Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cow Dung Capitalism: Milking the Holy Cow

“We have got it wrong all this time.” The voice on the other end of the line in Bengaluru is crisp and energetic. Inflected with a slight Kannada accent, it has the distinct quality of someone filled with the certainty of his new business model, perhaps a startup man full of entrepreneurial zeal who believes he has stumbled upon something novel and disruptive.

“The milk is not the main revenue you can source from the cow,” he says. “It is urine and dung.”

What? “Yes, that’s right,” he says in all sincerity. “It is cow urine and dung.”

You would expect a hermit holed up in some Himalayan cave to come up with that. May be even one of the numerous insincere voices you hear in newspapers pulling down butcher shops and wailing for the rights of the Indian cow. But a working professional in the startup capital of the country?

“You don’t believe me?” he asks, and then delves into the math of his business model, launching into a speech with several short pauses, as though he is punching numbers on a calculator while talking. “A cow will live for 15-20 years. Let’s say 15. It will give milk for only some of those years. Say, 12 years. One cow will yield an average of seven litres per day. One litre will get you a maximum of Rs 60 or Rs 70. Now multiply all those numbers. That’s the most you can get from milk in its lifetime… But just consider cow urine. It is always available, however old the cow gets, and with the right marketing, every litre will fetch you a product that costs Rs 150 or more.”

Convinced of his reasoning, Shiva Kumar, the general manager of Maa Gou Products (MGP) who heads the company’s production and distribution, is confident of everlasting success: “Do you see what I mean?”

MGP is one of several businesses aiming to profit from cow urine and dung that have mushroomed in the country over the past few years. This Bengaluru-based firm makes and retails several products, ranging from ayurvedic medicines and ointments to daily consumables, an offer basket that includes many of the classical ‘panchgavya’, the blessed five: cow milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung.

Since its inception in 2011 with a line- up of 20 cow-derived products, MGP has grown rapidly. Today it retails 40 such items, with several more in the pipeline. And it has gone from sales of around Rs 5,000 in its first month of existence to over Rs 25 lakh per month now, as its promoters claim. The brand’s range is available in over 500 ayurveda pharmacies and other outlets across several South Indian cities, with plans of expanding to other parts of the country. Orders can even be placed on e-commerce websites like Bigbasket and Amazon.

“You have to understand us,” says Mahavir Sonika, one of MGP’s promoters who is also the founder of the Bengaluru-based export house Suneeta Impex, “We are not gau rakshaks (cow protectors) out on the roads screaming ‘gau raksha, gau raksha’. We are businessmen. And this is a huge untapped market.”

In India something strange is occurring. The cow—a symbol both of religious reverence and communal vigilantism— whose value in a modern economy, irrespective of the politics around it, one would assume should decline as increasing numbers adopt urban lifestyles far removed from an agrarian culture, is finding itself the fount of a new form of business. A unique marriage is unfolding here, between ancient belief systems and the market forces of capitalism. Gurujis are turning into businessmen, and businessmen are turning to cows. With demand for alternate systems of healing and therapy on the rise in urban India, the cow is being marketed as a source of infinite well-being. Tradition is now tradition chic. And the cow, a market choice.

Unadulterated cow urine and dung have always been procured from cow-shelters by the traditional for use at home and in temple pujas. What’s recent is the array of therapeutic and beauty products flooding the market that use these as ingredients. There are face packs, bath scrubbers, mosquito coils and incense sticks that contain cow dung. There are creams, cough syrups, body oils, health tonics, weight-loss tonics, and floor disinfectants that contain distilled cow urine. You name it, they have it. And the names of gau mutra or gau arka (cow urine) or cow dung are not hidden away in long lists of fine print on the packages. It is star-lighted right up front as the chief ingredient in bold letters. You can go to a neighbourhood shop and buy it, or drop by a fancy mall and have it bar-code billed before it’s popped into your shopping bag. And, if you so wish, you can even go online and click—or finger tap—yourself a delivery.

“There was always a demand, I think,” Kumar says. “In the past, people only used urine and dung, and you needed to know somebody in a gaushaala (cow shelter), to get them. But who has the time these days, especially in the cities? So what we have done is just made it more accessible, in a more variety of products, in these busy cities.”

by Lhendup G Bhutia, Open | Read more:
Image:Dipti Desai