-free, and we generate a lot of waste as food industry or for that matter pretty much any residential office to any IP office or factory generate some sort of waste. You won’t believe we generate more than 4,000 metric tons of waste per annum. In the last four to five years, we don’t throw a single gram outside now. The entire waste is recycled, refurbished, upcycled, reused and repurposed is some manner. We met a lot of experts, scientists, NGOs and we learned how we can deal with paper waste, metal waste or biodegradable waste. We ended up learning much more than was needed at the time, so we realized that we could benefit the community at large. One of the offshoots of this vision was our concept of Eco Factory Foundation, which led us to create India’s first waste management park. It’s a full 360 degree approach where one can come and learn all different ways around ‘waste to wealth’ to deal responsibly with plastic waste, e-waste, biodegradable waste or any other kind of waste. In all of our factories, we have waste management policy in place now, and our warehouse which was my first greenfield project. I’m very happy to share that it has got IGBC platinum rating and not many food warehouses in India are able to do that. Also, it’s run fully on solar power. Not more than one ml of water is going out of the facility; the entire gray water is recycled. Moreover, we have more than 85 different species of flora and fauna there despite it being a dry and arid region of India, Bhuleshwar near Pune. We also engage in organic farming there and utilize a large amount of waste in the soil efficiently. We harvest a few lakhs of liters of water every year and are helping the underground water resources to get better. As a result of seven years of effort, we are seeing the underground water reservoir levels coming up. The borewells in the area that were earlier dry are not getting water, which is a great sign of ecological preservation and protection. We came up with the idea to keep it open for public to see and adopt this model in their own industries or workplaces, making India clean and green.

That’s how ultimately our mission will be completed.

Vinay: It’s an absolutely fabulous initiative. This is such a holistic picture. We have covered the idea behind your food technology, the digital and sustainable foundation, with people being at the core of it. Looking ahead, what are your dreams, what’s next and what are you most excited about?

Anand: So, the dream is to take traditional Indian food, one of the most prominent and healthy cuisines to the global food plate. That is very close to my heart and I am determined to take it to fruition very soon. In addition to that, sustainability continues to be close to my heart and that project I think will stay with me forever. I definitely want to make sure that I contribute as much as I can to make our nation clean green, sustainable, healthy and prosperous. That’s what I definitely want to work on. I believe that the Eco Factory Foundation will make it happen. I believe in ‘being the change you wish to see in the world’, a message Mahatma Gandhi left us with.

Vinay: Anand, thank you so much for joining us. You are the change that is not only an embodiment of fulfilling all the things that you set your eyes on, but as you do that, everybody lands up definitely with a full plate of food on their table!

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