India’s Modernizing Food Economy Unleashing New Opportunities

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Increasing prosperity in India is reshaping the country’s relationship to its food. A number of trends are coming together that point to significant improvements to India’s long-running problems with food supply and distribution. This matters because India, despite its two-decade economic boom – and increasing middle-class population – is still home to about 25 per cent of the world’s hungry poor, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

According to Indian government figures, around 43 per cent of children under five are malnourished and more than half of pregnant women between 15 and 49 suffer from anaemia (, a consequence of poor diets (WFP).

Many Indians go hungry despite the fact that the country grows enough food for its entire population. The problem isn’t lack of food but a wasteful system that fails to distribute affordable food efficiently and to make participating in the food system a viable income source. Farming employs as much as 70 per cent of Indians. But many work small plots of land, are heavily in debt and earn a meagre income.

However, a number of developments are improving the efficiency of India’s food system and modernizing the way it works.

There are signs that big changes lie ahead: New restaurants exploring foreign cuisines; modern supermarkets; online food shopping services; food academies teaching new skills; food gurus proselytising for new approaches; and a thriving publishing and media sector.

They are creating new jobs, increasing price competition and encouraging more modern delivery, marketing and distribution systems.

In 2011 the introduction of global supermarkets into the Indian marketplace became a hot debate. The Indian government announced it would open the marketplace to global competition and foreign direct investment (FDI), but put the move on hold in December after an outcry by political parties and protests by small- and medium-sized retailers fearful it would harm livelihoods. The Indian supermarket sector is a market estimated to be worth US $475 (The Guardian).

One retailer that is already bringing international methods to Indian retailing is the Best Price chain of wholesale stores. Best Price is a joint venture between U.S.-based Walmart and Bharti Enterprises, one of India’s largest business groups. In 2007, Walmart India made a deal with Bharti Enterprises to set up a cash and carry business called Best Price Modern Wholesale. The first store opened in 2009, and by 2012 there were 15 outlets.

By teaming up with Walmart, Bharti Enterprises gets to learn from one of the world’s leading retailers and a pioneer in efficiencies, logistics, supply chain management and sourcing.

The stores have all the hallmarks of modern food selling – warehouses, sophisticated inventory control, hygienic conditions and connection to new information technologies (

Best Price Modern Wholesale employs 3,710 people, and the stores sell more than 6,000 items, a mix of food and non-food products. It claims 90 per cent of the goods and services are sourced locally.

Food is a highly volatile and politicized issue in India. High food inflation – which reached 12.21 per cent in November 2011, according to India’s Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee – has led to political tensions. Inflation has driven up the price of staple foods, essential commodities and imported products.

At the same time, India’s commerce ministry has forecast that 10 million jobs will be created if foreign supermarkets are allowed to set up in India. Many of these jobs will be in logistics as more efficient, modern methods shake up India’s food industry. Poor logistics in the Indian food sector means that as much as 40 per cent of produced food does not reach consumers. This waste comes at a high cost in a country with 50 million malnourished children.

New jobs are already being created in the country’s restaurant industry.

While there have always been high-end restaurants in India’s cities, the gastronomic scene has received a recent boost from expatriate Indian restaurateurs returning from the competitive London, Tokyo and New York scenes, bringing skills and experience from some of the most demanding kitchens in the world.

One example is Megu, a restaurant in New Delhi’s Leela hotel( that sells Japanese-influenced food.

Such cuisine is being called “elite Indian international gastronomy”, according to The Guardian newspaper.

“We are aiming at the affluent traveller or the ultra-rich local,” Aishwarya Nair, a senior executive at the Leela, told The Guardian. “The idea is to give people a taste of globalization. In our restaurant you don’t know you are in India. You could be in New York, Japan, anywhere.”

That appeals to many newly affluent Indians, food critic Vir Sanghvi told the newspaper.

“The food (at somewhere like Megu) doesn’t matter so much as the experience and the glamour,” Sanghvi said. “There is a lot of money outside the traditional elite now and these people are looking for ways to spend it on something that seems sophisticated.”

The new food fascination is also leading families who once would have employed a cook to watch 24-hour TV channels about food. This programming changes habits and encourages buying new foods and exploring new flavours.

Market analysts believe these trends are likely to continue. A middle class with spending power has been growing in India for almost two decades, and forecasts see the number of middle class Indians reaching 250 million by 2016.

“With bigger and better restaurants and international food brands coming in to the country, it’s only a matter of time before fine dining finds its place among a growing cosmopolitan population,” said Siddharth Mathur, manager of the independent Smoke House Room restaurant (

Online food shopping in India is also thriving. Research by Juxt found that 65 million people use the web in India, four-fifths of whom shop online. Murali Krishnan, head of eBay India, told the BBC that the country could become one of the top 10 e-commerce hubs in the world by 2015.

Online grocery services include, which calls itself “India’s Largest Food Store” and offers home delivery of food, toiletries and pet supplies. Another is, which brings together multiple food retailers into one online shopping website and is based in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

As an example of the spin-offs that can be created from rising interest in food culture, there is the story of Nita Mehta. Considered one of India’s most celebrated cookbook authors, Mehta ( not only publishes recipes but also runs a chain of cooking academies.

