Rediscovering Organic Farming in Rural India
19 Mar, 2012
Sixteen months ago, Delhi-born Ashmeet Kapoor returned to India with a wish to make a difference. The 26-year-old graduate, who had recently completed his masters in innovation management and entrepreneurship at Brown University in the US, knew he wanted to improve the lives of India’s rural poor in some way.
“I wanted to work to improve rural livelihoods using enterprise, but I needed to get my feet on the ground to explore where I could have the most impact,” Kapoor explained.
It didn’t take long for him to identify agriculture, which accounts for almost half of India’s workforce, as his chosen sector.
Kapoor’s search began with a train journey across India, the Jagriti Yatra, where he joined 400 other young people eager to gain inspiration for entrepreneurial work. The experience introduced him to the challenges facing farmers in India, as well as the attendant opportunities.
“Our agricultural system is in a mess,” he said. “Many of our farmers are underpaid, malnourished, are frequently using chemicals that harm their health, and rely on practices that seriously degrade their land. Not only this, the food that they are producing is often coated in harmful chemicals, has little taste and is low in essential nutrients.”
Kapoor was also struck by what he describes as the “lost talent” in rural areas. “I was amazed to discover that a lot of people in rural India actually have BAs and MAs, but there are no jobs for them. Their only option is to move to the cities to take jobs in factories. If you want to support rural development, you have to create the right opportunities. Farmers are still not really looking at agriculture as a business.”
Kapoor moved to rural Uttar Pradesh and started a two-acre demonstration farm to experiment with different agricultural practices and spend time among farmers. The more farmers he spoke to, the more convinced he became of the relevance of organic practices as a solution to many of the challenges they face.
“Organic farming, when practiced properly, reduces the input costs for fertilisers, pesticides and seeds, dramatically improves farmer health and enhances the fertility and resilience of their land,” said Kapoor, as we travelled to Haryana, just north of Delhi, to visit a group of farmers he plans to work with. “Of course, it also gives you tastier, safer and more nutritious produce.”
The problem is that the right incentives for farmers to convert to more sustainable practices have not been effectively created, said Kapoor. “People want good, nutritious food but they don’t want to pay more for it. Farmers want to be paid fairly for their work, and to farm in a way that can support them long into the future, but today’s systems don’t provide for that. Certification is expensive, many of their skills have been lost and much of the money paid for good produce is, in any case, lost to middlemen.”
As a result of these experiences, Kapoor set up a company, Jagriti Agro Tech, which, on Thursday, will start to supply affordable organic fruit and vegetables direct to households in Delhi, sourced from farmers in the surrounding states under the brand name I Say Organic.