It’s a socialist republic energised by planned market economy. A predominantly agrarian nation, whose wars and colonial occupation destroyed much of Vietnam’s economy. However, in 1986, Vietnam ushered in socialist-oriented market economy with the installion of the new government.

The government’s DoiMoi (Renovation) package saw big ticket private players participation in industries, commerce and agriculture leading to collectivisation of farms and factories. Vietnam saw private ownership of farms and companies taking to commodity production in a big way leading to a silent revolution in its plantation sector — specially cash crops — coffee and pepper.

From marginal player in global coffee market, Vietnam, which saw French bring coffee culture into the country, today enjoys virtual stranglehold on global coffee market, next only to Brazil, occupying the coveted second position dethroning Indonesia. Vietnam is world’s second largest coffee producer, as also largest of Robusta variety, with about 10 lakh tonne. It is also world’s prime producer of black pepper at 1.2 lakh tonne. In contrast, India, with coffee output at about 2 lakh tonne of Robusta and 70,000 tonne of black pepper, pales in comparison.

However, this is not to discount India’s mark in global coffee market, as it occupies sixth place among premier coffee producing nations. It is to learn first hand, on how Vietnam became such a large coffee producer from near invisibility on the coffee map, a collective of 40 coffee planters affiliated to Chikmagalur-based Karnatataka Planters Association (KPA), led by enterprising trio of Chairman Sahadev Balakrishna, Vice Chairman Marvin Rodrigues and Scientific Committee Convener Nishant Gurjer, visited Vietnam. The team made extensive tours of Vietnam’s three main provinces of Daklak, Lamdong and Gia Lia, predominent coffee growing areas, besides Chu Se district of Gia Lia famous for pepper farms amazed by the plantation revolution in Vietnam that provided several insightful learnings.

Fast growing economy

The reason for largest delegation of its kind from India visiting another plantation country and largest ever from any country to visit coffee and pepper areas of Vietnam are not far to seek. For, according to Goldman-Sachs forecast, Vietnamese economy will become 17th largest in 2025, with nominal GDP of $436 billion and GDP per capita of US$4,357. Likewise, PricewaterhouseCoopers too forecasts Vietnam as the fastest growing of emerging economies by 2025 with potential double digit growth rate per annum in real dollar terms that could push it up to around 70 per cent of the size of UK economy by 2050.

One other factor that prompted KPA’s visit to look at plantation practices and garner insights into what led to green bean revolution in distant Vietnam was Karnataka is India’s leading coffee growing State in the country sharing over 58.6 per cent of coffee area followed by Kerala (22.2 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (8.2 per cent).

Karnataka, has more or less equal proportion of area under Arabica (1,09,274 hectare) and Robusta (1,13,913 hectare) whereas in Kerala, Robusta coffee dominates coffee area as with Tamil Nadu. At all India level, area of Robusta coffee is slightly higher (2,01,989 hectare) as compared to Arabica (79.096 hectare).

Incidentally, according to state-wise production for 2010-11 post monsoon coffee crop forecast by Coffee Board, while Karnataka is expected to see total Robusta production of 1,36,290 metric tonne and total coffee production of 2,11,815 metric tonne, Kerala is forecast to have 63,100 metric tonne of Robusta crop out of 64,700 metric tonne total coffee production. Likewise, Tamil Nadu will see Robusta crop of 4, 500 metric tonne out of State’s total production of 16,475 metric tonne. The post blossom estimates forecasts are even better. According to Coffee Board, India cultivates its coffee under well-defined two-tier mixed shade canopy which prevent soil erosion on a sloping terrain; enrich soil by recycling nutrients from deeper layers, protect coffee plant from seasonal fluctuations in temperature, and play host to diverse flora and fauna. Further, coffee plantations in India are essential spice world too, says Coffee Board, with wide variety of spices like pepper, cardamom, vanilla, grown alongside coffee plants. India’s coffee growing regions have diverse climatic conditions well suited for cultivation of different varieties of coffee. Some regions with high elevations are ideally suited for growing Arabicas of mild quality while those with warm humid conditions best suited for Robustas.

Balakrishna pointed out that by adopting good cultivation practices of Vietnam, coffee plantations in India could increase production levels immensely. Stating KPA will impress upon Coffee Board for sending scientists’ team to this South East nation for imbibing their practices, he said cultivation practices like higher spacing, complete irrigation, higher fertisiler use, are key constituents contributing to Vietnam’s higher coffee productivity.

As a result of these practices, he said, while Vietnam sees yields of 1.5 tonne/acre of Robusta and upwards of 2 tonne/acre of pepper, in India the yield is dismal 400 kg/acre for coffee. Though India’s cultivation practices are on par with rest of the world, Vietnam, however, uses more inputs like fertilisers and regular irrigation as compared to India. Further, Vietnam has the advantage of rich volcanic soil (bazan) and a shorter dry period which permits them to grow coffee in open conditions which automatically increases yields, he added.

Concurring, said Rodrigues, we need to imbibe these practices not only in Karnataka, but across the country, to boost productivity. What is impressive about Vietnam is even though it is a socialist country, thanks to private players participation in infrastructure projects, roads and power supply are far superior to India, enabling high plantation and agri outputs.

What has seen turnaround in two decades in Vietnam, explains Gurjer is it also has natural advantage of longer drought free period, open condition of cultivation which result in higher productivity of coffee. India, he observes, can catch up with Vietnam adopting these techniques as also encouraging coffee activity in non-traditional areas to compete with other emerging nations as well.

In Vietnam, besides large state farms which are being privatised, you have small to medium coffee growers, who are financially well off. One other aspect that tilts in Vietnam’s favour is its hard working labourers, whose families live in farms itself, which ensures explosive growth of coffees. One other advantage Vietnam enjoys is vast stretch of large holdings unlike in India where most of it are small, segmented ones which curtails the growth of coffee in abundance, the three noted. The key learning though, the three observe, is how low cost highly intensive farming could result in better productivity levels through using high levels of fertiliser usage coupled with continuous irrigation. Flush with their first hand experience of Vietnam, they said, KPA is planning similar tours to Israel whose fantastic drip irrigation and fertigation technology is worth exploring, besides Brazil, Columbia and Central America, prime Arabica growing countries.

The Deccan Herald (.in) - March 13, 2011