28 December 2017 14:16:37 IST

Green milk and ice-cream

Hatsun Agro is leading the charge in the industry to adopt cleaner energy in its functioning

Every morning, without fail, some three lakh farmers in the southern states of India are busy with a certain type of activity: supplying milk to a company called Hatsun Agro.

Not many may have heard of the company, but there cannot be anyone in South India who has not used at least one of the company’s products, be it Arun Icecream, Arokya and Gomatha milk, or Hatsun Curd, to name a few. Hatsun is the biggest ice-cream company in South India, and the second biggest in the country after Amul. In the six months to September, it sold products worth ₹2,240 crore.

For Hatsun Agro’s business, the essential raw material — sometimes also the finished product — is milk. It sources milk from 3 lakh farmers and about 30 lakh animals every day.

Quality check

These farmers bring the milk to some 10,000 ‘collection centres’ or Hatsun Milk Banks. The operation is quite fascinating. The farmer brings the milk, a sample of it is taken in a test tube, which is then put in a testing machine the size of a normal kitchen mixer, sitting on a desk. Some grrr -ing and whirring happens, and after about two minutes a digital display shows the quality of the milk in terms of fat, saturated non-fat (SNF) and minerals. The SNF is chiefly proteins, and calcium and potassium account for a lot of the minerals. The display also shows the value of each component in the milk and also indicates the total money to be paid to the farmer. A printer spews a small receipt. Once in 10 days, the farmers receive their dues in their bank accounts.

The thing about milk is that its quality deteriorates over time. The sooner you chill it, the better is its quality. Hatsun has several bulk chilling centres and the milk deposited in the 10,000-odd collection centres is taken to one of these centres; but even so, some time is lost. Typically, a farmer brings the milk to the collection centre within two hours of milking the animal. But it takes time for the milk to reach the bulk chilling centre. Quality and taste suffer.

Besides, the short window available for the trucks to pick up milk from the collection centres and deliver them to the chillers puts pressure on the farmers to milk the animals and reach the nearest Hatsun Milk Bank in time to catch the truck. Arrive late, and the farmer loses business for the day.

The testing and valuing machine is a farmer-friendly contrivance because the farmer sees for himself the quality and value of the product he is supplying. Transparency begets trust, trust begets loyalty. However, what happens if the farmer brings the milk and there is a power outage?

Enter clean tech.

Using clean technology

Hatsun did two things. First, it put faith in a start-up that produces ‘thermal batteries’. The batteries make way for localised chilling of the milk right at the collection centres. The heart of these batteries is ‘phase changing material’, which becomes very cold using electric power and remains a supplier of cooling for many hours after. (The phase changing material, or PCM, is a mix of fabricated chemicals. Even ice is a PCM. In fact, the Tidel Park building in Chennai, which houses several software companies, runs its air-conditioning with ice. The machine makes a huge cache of ice during the night, and in the day the ice cools air which is circulated throughout the building.)

With the advent of the thermal batteries (which are in the size and shape of a very large drum), the farmer doesn’t have to worry about catching the milk truck. He can milk his animal whenever he is free, say, after sending his children to school. He brings the milk to the collection centre, where it is instantly chilled and the quality is maintained. Each thermal battery system costs ₹10 lakh. For Hatsun, the cost invested in these batteries is paid back in the quality of its products and farmers’ loyalty, which in turn assures supply. Though there are 10,000-odd collection centres, the company would need only 3,000-odd thermal batteries, as each centre with the battery can support two more without.

The second thing that Hatsun did was to put solar panels on top of the collection centres so that the testing machine is alive throughout the day, even during power outage.

The return of PCM

Hatsun Agro shows the return of PCM, which was once dismissed as not-so-good technology. Today, PCM-powered drying rooms are coming up, where fruits are cut and dried. Conversely, PCM could also power cold rooms, where farmers can store agro produce right at their farms. These small-sized cold rooms, with a capacity of about five to ten tonnes — as opposed to the 30,000-50,000 tonnes for the large cold rooms — are emerging as major facilities to prevent wastage.

A start-up called Tessol uses PCM (ice) to cool trucks that transport agricultural produce.

Hatsun Agro, by the way, is also putting up solar collectors for its hot water needs, solar panels for electricity and buying solar-derived steam for its processes. Today, a third of its energy needs is met by clean energy. It aims to become a member of “RE100” group, which comprises companies that get, or intend to derive, 100 per cent of their energy from renewables. Infosys and Tata Motors are the only Indian companies on the global list.

Whether Hatsun joins the list or not, when you eat Arun Icecream or drink Arokya milk, you would have the satisfaction of having consumed a truly green product.