As she tells it, her interest in cooking was always there and she started experimenting at home with new recipes for her friends and family. The response was encouraging and she started teaching people how to make ice cream in her home. Curious students flocked to her classes to learn how to make flavours like mint, chocolate chip and mocha.

Following on this success, she started teaching classes in baking, Chinese cooking and what she calls “multicuisine”.

The lessons soon turned into a cookbook, which she wrote after doing her household chores. But her battles had only begun: publishers were not interested so she self-published. She called her publishing company Snab Publishers and released her first book, “Vegetarian Wonders”. It was modestly successful but it was with her second book, “Paneer All the Way”, that things got cooking. Her publishing company has now produced 400 cook books and sold 5 million copies. She has won international awards, does TV cooking programmes, has established several cooking institutes in New Delhi and teaches classes in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries.

With successes like Nita Mehta, the Indian food revolution is well underway.

Published: March 2012


1) India Calling itself “a path-breaking retail information interface portal. Addressed and directed towards the retailing community across the world, the portal provides a wide-angle view and analysis of the business of retail in India”. Website:

2) Retailers Association of India (RAI): RAI is the unified voice of Indian retailers. RAI works with all the stakeholders for creating the right environment for the growth of the modern retail industry in India. Website:

3) The Wal-Mart Effect: A book on how highly competitive retail supermarkets can drive down food prices and inflation. Website:—town-Superstore/dp/0141019794/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322570100&sr=1-1

4) More on India’s food situation from the World Food Programme. Website:

5) Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India: A report from Networked Ideas. The Report reveals an alarming situation of a permanent food and nutrition emergency in urban India. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Archive Blogroll

Awards 1998-2003 | February 2020

UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Portal ( 

I launched this portal in 1997, in the middle of a major economic crisis in Mongolia. This award-winning (winner in 1998 of the People’s Choice WebSite 500 award and the CyberTeddy Top 500 Website award) and pioneering United Nations Mongolia development web portal was singled out by UN headquarters as an example of what a country office website should be like.

At this time, Mongolia was still recovering from the chaotic and turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy begun at the start of the 1990s, called by some “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). There was a thirst for information: access to the Internet was still limited and access to mobile phones was just the preserve of the rich. As a legacy of the past, information, especially that about the outside world and the country’s true economic and social conditions, was restricted. During the years of Communism, even simple travel from one place to the next was strictly regulated.

While today we can take it for granted that the Internet, and mobile and smart phones, deliver the world’s information in seconds, this just was not the case in the late 1990s in Mongolia.

“Cyber-Teddy’s Top 500 Web Site” was an online award from the late 1990s.
The UN/UNDP Mongolia development web portal addressed the urgent need to communicate what was happening in the country during a major crisis, and to transparently show what the UN was doing to address the crisis. It made critical data on the country’s development easy to find, and informed the wider world about the country and its people and culture. While the Internet had only just arrived in Mongolia, from the start the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office was experimenting with this powerful new technology to reach a global audience. This included Mongolia’s first web magazine, Ger (launched in 1998). After the website launched in 1997, a media campaign began to inform readers of its presence. This ad appeared regularly in magazines, newsletters and newspapers.
“A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.”

I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.

Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”

From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly’” Communist countries. 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

Writing in 2018, author John West  found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.

“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …

“Mongolia’s corruption is greatly weakening its attractiveness as an investment destination, is fracturing society and weakening its fragile political institutions. Its culture of corruption has also fed its love-hate relationship with foreign investors, which has destabilized the economy.” Asian Century … on a Knife-edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development by John West, Springer, 24 January 2018.  

In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts.

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize 2001 joint winners.

GOSH Child Health Portal (

In 2001 I undertook a two-year contract to modernise the online resources for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH)/Institute of Child Health (ICH). My strategy was inspired and informed by initiatives encountered while working as a health and medical journalist in 1990s Canada – a time where government austerity spurred a need to experiment and try new ways of doing things.

Having seen the impact first-hand of pilot experiments in Toronto aimed at widening access to information and resources for patients and their families, I applied this knowledge to the GOSH Child Health Portal Project (2001 to 2003). Drawing on the wider NHS Modernisation Plan, and a multi-year consultation process undertaken by the hospital, the Project was launched in three phases. 

How far the UK had fallen out of step with global developments with the Internet became clear from the start. The distance that had to be traveled in the span of two years was vast. Essentially, to go from being a web laggard to a web leader. 

Award-winning (, the GOSH Child Health Portal was called by The Guardian newspaper one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose wife, Cherie Blair, was an early supporter and champion of the project) had this to say: “Making sure that your child has helpful, easy-to-read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.”

The project was delivered in three phases. At every stage, progress was communicated to the wider public and colleagues in various ways, via in-house media and through constant engagement with British news outlets. Screen grabs and other resources from the project can be found online here: 

Phase 1: 

Phase 2:

Phase 3:

Project documents:

The Cable and Wireless Childnet Award called Children First “an outstanding example of how a hospital can create quality, authoritative information on issues relating to health in a fun, child-centered and accessible way.”

