Cover Story

Cow Dung Capitalism: Milking the Holy Cow

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And the national mood is right for the business

“We have got it wrong all this time.” The voice on the other end of the line in Bengaluru is crisp and energetic. Inflected with a slight Kannada accent, it has the distinct quality of someone filled with the certainty of his new business model, perhaps a startup man full of entrepreneurial zeal who believes he has stumbled upon something novel and disruptive.

“The milk is not the main revenue you can source from the cow,” he says. “It is urine and dung.”

What? “Yes, that’s right,” he says in all sincerity. “It is cow urine and dung.”

You would expect a hermit holed up in some Himalayan cave to come up with that. May be even one of the numerous insincere voices you hear in newspapers pulling down butcher shops and wailing for the rights of the Indian cow. But a working professional in the startup capital of the country?

“You don’t believe me?” he asks, and then delves into the math of his business model, launching into a speech with several short pauses, as though he is punching numbers on a calculator while talking. “A cow will live for 15-20 years. Let’s say 15. It will give milk for only some of those years. Say, 12 years. One cow will yield an average of seven litres per day. One litre will get you a maximum of Rs 60 or Rs 70. Now multiply all those numbers. That’s the most you can get from milk in its lifetime… But just consider cow urine. It is always available, however old the cow gets, and with the right marketing, every litre will fetch you a product that costs Rs 150 or more.”

Convinced of his reasoning, Shiva Kumar, the general manager of Maa Gou Products (MGP) who heads the company’s production and distribution, is confident of everlasting success: “Do you see what I mean?”

MGP is one of several businesses aiming to profit from cow urine and dung that have mushroomed in the country over the past few years. This Bengaluru-based firm makes and retails several products, ranging from ayurvedic medicines and ointments to daily consumables, an offer basket that includes many of the classical ‘panchgavya’, the blessed five: cow milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung.

Since its inception in 2011 with a line- up of 20 cow-derived products, MGP has grown rapidly. Today it retails 40 such items, with several more in the pipeline. And it has gone from sales of around Rs 5,000 in its first month of existence to over Rs 25 lakh per month now, as its promoters claim. The brand’s range is available in over 500 ayurveda pharmacies and other outlets across several South Indian cities, with plans of expanding to other parts of the country. Orders can even be placed on e-commerce websites like Bigbasket and Amazon.

“You have to understand us,” says Mahavir Sonika, one of MGP’s promoters who is also the founder of the Bengaluru-based export house Suneeta Impex, “We are not gau rakshaks (cow protectors) out on the roads screaming ‘gau raksha, gau raksha’. We are businessmen. And this is a huge untapped market.”

IN INDIA, SOMETHING strange is occurring. The cow—a symbol both of religious reverence and communal vigilantism— whose value in a modern economy, irrespective of the politics around it, one would assume should decline as increasing numbers adopt urban lifestyles far removed from an agrarian culture, is finding itself the fount of a new form of business. A unique marriage is unfolding here, between ancient belief systems and the market forces of capitalism. Gurujis are turning into businessmen, and businessmen are turning to cows. With demand for alternate systems of healing and therapy on the rise in urban India, the cow is being marketed as a source of infinite well-being. Tradition is now tradition chic. And the cow, a market choice.

Unadulterated cow urine and dung have always been procured from cow-shelters by the traditional for use at home and in temple pujas. What’s recent is the array of therapeutic and beauty products flooding the market that use these as ingredients. There are face packs, bath scrubbers, mosquito coils and incense sticks that contain cow dung. There are creams, cough syrups, body oils, health tonics, weight-loss tonics, and floor disinfectants that contain distilled cow urine. You name it, they have it. And the names of gau mutra or gau arka (cow urine) or cow dung are not hidden away in long lists of fine print on the packages. It is star-lighted right up front as the chief ingredient in bold letters. You can go to a neighbourhood shop and buy it, or drop by a fancy mall and have it bar-code billed before it’s popped into your shopping bag. And, if you so wish, you can even go online and click—or finger tap—yourself a delivery.

“There was always a demand, I think,” Kumar says. “In the past, people only used urine and dung, and you needed to know somebody in a gaushaala (cow shelter), to get them. But who has the time these days, especially in the cities? So what we have done is just made it more accessible, in a more variety of products, in these busy cities.”

Most of these companies that have sprung up are professionally run, with well-planned business models and supply chains. MGP, for instance, was set up with an investment of Rs 1.2 crore by five promoters— among them, apart from Sonika, was Radhye Shyam Goenka, one of the founders of Emami, a well-known herbal products company. “We were clear when we began that we were not going to produce just another bunch of cow products,” Sonika says, “We wanted something very serious and professional, a brand that people could trust.”

