Sunday, Jun. 08 2014: BARU SAHIB, INDIA - In the crisp air of the Himalayan foothills, an 89-year-old Sikh spiritual leader with a grey beard lies inside a thatched hut lit by lanterns and repeats a pronouncement that has echoed across the golden plains of Saskatchewan.
“I have come to the conclusion,” he says hoarsely from beneath a black blanket, with two acolytes kneeling at his bedside, “that canola oil is the only oil.”
Iqbal Singh Kingra, once a director of agriculture for the Indian state government of Himachal Pradesh, is the revered head of a foundation that builds high-tech schools for India’s rural poor. What’s unusual is one of the ways he funds the effort: By selling canola oil harvested and ground on the Canadian Prairies.
His ardent belief in the health benefits of canola oil – a Canadian innovation – have made Mr. Kingra and his followers an unlikely bridge between farms in Western Canada and the immense edible oil market in India that Canadian canola farmers have never been able to crack. It’s a market where 1.2 billion people fry almost everything they eat, but do so mainly with palm oil.
For Mr. Kingra and the philanthropic Sikhs who work tirelessly for him, canola oil is simply a means to an end.
Angered by alarming levels of substance abuse and widespread illiteracy in their native Punjab, Mr. Kingra and his Kalgidhar Society want to construct schools as fast as they can – and donations simply can’t keep up. Mr. Kingra, whose followers refer to him by the spiritual title Baba ji, turned to canola and decided to start a social business that would import Canadian canola oil to India.
Canola – a contraction of “Canadian” and “oil” – was engineered in the 1970s after concern over the high erucic acid content of other rapeseed oils. It is generally considered to be healthier than other oils because it has lower levels of saturated fats.
The society’s members first tried growing the yellow-flowering plant in Punjab, where the Green Revolution started in the 1960s. But despite farmers’ solid reputations in the grain-basket of India, it was still much cheaper to import the oil from Canada. And so the disciples of Mr. Kingra got on planes bound for the Canadian prairies, where they toured farms outside Saskatoon and found the October air unpleasantly chilly.
The first few years weren’t profitable for the business, which operates as Jivo, but has grown steadily. From early losses, the company is set to make $500,000 (U.S.) in profits this year and roughly $1-million next year – which could fund the sustainable construction of eight schools per year. Simultaneously, Canadian canola oil exports to India have jumped from just 82 tons in 2009 to around 1,600 tons in 2013.
Jivo estimates they now import about 300 tons of canola oil each month.