India is an economy in flux but, for all the challenges ahead, the executives who headed to Mumbai for this year’s Food Forum India conference left feeling upbeat about the country’s potential. just-food’s Kevin Jacobs shares his thoughts on a thought-provoking two days in the Indian city.

2008 is the right time to be talking about food in India.

Those were the words of one local executive as he raised the curtains on Food Forum India 2008, a two-day conference held in Mumbai covering the food industry from farm to fork and all points in between.

India’s food industry is going through a period of great change, from merely basics and staples to the emergence of global brands, innovation and health and wellness.

To meet these requirements, the industry is working hard towards understanding the concepts of modern retailing, create a viable supply chain and building trust with consumers.

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Conference attendees were the who’s-who of India’s food industry, including top retail executives from Future Group, Bharti and Metro Group and manufacturers like dairy group Amul, snack maker ITC Foods and confectioner Godrej.

Much of the discussion among the attendees was on the retail sector. The mood throughout the conference was upbeat and confident about the changes taking place in the market. After all, India’s retail sector is valued at US$350bn and is growing in the high double-digits each year. However, all seemed fully aware about the multiple challenges that need solving, too.

A large focus was on retailing, and its backward integration, which needs fine-tuning, but the hall was very upbeat and confident about the changes taking place in the market.

The mood of Kishore Biyani, chairman of Future Group, an Indian conglomerate and the country’s largest retailer, epitomized the optimism at the conference. He arrived for his speech fashionably late but his confidence about India’s potential engrossed the audience, and his belief re-energised listeners about their roles in India’s growth. It is probably this type of optimism that has brought India to the levels in economic growth the country is experiencing now.

Nevertheless, the mood was not one of misguided optimism. The most commonly discussed challenge was a lack of coordination between suppliers and retailers, and the lack of a joint understanding of the ever-changing Indian consumer.

The point was driven home by Gareth Ackerman, the chairman and CEO of South African retailer Pick n’ Pay in South Africa. “The consumer is not just a revenue stream, but the life blood of our jobs,” he said. “These consumers come in different shapes with diverse interests and opinions. We must have the patience and humility to serve them, while also being philanthropists and protectors of our environment.”

At times, discussions between retailers and suppliers grew heated with both sides pointing fingers. However, both sides agreed that, although individually they are making moves in understanding the needs of Indian consumers, they have not been complementing each others efforts enough.

One would find it hard to imagine that India could ever be a developed nation, with such a polar difference between the rich and the poor.

However, with around 90% of the county’s rural population involved in farming, the development of a well-oiled food industry has the potential to increase incomes across all levels of society unlike any other sector in the country.

As it stands, India’s organised retail scene is focused towards the high-income consumer. But, the growth of the country’s food industry is on its way towards cultivating an opportunity for a better quality of life across many demographic segments.

Without a doubt, there is a lot happening that is new for suppliers, retailers and suppliers alike and, across the two days of the conference, one got the feeling that the whole of India is having a hand in this transformation.