Agro-warehouses account for a massive chunk of India’s warehousing market. Perishable grains, vegetables and fruits harvested from farms need to be carefully stored and protected from damage, before being dispatched onwards to the consumer or food-processing market. Anand Chandra, Executive Director, Arya Collateral Warehousing Services Pvt Ltd writes about the old and the new of agro-warehousing.
The science of agro-warehousing
There is a certain number of layers upto which stacking of bags can be done. For example, if maize is in 60kg bags, it can be stacked up to 22 layers. If you stack it beyond that, the bottom layer will be damaged, which will cause losses.
On average, a stack should not be more than 200-240mt.
When fumigation is done, aluminium phosphide tablets are used, which emit gas. If a stack is more than 200-240mt, the gas will not be able to penetrate deeply enough, resulting in infestation. These tablets are placed in cotton balls, so that they don’t come in direct contact with the commodity.
One of the big solutions we have been working on is a hermetic storage structure. This creates an anaerobic environment inside the warehouse or cocoon structure, removing all the oxygen present within. When this is done, there is no scope for insects to breed. All insects automatically die. Stocks stored in this structure do need to be fumigated. Damage is reduced, and shelf-life is increased.
Temperature and moisture control
There are two types of commodities. One, in which storage depends on both temperature and moisture conditions, like potatoes, chillies, fruits and nuts, because these commodities are slightly hygroscopic (moisture-absorbing) in nature. In them, chemical processes like rancidity are more. When such commodities are kept in cold storage, their shelf-life increases. India does not have many controlled atmosphere cold storages (where ambience is maintained according to the commodity stored); there are mostly refrigerated facilities. In the latter, an apple may survive for six months, in the former, it can survive for up to 12 months.
But in some commodities like paddy and wheat, only moisture is the critical factor. For example, if maize sees moisture of 16%, fungus infestation will be common. These commodities can withstand the high temperatures present in warehouses. In such warehouses, it is critical for air to flow in and flow out through natural ventilation, although some newer warehouses have turbo fans near the roof.
Quality control audits
We do two types of audits. One is for our own warehouses, done by our internal teams, the other is for third-party clients like banks, which want to check on the stock they have financed. We assess processes adopted at the warehouse, and the physical stocks present.
Most clients want quality testing at the warehouse, because that is where valuation of the commodity happens. Tomorrow, no one should send a batch of non-basmati rice and then claim they sent basmati. Through our partner companies, we have developed an AI system that uses scan-based imaging to give quality testing reports in less than a minute, encompassing physical and chemical parameters of the commodity. These assessments are done at the time the product comes to the warehouse.
Chemical parameters are assessed only for certain commodities, where valuation depends upon the chemistry, For example, the output of mustard is mostly oil. The better the quality, the more oil the seeds will deliver. But in pulses, while there may be some change in the chemical composition, the variation is very limited. Physical quality assessment is enough, since all quality assessment comes at a cost.
Entry and exit of stock
In most cases, transport is arranged by the client. We get an intimation from clients saying so-and-so amount of stock has to be given to a particular transporter. Such release requests are sent through email or a hard copy. Daily transaction reports are sent to the client, which goes out in an auto-generated email.
Because of the sheer number of bags involved in agro-warehousing, use of RFID and barcodes is practically ruled out. Data entry is done manually on a live basis. All statistics are updated and resolved at least by the end of each day.
The dashboard is visible to clients, and is like a digital balance of their commodities. They can log in and see what quantity of which commodity is in which warehouse. All physical stocks are represented as digital stocks.
Past vs future
Stacking is done manually, since we don’t have conveyor belts. However, the entire stock keeping and fumigation tracking process is digitised. Agro-warehouses do not have standard cartons like in the FMCG market; deploying robots will be difficult since each bag may have a different commodity.
Cleaning is done manually; most warehouses do not have electricity/power required for vacuum cleaners or other machines, since there is always a risk of short-circuiting and the commodities may catch fire.
Moving ahead, we will try to be a carbon-neutral organisation. By using hermetic storage, we will avoid using chemicals required for killing insects.