More here from The Guardian and CBS: Hospital unveils international website for children and Web Projects For Kids Get Their Due 

The Childnet Awards in 2003 were awarded by Trond Waage, the Norwegian Ombudsman for Children, at the Science Museum in London.


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20 Years Ago

It was 20 years ago this month (September 2001) that the GOSH Child Health Portal was launched in London, UK. The award-winning website was called “One of the three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors”.

“Making sure that your child has helpful, easy-to-read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.” Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain’s best-loved children’s hospital and charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH), contracted me to lead a two-year project to modernise the hospital’s web presence and take its brand into the 21st century. GOSH is both Britain’s first children’s hospital and a pioneering child health institution (along with its partner the Institute for Child Health). The hospital’s outstanding reputation meant the project was carried out under intense public, media and professional scrutiny, and required a keen awareness of new media developments and the needs of the hospital’s patients, their families and the public.

The project was developed in three, distinct phases. Screen grabs from these phases are now available for download and evaluation. They also include web traffic statistics. This unique snapshot of a complex project as it unfolded, should prove useful for other e-health practitioners.

Phase 1: ealth-Portal-Proj...
Phase 2: ealth-Portal-Proj...
Phase 3: ealth-Portal-Proj...

In 2001, the project also launched an interactive Christmas child health advent calendar offering top tips from health professionals on how to have a safe holiday season. The PDF can be viewed here:

A great way to track the historical development of a web project is to use the Wayback Machine’s internet archive here. By typing in the web address (for example,, and, you can see a chronological history of the website by month.

Read here about the child health portal project’s vision and strategy, its launch and overall impact. Or download a brief Powerpoint presentation here: GOSH Powerpoint.

In 2003, the UK’s Guardian newspaper called the Children First website one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS.

In 2006, The Times of London called Children First the Top Child Health Website in its Wellbeing on the Web: The Best Portals survey (November 11, 2006).

The GOSH Child Health Portal Team circa 2002.

What we did 10 Years Ago

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Archive Blogroll

Interviews for the GOSH Child Health Portal 2001-2003 | 14 April 2016

Roundabout, November 2001 Issue No. 18

Joint Website Launched

A two-year project to turn our joint institution’s website ( into a respected child health portal got underway with the launch of the first phase of development in September. The second phase of content development will get the site ship shape for a UK-wide publicity campaign as the hospital’s 150th birthday celebrations begin in January.

The site’s web editor, David South, has been working on the project since arriving here in June, having worked on award-winning websites for the United Nations.

“The first phase saw collaboration from staff across both institutions,” he says. “An impressive amount was done, and we have now laid the foundations for future improvements to the content on the site. I really want to offer more for children. Over three million children in the UK now surf the internet.”

The opportunity for both institutions is enormous. As the internet has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that the future of its development lies in the public sphere. US government sites now outstrip commercial operations, selling far more books than the largest online bookseller, Here in the UK, the site is working to offer one-stop access to all government services, including health care.

Unlike commercial operations, the hospital and the Institute are an unbiased resource for the public to turn to. Currently, the joint site has more than 180 factsheets for families covering tests and procedures, illnesses and diseases and operations. It also has the complete archive of Dr. Jane Collins’ Times column, with its jargon-free look at child health issues.

“This being London, we have the unique advantage of being at the centre of so many developments, and having the opportunity to communicate this through our website,” says David South.

Across the NHS the Modernisation Plan involves the largest data collection exercise in its history. More and more resources will be offered online, and the content produced by individual trusts like ours will be linked with national sites like NHS Direct.

New GOSH/ICH website

With over three million children in the UK now using the internet, and a total of 33 million UK citizens accessing it through work, school or the home, no organisation can afford not to make the most of this valuable communications tool. Estimates vary, but some put the number of health-related websites at more than 100,000. Trust is an even more important issue, as users search for accurate information. It is in this context that the new hospital and ICH website,, launched in September. Web editor David South puts us in the picture.

The new site reflects the hard work and collaboration of staff across both institutions, and it is hoped it will quickly make its mark as a trusted resource on complex child health issues. The site also becomes one of the most visible signs of our on-going modernisation programme, and can uniquely tie together the breadth of our work in a way that no other medium can. The site development project spans two years and will fit in with the wider move across the NHS to offer a wide range of services online.

The next phase of the site’s development is aimed at getting the site ready for a larger publicity campaign slated to coincide with the hospital’s 150th birthday celebrations with start in January. In preparation for this public launch, a number of improvements will be made to the site’s content, interactivity, platform and design. To put it simply, the site should become a critical first stop for anybody seeking our services, or wanting to learn more about the latest research and care developments in the field of complex child issues.

The joint site will also be available via Gosweb for staff in the hospital who don’t already have internet access.

As the project evolved, regular updates were communicated to colleagues and the public through the media.
The BBC story from 2002’s launch of the GOSH Child Health Portal’s children’s content (
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