Rohit Zantye makes for an unusual next-gen of a long-standing family business. The fourth generation of the eponymous cashew brand Zantye’s, visible at almost every street corner in Goa, does not talk about expanding his business, meeting specific targets or conquering the world.
Instead, the partner at Narayan Ganesh Prabhu Zantye and Co. talks about their Goan roots and their keenness to stay true to these—“this is what we can do at the maximum,” he says. “What I can do is go ahead with various products made from Goa cashews, give greater experiences to consumers about various Goan specs, which still people are not even aware of,” says Rohit. For cashew, like feni, is almost synonymous with the state, distinct in taste owing to the soil, its high iron content and harvesting process.
The company, a major player nationally and the biggest in the state, buys 90% of its raw cashew locally, processing it at its units and selling it in the local market, besides exporting to countries like the UK, US, Germany, France and Japan. Some of their cashew is sold under their brand, sought after by Goa’s tourists; the rest is sold in the business-to-business (B2B) market, to retailers and supermarket chains, which sell under their own brands.
The company buys 25-40% of all the cashew grown in Goa, from over 10,000 farmers—the state produces 20,000-24,000 tonnes of raw cashew; just about 5,000 tonnes is sold as processed cashew, for Goa has only about a dozen processing units. The company has four factories in Goa and one in Malvan in southern Maharashtra, processing approximately 30 tonnes of raw cashew a day, or 6,000-7,000kg of kernels a day, with an annual revenue of over ₹100 crore.
Forty-year-old Rohit, who has been part of the family business for 18 years, says the company will not go public. “It should stay in the family because we believe in something local. We don’t have the inherent stand of expanding. I am not the most efficient processor—there are factories in Maharashtra and Karnataka that are more efficient. They have huge factories, huge production lines…. They will be able to match the expectation from investors.”
Born into a joint family that included two uncles, Rohit grew up with a lot of cousins for company in Bicholim. The ground floor of the family mansion was used to stock raw cashew, while the family lived on the upper level.
One of his uncles, Harish, pivoted into the cinema business, starting movie halls across Goa, besides serving as a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and a member of Parliament. Rohit’s father Umesh, the youngest, and uncle Suresh managed the cashew business. “You would not believe it but within our compound wall, there was a cinema theatre,” says Rohit, smiling.
The mix of eight cousins, some staying in Panaji but together every holiday, made the household a riot. “Our house was like a fish market,” says Rohit, who runs the half-marathon frequently and cycles occasionally. “We had social workers coming into this 150 sq. m hall area. My uncle’s staff, Bicholim residents would walk in and out, some roaming in our dining area at any point from morning to evening. We would not lock our doors—we didn’t know the concept of locking.”
Today, Harish’s son Pravin, also a former MLA, Suresh and his son Siddharth, Umesh and Rohit are partners in the business.
The Zantye family has a storied connection with cashew. When the Portuguese brought the versatile plant from Brazil—some believe it was to prevent soil erosion—four centuries ago, it became endemic to India’s western coast. Rohit’s great-grandfather, Ganesh, started a household business of roasting cashew in the early 1900s. His sons, Narayan and Sriram, expanded it, setting up processing plants in Bicholim, among other places, and exporting to the US.
The company buys cashew from farmers and sun-dries it so that it lasts for a year. Since the seasonal cashew is available only from March-May, the company buys a year’s supply to store and process to capacity. When the buying season ends, it usually has enough supplies to continue processing till February. “So while my processing requirement is 30 tonnes, we can purchase up to 5,000 tonnes of raw cashew,” explains Rohit.
These processed cashews are then sold in retail in varieties like salted, roasted, with skin, etc. “We went for all the certifications—certified organic, fair trade, kosher,” says Rohit. Since last year, the company has begun offering ready-made sweets such as laddoos, kaju katli, cashew butter and chocolate-coated cashews. “You have to come up with a portfolio ahead of the competition,” he adds.
The lanky, bespectacled Rohit, who moderated a session on reviving the cashew processing industry in Goa at April’s Cashew Festival in Panaji, speaks with schoolboyish enthusiasm. He barely notices the clamour that’s typical of a Starbucks outlet, with a grinder in motion, the clatter of cutlery and people trying to speak over each other.
He admits to flirting with other career options after graduating from St. Xavier’s, Mapusa, before eventually jumping into the family business. He initially wanted to become an electrical engineer—probably because he was good at math—but his father suggested doing an MBA. He did do one from the Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development in Nashik, Maharashtra, hoping to work in the food industry. “But my father said nothing doing, ‘I am getting old.’ That was almost 18 years back and he was 60-plus. ‘It’s high time you learn.’”
His father reckoned it would take five-seven years for Rohit to learn the business because the purchase brings its own challenges each year, depending on the quantity and quality of local, national and international produce and the market situation. “You get the purchase cycle only once a year for you to understand. It’s emotional in how you react to it. So a lot of emotional attachment goes into this and a lot of decision making is required,” says Rohit.
When he first joined the company, everything revolved around purchase, since the business was labour-intensive. The sanctioned load for one of their factories at the time, for instance, was just 10 kilowatts, with three motors. Today, it’s 200kW. “You have to go through this six- to seven-year cycle to understand how it works and I will not have the patience to teach, my father said.”
“He was strict, you know,” Rohit pauses, adding, “I could never say no to him.”
Today, Rohit handles Zantye’s sales nationally and manages three factories, while Siddharth looks after export and B2B sales—Zantye’s has two units exclusively for retail under its brand. “There is an eight-year gap between us. Somehow we have been best friends besides being cousins. So that has helped a lot. We have been able to work because we are open, share everything.
“It was good sailing for us from 1997-2015. Then competition came.... Your advantage will not remain with you for long.” They now compete with brands such as Desai Cashew, Arya Cashew Products Pvt. Ltd, Sunrise Cashew Industries and Ajanta Industries.
Over the years, mechanisation and automation have removed entry barriers, like labour-sourcing, to the industry. Across the country, cashew has become a capital-intensive industry, opening the doors to large companies, says Rohit.
Contrary to popular perception, then, all the cashew available in Goa is not locally sourced. About half of it comes from countries like the Ivory Coast and Indonesia. Not all of it is processed in Goa either. “A lot of our customers demand quality but they also want it cheaper,” says Rohit. “They are not worried about origin. If you supply to a Reliance or Haldiram, they are not worried about origin. It’s all about the price.”
He feels there is a huge disruption, challenges that will require them to dig in their heels and stay in the game. “Right now, the margins have eroded in the B2B segment. In the B2C (business-to-consumer) sector, we are doing pretty well. My problem is what I can differentiate as Goan.”
For, since Goa also makes feni from cashew, the fruit is not plucked from the tree. Farmers wait for the fruit to ripen fully and fall to the ground. “Feni needs perfectly ripe apple,” says Rohit. This traditional process makes it labour intensive too—farmers will not pluck from the tree even if the fruit looks mature. “It’s mostly to do with heritage and making feni,” he adds.
“If you put soda or Coke in it, whether it’s Jack Daniel’s or Teacher’s or single malt, you will not taste it. How does one make a difference from cashew to cashew in a hotel? So that’s where we are challenged.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He tweets @iArunJ.