Steam sterilisation is a cleaner route for spices: Ajay Desai, ED, Axtel

Axtel, a global food technology provider with over 3 decades of industry experience, delivers Customized Processing Solutions for the Food Industry to clients spread across multiple countries, including those in the US and Europe. As a registered member of EHEDG, Axtel offers a wide range of process solutions, covering various requirements in the food processing value chain, from handling raw ingredients to the final stages of processing, with a focus on automation, intelligence, safety, performance, and consistency.

India Business and Trade recently interacted with Ajay Desai, Executive Director of Axtel Industries, who talks about the company’s evolution from a fortitious engagement with Amul where they successfully showcased their capabilities for the first time. Further, he discusses about Axtel’s growth strategy and key technology solutions for the Indian F&B sector. 

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IBT: Could you provide an overview of your journey at AXTEL Industries, highlighting key milestones and challenges that have shaped the company’s growth and direction?

Ajay Desai: A couple of years after graduating from college, my co-director and I started a small company Axtel. We had little to our name, but we got a break early on with Amul Dairy. Dr. V. H. Shah (then MD of Amul) was an engineer who insisted on world-class sanitary standards for the cooperative’s equipment. At the time, I was selling sifters for a friend. When Dr. V.H. Shah expressed dissatisfaction with the design, he asked if we could redesign it.

We quit our jobs, developed a new machine design, and presented it to him. He suggested some changes, which we implemented, but we lacked the funds and a workshop to build it. We traveled by motorcycle, and Dr. Shah authorized us to use resources from the Amul Store. We borrowed a tempo, went to a friend’s factory, and physically built the machine there. This first job, completed in 1984, was still operational when I saw it two years ago. That marked the beginning of our journey.

One thing led to another, and we developed more equipment for Amul Dairy. The company then connected us with the National Dairy Development Board, for whom we developed various other equipment. Subsequently, we gained more clients, including Nestle, who invited us to their office in Delhi. This led to continuous development of new machinery.

From there, more clients joined us along the way, and our range of equipment expanded significantly. We primarily work in food processing, powder handling, and solid handling technologies, with some involvement in liquid handling. Our offerings include size reduction systems, mixing systems, spice processing lines, steam sterilization systems, and numerous systems for chocolates.

We are leading suppliers for companies like Mondelēz and also collaborate with Hershey’s, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and other major names in the chocolate confectionery market. We are now globally approved by all of them.

Furthermore, we also design many customized systems tailored to specific requirements. This has been our journey, and while it has taken a long time, it has been worthwhile.

IBT: With regards to exports, what motivated your decision to expand into international markets, and how has this impacted the overall trajectory of your company?

Ajay Desai: International markets actually came to us. We have a small sales team, but most of our clients know us and repeatedly return, with three to five new major clients added each year. Many smaller clients also join us, continuously expanding our portfolio. Multinational clients often take us to their locations in other countries.

One company from Belgium, which we started working with about seven or eight years ago, was led by an ex-Nestle employee familiar with us. He convinced the Belgian company to buy from us. After completing the project to their satisfaction, they engaged us for subsequent projects in Peru, Colombia, Ghana, and numerous other countries, from Vietnam to the Philippines, Japan to Namibia. We have worked in over 18 countries and continue our collaboration with them. Similarly, with other customers like Cadburys, we are developing systems in Egypt, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and several other places.

Our clients have propelled our international presence more than our own efforts. Now, times are changing, and we are actively seeking opportunities abroad directly. We are globally approved by many multinationals and are seen as a cost-effective option compared to European suppliers, offering equal or better quality and high reliability.

Export holds immense potential for us, and we envision multiplying our current scale several times over in the next five years. We aim to expand our presence globally, appointing agents across various regions. Agents are crucial due to language barriers and ensuring a comfortable experience for clients in different countries.

IBT: Technology plays a pivotal role in the food industry. What technological innovations or advancements has Axtel Industries developed or adopted to enhance its products or processes, particularly in the context of exports?