The clever marketing of the Indian cow and the growing demand have had a ripple effect on the supply chain all the way back. Cow shelters, for example, are being equipped with computers to address inquiries and keep track of orders. Distillation units are being set up to process hundreds of litres of cow urine. Some shelters have turned partly into manufacturing units. While some make incense sticks and floor disinfectants on a small scale, others ship vast quantities of intermediate goods—distilled urine and dung, mostly—to large companies that specialise in producing ayurvedic, cosmetic and home-care products for mass distribution. Pathmeda Godam in Rajasthan, one of the country’s largest according to its national spokesperson, Poonam Rajpurohit, has two ayurvedic companies housed on its premises: Parthvimeda Gau Pharma Pvt Ltd and Parthvimeda Panchgavya Utpad Pvt Ltd.

We are not gau rakshaks (cow protectors) out on the roads screaming ‘gau raksha, gau raksha’. We are businessmen. And this is a huge untapped market

In Barsana, Uttar Pradesh, employees at a cow shelter wake up before dawn, at around 4 am. With pails and buckets, they bustle around the backsides of cows, hundreds of them, trying to decode telltale signs like a sudden tail or limb movement so that they can catch the first stream of urine. The first discharge of the morning is believed to be especially beneficial to humans. This shelter in Barsana began distilling cow urine to make products like incense sticks two years ago. Today, it has four distillation units that can each process up to 100 litres of urine. Mahesh Soni, a 40-year-old ayurvedic doctor associated with this shelter, believes that Indians in ancient times used to understand the value of cow urine and dung well, and would use these in a variety of ways, but as we have moved on from an agrarian society, we have lost this knowledge. “The cow is a treasure trove of medicines. Its products like urine and dung have several many medicinal qualities. It can treat so many ailments, boost up our immune systems, remove toxicity. In the past, we used to know all this and value the cow. But we have destroyed that system now. Slowly, people are experimenting and creating these products and we are getting to know about it once more.”

When Laxmi Rao, a 63-year-old corporate trainer in Delhi, first raised a glass filled one- fourth with a mixture of one drop of gau ark (distilled cow urine) and water to her lips, she didn’t feel the slightest twinge of nausea. She has an interest in alternate forms of therapy and had been suffering from knee pain and acidity for several years. A recommendation from a friend and some quick online research on the medicinal attributes of cow urine led her to give the mixture a shot. “I wasn’t queasy at all,” she says. “I was more like, ‘What the hell, let me give this a try’.” She knocked back the concoction in almost one whole gulp.

Determined to make a routine of it, Rao began increasing the dosage every day, one drop at a time, until she was soon consuming an entire bottle-capful of urine in a little more than a quarter-full glass of water. “My God, I had such a rush of energy, you know,” she says. “I remember walking around wondering what I should do with all this sudden energy.”

Go out to a nightclub, perhaps? “Yeah,” she laughs, “that crossed my mind.” Anyhow, she began to dilute the dosage. Although she is not sure whether to credit the drink for it, her knee pain and acidity also began to reduce. Rao now consumes the drink only in the winter months because she finds her body heating up after the drink during summers. But she grew so impressed with the therapeutic qualities of cow urine that she began to use other products of similar origin and recommended them to her neighbours and friends.

She recently purchased a face-pack made of cow dung for a friend. She began applying a pain-relief oil made of cow urine on her knees. Her 90-year-old mother, who lives in Coimbatore, is now so habituated to using that oil that she apparently feels nervous if several bottles of it aren’t within reach at any given point of time. The cow dung-based incense sticks—marketed as chemical-free products—that would earlier only be lit for prayers in her house are now a regular feature of her living room. The number of mosquitoes around, she’d observed, tend to dwindle whenever an incense stick is lit. And the ash, dumped in the soil of indoor potted plants, have proved to be such great fertilisers, according to her, that news of this secret manure has spread throughout the neighbourhood. Gardeners have been talking about it with each other and their employers, so much so that she often has to answer calls from absolute strangers who want to know where they can get this fertiliser for their plants.

Almost everyone whom she has spoken with has turned a believer, she says, except her son-in-law. Her daughter’s husband, a business manager at a Singapore-based multinational corporation, has been sceptical of Rao’s belief in cow-based products. But he has now begun to call asking for the pain relief oil. “He now uses it after his gym sessions. Can you believe that? He now calls it ‘the miracle oil’,” Rao says. “From my 90-year-old mother to my 30-year-old son-in-law, and me in between, we all love these products.”

WHAT IS PERHAPS most interesting about these products is how they are being developed and packaged for upmarket consumption in metropolitan cities. About three years ago, for instance, when Anuradha Modi, an animal welfare activist in Delhi, got involved with cow welfare programmes through her NGO Holy Cow Foundation, she began to use products made of cow urine and dung on herself. “I was very surprised. I had no idea that there were such things. The packaging was so tacky, so shabby… But the quality of those products was just so good,” she says. “So I began to say to myself, ‘Why don’t we do something with them?’ ‘Why don’t we take the same products, package them much better, and take it to the cities to the upper classes?’”

