NA hundred kilometers away from Guwahati, a small village in Assam’s Baksa district, formerly known as the ULFA’s training camp for insurgents, farmers are growing fragrant oranges that are now loved by London and Dubai. Kaji Nemu is an indigenous citrus variety and has been the centerpiece of every Assamese household. The taste of lemon is such that people don’t even waste the peels or leaves.
One of the villages that Kaji Nemu reached from London is Aouhata, which in Assamese means ‘unreachable’. But through the joint push of the Nilachal Agro Producer Company of Salbari, the Export Development of Food and Agricultural Products (APEDA), and the former Vice-Chancellor of Baksa, this inaccessible village and its farmers have access to English markets.
“Lemons used to be sold at around Rs 35 per kg, which is a big change from the farmers who were selling at Rs 9-10,” said Ayush Garg, former vice-chairman of Baksa. In local markets, even in the peak season of August, oranges will fetch only 40 paise. Outsourcing is changing that.
Outdoor attractions? Its smell, its size, and the fact that it is seedless. Kaji Nemu, with its Geographical Indication (GI), is opening new avenues for smallholder farmers in Assam. The state produces more than one ton of different varieties of orange every year, with Dibrugarh district being the top producer. India and the world are slowly getting the taste.
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Bus to London – When life gives you oranges
As with the best of endeavors, Kaji Nemu’s journey abroad began with a seemingly innocuous conversation with Ayush Garg when he was the vice-chancellor of Tinsukia. While chatting with the owner of the resort, he learned that London is now home to many Assamese families who are interested in the things they find at home. “For products like Kaji Nemu, you have to look for a well-known market. When Baksa was appointed to me and I was told about the need for a market, I remember those conversations,” he said.
Aouhata trip is a bus trip, but a green one with rice fields on both sides. Assam-style houses—one-story, part pucca, part thatched huts—line the road to Soniram Topo’s two-story farm in Kaji Nemu.
“The plant begins to flower in April and then slowly grows to become the oranges you see here,” said Topo walking through the rows of Kaji Nemu plants, whose branches are still laden with fruit, despite the harvest. Collected a month ago. “We are delighted that the oranges grown here will go to London.” Topo started growing oranges in 2015 and within seven years his produce was reaching British kitchens.
There are around 2,000 families engaged in citrus cultivation around Gati. Aouhata, it brought him a lot of money. Most farmers grow rice as a staple food grain, but they also have about two large plots of land for citrus trees. Their relationship with Nilachal Agro Production Company began in 2020 when the agro-production company was founded. She has been working tirelessly to market Kaji Nemu and get the best price for the farmers.
The export and distribution of oranges at Spitalfields New Market in London is handled by Kiega Exims Pvt Ltd. It is one of the UK’s leading wholesale markets for fruit and flowers.
Earlier, customers of Kaji Nemu would be Indians or Bangladeshis living there. But now, we also get British customers queuing up to buy these. Because of its aroma, some like to use it in cocktails,” says Kaushik Baruah, CEO of Kiega Exims.
Kashmiri Chef Barkakati Nath, a home cook known for his Assamese desserts, explained the taste of citrus in an interview with EastMojo. What [Kaji Nemu] It’s my go-to ingredient, a squeeze of lime adds zing to both sweet and savory dishes and lime has a wonderful citrus aroma that works beautifully in most dishes. I include both Indian and European cuisines, she said.
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An ‘accidental’ fruit
For all its popularity in Assam thalis, Kaji Nemu was an ‘accidental find’. An information booklet on GI labels in India says that the variety originated from a opportunistic seed at the Burnihat citrus base. It was the product collected in the name of Chinakaghi from Hashara village in Sivasagar. Kaji Nemu received the GI mark in 2020.
What is special about Kaji Nemu in Assam that has led to exports?
Kaji nemu is different from the round, table-shaped ball commonly used in North India. It is almost three times that of oranges which is 1.08 – 2.10 g/100ml. It is also very productive, because it produces fruit throughout the year, and does not fall from the tree even if it is ripe, which reduces damage to the fruit.
Another advantage is intercropping, which means planting crops next to citrus trees. Some of the commonly grown options are papaya, pineapple, and more recently, the precious dragon fruit.
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A long way to go
While around 4,000 pieces of Kaji Nemu have reached London, the story is not over. To get a good profit for the farmers, continuous efforts are necessary. “We are planning to expand the marketing and sale of oranges beyond the raw fruit, adding value. We want to make lemons in Assam and we will set up small factories,” said Manash Kalita, CEO of Nilachal Agro Producer Company.
Kalita said that when they were presenting their lemons and plants in Delhi, many of them asked for saplings. Although production varies among local growers, many are interested in having one for their homes.
The current refusal to try to find international markets for domestic produce has been implemented in the Plantation Mission of the Narendra Modi government in the North East and Himalayan Regions. “The government’s support has been tremendous,” added Kalita.
From seminars to loans, there is a push for agro-producer companies to learn and implement marketing strategies so that farmers like Topo can get better prices. But now, there is hope that other regions of India and countries also want to taste Assamese Kaji Nemu.
(Editing by Neera Majumdar)