Ajay Desai: Axtel has developed a large range of equipment for exports. We are members of the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) and meet all international standards for hygiene, safety, and application. Our extensive range of equipment caters well to the export market, adhering to all required standards.

Our technologies are advanced, and we have maintained high standards from the beginning, whether for the domestic or export market. We offer top-quality equipment comparable to European and US standards but at a lower cost, which attracts our clients. Unlike others who are reluctant and charge heavily for even minor design changes, we embrace continuous improvement and adaptation as a way of life. We consistently innovate and enhance our offerings to meet client requirements, maintaining the highest standards.

Our equipment requires minimal service, and that reliability speaks for itself. Once installed and commissioned, our clients rarely need to call us. We provide 24/7 global online support, and it’s almost never necessary for a technician to visit.

We maintain comprehensive data, records, and designs going back 30 years. The equipment we produce is designed to be robust and reliable, so it rarely fails. Consequently, we have minimal spare parts sales, as our designs require few replacements. This results in very little downtime due to the lack of breakdowns or spare part needs.

IBT: Could you share insights into any recent or upcoming product developments or technological initiatives that will further differentiate Axtel Industries in the global food technology landscape?

Ajay Desai: In grinding systems, we are the first and possibly the only ones in India to use cryogenic grinding with liquid nitrogen, especially for spices and herbs. Traditional grinding processes cause significant flavor loss when Indian spices are produced and exported. Spices ground with these conventional methods lose so much aroma and flavor that you need a higher volume of each ingredient in cooking to maintain the same flavor profile. With ultra-low temperature grinding, the loss of aromas is minimal, preserving the volatile oils. This is a significant innovation.

We provide steam sterilization systems for spices, which has gained attention recently due to issues with ethylene oxide sterilization, as highlighted by the Everest NBH case. Ethylene oxide sterilization is banned in Europe, Japan, China, and Australia, but is still used in the US and some parts of the Middle East due to its lower cost. However, ethylene oxide is carcinogenic, leading many to reconsider and turn to our steam sterilization systems. While steam sterilization requires a higher investment, it is a much cleaner form of sterilization.

These innovations extend to our work in chocolates, where we have developed numerous pieces of equipment not previously made in India. From the beginning, most of our equipment has served as import substitutes, and we continue this approach.

IBT: Sustainability and environmental considerations are increasingly important in the food industry. How does Axtel Industries integrate sustainability practices into its operations and future plans, especially concerning exports?

Ajay Desai: We’re a food equipment manufacturer, not a food producer, making us a zero discharge industry with no pollution. Our factory boasts 325 kVA solar power, covering about 30% of our energy consumption currently and aiming for 100% in the near future. With 11 recharge bore wells, rainwater is directed back into the ground, not discharged into waterways. Even our paper waste is shredded and repurposed for packing, leaving no waste unused.

Our factory features polycarbonate roofing for natural lighting during the day, reducing electricity consumption. While our machines require electricity, we source it from solar power. These green initiatives are part of our commitment to sustainability. We’ve planted hundreds of trees, including over 100 last year and more recently on tree planting day. Our environmental efforts are extensive, yet we maintain zero discharge and a non-polluting operation, making us carbon positive.

Ajay Naishad Desai is the Executive Director at Axtel. He has previously worked closely with eminent personalities such as Dr.Verghese Kurien, Dr.V.H. Shah and others to develop various dairy and food equipment as import substitutes for many large dairies all over India. During this period he gained rich experience in the design, development, manufacture and use of GMP equipment for the dairy, food and pharmaceutical sectors.

Axtel today is the preferred supplier to Indian and MNC food processing companies such as Kraft Foods, Nestle, Cadbury, GlaxoSmithKline, Heinz, ITC, Unilever and several others in India and abroad. Under the leadership of Desai, it has over the last 19 years designed processes/systems equivalent to the best in class. Axtel is represented in Western Europe by M/s AnuTec GmbH, Switzerland. Axtel also works very closely with M/s Wenger Inc., U.S.A. for Food and Feed Extrusion Systems.

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