BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JUNE 14, 1999 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL -- ASIAN COVER STORY

B. R. Barwale: Seeds Of Change (int'l edition)


The founder of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. (Mahyco), B. R. Barwale, built his private seed company into India's largest over nearly four decades. But that's not his greatest accomplishment. Through his company, Barwale has helped millions of Indian farmers boost the nation's food supply. The distribution of high-quality seed is up fortyfold since the 1950s, and Barwale is a big reason why. The distinction won him the World Food Prize in 1998. The prize judges weren't the only ones impressed with Barwale's accomplishments. Monsanto paid $43 million for 26% of Mahyco last year. ''He is a great visionary,'' says Shekhar Natarajan, a Monsanto senior executive. ''He has played a major role in introducing good quality seeds to Indian farmers.''

Barwale, 68, got into the seed business because of a lifelong concern with farmers' welfare. The scion of a wealthy land-owning and business family in the then-princely state of Hyderabad, he first noticed the plight of farmers as a teenager. Most, he found, were barely able to survive. Later, he joined rebels resisting the rule of the Nizam, the Muslim king of Hyderabad under the British Raj, and spent months living in small villages. There he got a firsthand look at how Indian farmers scratched out their livings on tiny plots of low-yield land. After forces of newly independent India seized Hyderabad and ousted the Nizam in 1948, Barwale returned to his family's land and began to farm.

In the late 1950s, Barwale visited New Delhi for the World Agricultural Fair and stopped by a government agricultural research institute. The scientists there gave him some seeds for a new high-yielding okra hybrid. As an experimental farmer eager to try new technology, Barwale cultivated the seeds and found they yielded nearly twice as much as regular okra seeds. He decided to produce the seeds, which he sold to a dealer in Pune for 5 rupees a kilogram. Later, desperate farmers eager to get more seeds tracked him down. It was only then that he learned the dealer was selling his seeds at 100 rupees a kilogram. ''He was selling it for 20 times the price,'' Barwale chuckles. So he decided to market the seeds himself, at a price farmers could afford--10 to 20 rupees per kilogram. He hired an ad agency and designed packaging. A company was born.

Through the 1960s, Barwale scouted for new seed varieties and worked to develop a network of loyal farmers who were willing to grow seed for the company. It was tough--Indian farmers tend to be skeptical about trying anything new or risky. But Barwale worked with missionary zeal. ''It's God's work,'' says the deeply religious Barwale, who believes that increasing the food supply is a way of paying homage to God. ''The seed business is a sacred business.'' In 1966, he started his own research team, hiring several scientists to further improve government-provided hybrids. In the early '70s, he started producing hybrid cotton seeds commercially, a feat considered impossible at the time because of its labor intensity.

Barwale's unswerving faith in new technology and his fair dealings with farmers helped Mahyco win 10% of the country's highly fragmented seed market. Today, around 80,000 contract farmers help the company produce more than 350 hybrid seed varieties, including cereals, oilseeds, vegetables, and fiber crops. Sales last year were around $35 million, or enough seed to cultivate 40 million hectares.

Barwale keeps looking for newer and better technology despite his advancing years. In the early 1990s, he read about Monsanto's experiments with hybrid cotton genetically engineered to resist bollworm, a devastating pest. Barwale contacted Monsanto and said he wanted to help bring the technology to India. Today, Mahyco is conducting field trials of Monsanto's bollworm-resistant cotton and hoping to make it commercially available within a year.

Opponents of genetic engineering have filed a lawsuit to stop the process. But Barwale is fighting to make the seeds available anyway. ''I am convinced that it is a very appropriate technology,'' he says. ''Our destiny as a country is that our population is going to grow. So we have to adopt everything we can to increase production.'' By doing so, Barwale is helping to ensure that India's nearly 1 billion people have enough to eat.



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