The most visible change at Tata Chemicals can be seen in the consumer products division that has launched a slew of new products. Internally, too, the division is creating a buzz. “Everyone in the company is interested in what we are doing,” says Ashvini Hiran, head of Tata Chemicals’ consumer products division.
For decades the consumer face of the company was the iconic Tata Salt brand, which reaches 650 million households every year and has been named among the most trusted food brands in India.
A couple of years ago, Tata Chemicals launched Tata Swach, the innovative low-cost water purifier designed to provide safe drinking water to rural households without electricity. Last year, the company pioneered branded pulses by packaging all-natural, unpolished pulses under the i-Shakti brand, thus adding to its portfolio of national consumer brands.
Now there is a thick pipeline of products from the house of Tata Chemicals aimed at retail shelves. Through extensive R&D, the company has extended the Tata Salt brand name to launch new salt products that sell on the health platform — Tata Salt Lite, a low-sodium salt aimed at hypertension patients, and Tata Salt Plus, an innovative iron-fortified salt.
In addition, the Tata Swach production capacity is going up to meet demand, and i-Shakti pulses are being rolled out across 20 states. “We want to grow the consumer products business at least four times, from Rs10 billion now to about Rs40 billion in the next five years,” says Mr Hiran.
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The second element is Tata Chemicals’ newfound capabilities in science and technology, with research at the Tata Chemicals Innovation Centre in Pune, India, creating the pipeline for new businesses. The organisation, which worked on combining the health properties of iron and iodine together in a salt, is also engaged in enhancing the Tata Swach water filter to eliminate arsenic and fluorides, and has recently created a new line of food additives such as probiotics and sweeteners.
Tata Chemicals is setting up a 300-tonne per annum plant in Chennai to make neutraceuticals — oligosaccharides (better known as probiotics) and polyols (artificial sweeteners that are more beneficial than the conventional aspartame) — which will be used by food and pharma companies. The plant will go operational later this year and will eventually be scaled up to 5,000 tonnes per year; the new business is likely to bring in Rs3-3.5 billion in revenue, selling to big names such as Dabur, Kraft and Nestle.
There are new high-tech products in the agri-business space as well. Rallis India’s acquisition of the Bengaluru-based biotech company Metahelix has brought in capabilities in genetics along with a range of hybrid seeds.
Yet another new focus area is customised fertilisers — fertilisers that are tweaked to meet the exact requirements of a particular crop and soil combination, thus eliminating chemical overload in the soil and improving soil health.
This research is being conducted at the Centre for Agri-Solutions and Technology in Aligarh in India. Paras Farmoola, the company’s customised fertiliser brand, is manufactured at a small unit in Babrala in northern India to cater to the region’s farmers. Plans are on to set up similar small plants at 20-30 sites throughout India, with each site blending the exact mix of nutrients that are optimal for local soil conditions.
“We believe that the answer to many of the planet’s problems, whether it is energy, water or climate change, will be found in chemistry,” says Tata Chemicals managing director R Mukundan. Dr Arup Basu, head of the company’s innovation centre and new business, has been given the mandate and the resources to encourage research in areas with potential.
Nanomaterials are one such area, with applications in the manufacture of battery cells and industrial catalysts. Co-crystallisation is another interesting area, where Tata Chemicals’ R&D team hopes to improve adsorption of nutrients. “We’re addressing areas such as resource stress, food security, health, and water, all of which are challenges of the immediate future,” explains Mr Mukundan.
The old Tata Chemicals talked soda ash and fertiliser. The new Tata Chemicals is talking science. And the old and the new are working towards a new line of products that, it is hoped and expected, will form at least a quarter of the company’s top line in the next five years.