The India Smart Protein Innovation Challenge: Unlocking talent bottlenecks
by Shardul Dabir – June 26, 2020

The year is 2016. I am a trained food technologist thinking about the next steps of my career after graduating from the National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM) with an expensive degree. Like hundreds of my graduating peers, from NIFTEM, and other reputed institutes in the food sector like ICT, CFTRI, IIFPT, IIT-KGP etc., I am not very keen on a job in the Indian food processing industry. The pay is generally bad. The incentive structures and career progression offered are notoriously poor compared to jobs in management consultancy, finance, computer sciences, and digital technology as well as other manufacturing jobs in chemicals, pharma, and materials industries.

Technicians with a diploma in food science could easily fill in the shoes of a trained Food Techno-Manager in the Industry, at one third of their pay. After speaking to folks in the sector for the past five years, I realized that 90% of fresh graduates from tier two or three colleges earn  between Rs. 2.5 to 4.5 LPA (lakhs per annum) – that means a monthly salary of less than Rs. 25,000.  The top 10% are lucky if they get paid between Rs. 4.5 to 7 LPA when they start their career, with miniscule hikes thereafter. Due to these abysmally low figures, many talented students in that top 10% bracket end up either pursuing Food Science Master’s degrees outside India, shift their core competency via the MBA route, or take up government jobs. This also largely holds true for biotechnologists, chemical engineers, and other applied science graduates like chemistry, biochemistry, zoology, biochemistry, microbiology etc – contributing to the infamous ‘brain drain’.

The reasons for this include: 

  • Graduates in food are presumed to be of low quality with no core/unique skill-set to offer to the industry to create value-added food products.
  • The food processing sector is still in its infancy in India, primarily driven by manufacturing with imported technology and equipment, with a minimal focus on fundamental and novel R&D.
  • Job conditions, lack of overall safety, and the quality of infrastructure at production plants are a deterrent.
  • The work lacks intellectual stimulation as the majority of jobs in production and quality control are focused on executing set processes without innovation.
  • There is a dearth of career options in technical consultancies, think-tanks, and mission-driven startups focused on solving issues related to the future of food in India.

There is huge value to be unlocked by focusing on specialized manufacturing infrastructure, R&D, niche consultancy and value-driven innovation. India seems to have missed the bus in the last three decades while the U.S., China and the European countries took over in these areas.  We stand to continue losing out if we don’t adapt rapidly. 

Stimulating the ‘alternative protein’ or the ‘smart protein’ sector is one of the largest opportunities for India in the coming decade.  The most surprising thing is that as recently as 2016, I hadn’t even heard of the massive inefficiencies and sustainability issues created by animal agriculture in our food system. Instead we focused on building unsustainable protein production avenues like abattoirs. When we did talk about sustainability, the focus was on relatively low-impact interventions like biodegradable straws.  But as GFI India’s Managing Director Varun Deshpande writes for Firstpost, there is much more we can do for our planet.

How can the Indian context be leveraged to serve this sector?

Roughly 10,000 students and professionals graduate every year with a training in Food Technology, with many more in allied disciplines like Applied Sciences, Agricultural, Mechanical, Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology in India. NIFTEM for instance, churns out about 400 Food Techno-Managers every year. Currently, this talent pool is not ready to join the smart protein sector, so enabling these students to develop novel food skill-sets for the growth of this sector would be a boon. These include skills like wet extrusion, and protein texturization, and genomics of protein-rich plants – which are not just in high demand in India but across the world. 

With our well-established supply chains, large produce of hundreds of bio-diverse protein-rich crops, cheap labour, capacity to reverse engineer technology to reduce costs of inputs and so on, India has the potential to become a leading supply hub and industry leader in the smart protein sector across Eurasia. Perhaps most importantly, as we’ve said so many times at GFI India – with far less infrastructure investment baggage in industrial animal factory farming relative to the West, India can feasibly consider ‘leapfrogging’ the perils of those poorly designed food systems. It justifies that an ounce of prevention by re-thinking our food system in advance is worth pounds of cure in dealing with the true costs of negative externalities on health, economy and environment.

Indian talent is looking for great opportunities and increasingly concerned about sustainability, and talent is a key bottleneck in the smart protein sector. This is a win-win scenario. Stalwarts like Larry Page and Richard Branson, leaders from countries like Canada, Israel, and Singapore, and even Indian thought leaders like Amitabh Kant have expressed their support towards the smart protein sector. I hope every student, researcher and young professional involved in shaping the future of food in India takes up this challenge and leans into the lucrative financial, career, and research opportunities that this sector creates!

At GFI India, we are laser focused on solving problems like the talent bottleneck in smart protein. Our Smart Protein Innovation Challenge is focused on arming young, talented students, researchers, and professionals with the knowledge to enter the sector. Apply before July 15 to augment your professional skills, gain mentorship, and stand a chance to win cash prizes and investment!  

If you already have the demonstrable skills and work experience to contribute to the smart protein sector in India and would like to be considered for positions at innovative businesses in the space, please enter your details in the GFI India Talent Database