(August 5, 2021; 6.30 pm) When he’d moved to Argentina in 2005 after a few years in Africa, little did Simmarpal Singh know that he’d soon earn a moniker that would propel him to fame. Employed by the Singapore-based Olam International, Singh was responsible for initiating the farm to factory peanuts business for the company in Argentina. His agricultural know-how and acumen soon saw him scale up the production to 39,000 hectares in a span of five years and also saw the company diversifying into other streams across soybean, corn, alubias, rice farming, and processing plants. A pretty mean feat in areas hitherto unfamiliar.
His genial manner also made him popular with the Argentinians who were keen to learn more about Sikhism, a religion they hadn’t much idea about. In fact, so popular did he become, that Singh had several Argentinians wanting to wear a turban just like him. He shot to fame when he was described as the Peanut Prince of Argentina, a moniker that most people still associate with the reticent Punjabi man, who has gone on to hold several more important posts in his career as an agricultural expert.
From India to the world
Born to a Sikh family, Singh did his schooling at St Xavier’s School in Durgapur before graduating in B.Sc Agriculture Sciences from Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Always interested in all things agriculture, Singh enrolled himself at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) for an MBA.
Little did he realize just how successful his career in agriculture was going to be. In an interview with Harleen Chadha on the Sikhi Channel News, he says,
“Everything just fell into place. I wanted to go to IIT or Civils. None of those panned out, but life took its own turns; I just went along with the flow and managed to maximize the opportunities that came my way.”
What followed were jobs with the National Dairy Development Board and Amul in Delhi where he handled sales. In 2001 he joined Olam International and worked in Mozambique before moving to Argentina where he worked for over a decade and went on to become one of the top players in the peanut business.
The Peanut Prince
His work in Argentina got him noticed and India’s ambassador to Argentina, Rengaraj Viswanathan, came up with the moniker for Singh in a blog back in 2009. Talking about just how popular Singh had become with the Argentinians, Viswanathan told Rediff, “Here lives an Indian maharaja. He looks handsome with his turban. When he goes to the night clubs, he gets premium service and gets it free because they think he is a maharaja.”
Life after Olam
Singh moved back to India in 2013 to join Louis Drefus Company as the COO and was soon promoted to Director and CEO-India to manage the $1 billion company. In March 2018, he moved on to COFCO International India as Director and CEO and is also a member of the National Council for Agriculture Committee of CII and also for the Sustainable Agriculture Task Force of FICCI.
Today he routinely mentors entrepreneurs and invests in startups; some of the notable ones being Knocksense and Snackamor. Singh, who has worked in the agricultural sector across countries like India, Africa and Latin America, believes that agriculture in India is yet to reach its potential.
“It’s only in the last few years that we’ve begun seeing technological advancements in India in this sector to increase productivity. Today there is new technology that focuses on things like soil testing, satellite imagery, and pre-harvest stages. It’s still a work in progress,” he says.
With the whole debate on organic farming and chemical farming raging across the sector, Singh believes that it is more an issue of aspiration vs need. In his interview on Sikhi Channel News, he says, “With the way the population is growing, agriculture is all about extracting more and more from the same area of farmland. On the other hand, farmers are not going to invest time and money into organic farming, if they aren’t going to get the returns; a lot of people are still reluctant to pay a premium for organic produce.”
He believes it is one’s ability to adapt and determination that drives success.
“It is important to keep an open mind and work at being an expert in your field rather than a generalist.”