Modi began to tie up with cow shelters and get involved in the manufacturing of these products. She began to make small suggestions, like the shampoo (consisting of cow dung) be made less oily. “I told them, ‘Nobody uses it like this anymore’,” she says. She asked a chemical engineer acquaintance, who is involved in the running of another cow shelter, to help her mask the odour of a cow urine-based floor disinfectant. The result, Gaunyle, a much-talked about floor cleanser, has been championed even by Maneka Gandhi. And Modi began to pay a lot of attention to the packaging and marketing of the products. “I wanted to help in cow welfare. But I didn’t want to get tied down by running a cow shelter,” she says. “I realised that there are so many people to whom the cow may not mean much religiously, but who are conscious of their health. Who don’t want to pump chemicals into their bodies and want to lead a more organic lifestyle.”

So Modi came up with The Thela, a snazzy stall in Delhi’s Select Citywalk Mall, where she sells beautifully-packaged face packs, shampoos, creams, body oils, health tonics, weight- loss tonics, and floor disinfectants, among other things, that contain cow dung and distilled urine. She initiated an annual music festival in the mall where she promoted these products. She began to retail them via online stores and introduced corporate gift options for festivals like Diwali. She is currently in the process of putting up three more such stalls in two other posh malls of Delhi.

I wanted to help in cow welfare. But I didn’t want to get tied down by running a cow shelter. I realised that there are so many people to whom the cow may not mean much religiously, but who are conscious of their health

“What I have learnt is that there is a big and growing market for these products out there,” she says. Having seen the popularity of her products, she has begun to tie up with several more cow shelters, even aiding and training employees who don’t work with dung and urine to make simple useful products like incense sticks. “This way, cows become viable even after they stop milking. And they won’t be sent for slaughter.”

LESS THAN A year ago, four computer engineers in Delhi, began to develop a business idea. They visited several cow shelters in and around Delhi, a tour to study the availability of cow-based products, and soon noticed a stark imbalance. “Almost every state had cow shelters making such products. Everyone was doing it,” says Rajesh, who requests his last name be withheld. “But there was no one marketing it.” So, taking a cue from the business model of online stores, the four of them opened GauKranti, an e-commerce portal that sells only cow-based products. Like any other online store, this website has special offers and discounts, a ‘trending’ section of the fastest selling products, and a window that lets customers track their orders. In all, 20 vendors, some of them trusts that manage cow shelters and make these products, sell a total of 650 products on the portal. Although the first few months saw only modest sales, the website now claims a monthly average figure of Rs 5-6 lakh as a topline. “It’s crazy,” says Rajesh, “People are buying from all parts of India. There are often orders even from the US, Europe, New Zealand and Japan.”

As of now, the business is still in startup mode. The four entrepreneurs take turns to field customer calls and queries. The products are mostly stored in their own homes. They are delivered through a courier service from either their homes or directly from vendors, and often take a week to reach the customer. But the business has begun to grow so rapidly that the four plan to rent a warehouse soon to stock their products. And with the portal now showing signs of sustainability, like any other new business venture, they hope to raise a round of funds from investors and venture capitalists. “The business model is there. It’s already doing well. With some funding, we hope to make it more efficient, employ a customer support staff, and advertise the portal and the products more.”

But despite the slick approach of several of these businesses, at the heart of it, the broad objective of almost all of them is to protect the Indian cow from slaughter. The profit surpluses generated by many of them are either entirely offered or generously shared with cow shelters. They believe that unlike cows of foreign species, which have undergone many genetic mutations, the Indian cow is special. Sonikar of MGP says that the company has even been testing a range of ayurvedic medicines based on cow urine and dung to treat various forms of cancer. “The hump of the Indian cow you see acts like an antenna,” he elaborates, “So when you provide the best of feeds or allow the cow to graze freely, the food processed within the body and the sun’s beneficial rays harnessed through the hump create dung and urine that is extremely helpful.”

Several of the cow shelters that have taken to the market are associated with religious leaders or right-wing organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Many of the businessmen and entrepreneurs have themselves been goaded on by their gurus to look for ways to promote cow products. The founders of MGP, for instance follow Sri Sri Raghaveshwara Bharathi, guru of the Shri Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka. The entrepreneurs of GauKranti are followers of Guru Gopal Mani Ji Maharaj, who delivers sermons at various venues in north India.

Soumitra Banerjee, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata and general secretary of Breakthrough Science Society, which promotes scientific and rational thinking, believes there is nothing special in cow excreta. “There is no basis to any of these claims. Sometimes it is said cow urine is like jet fuel for ancient airplanes and now we have beauty products with cow urine and dung.”

Sonikar, however, is convinced about the special qualities of the Indian cow. Talking about the several new products MGP is currently developing, including a soap which can be used as shaving lather as well, Sonikar lets on that some years ago, Baba Ramdev, whose Patanjali brand also has a vast range of cow urine-based products, approached the promoters of MGP. At the time, they had invested about Rs 1.2 crore in the business and it still hadn’t quite picked up yet. Claims Soniker, “Baba Ramdev was offering to buy all our distilled cow urine at a very good rate.” But the promoters declined the offer.

“Why should we [sell out]?” he asks. “We just had to wait a while. The urine is just a raw material. The real business is in making urine products.”