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Patna Girl Builds Biogas Plants in Villages, Provides Electricity to Poor Farmers!

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It was the prevalence of many social and environmental issues that drove this young woman on an extraordinary path towards social development.

City born and bred she may be, yet Akansha Singh was aware of the economic and social inequalities that exists within India. But it wasn’t until she got to the ground and observed first-hand did she realise the scale of the issue.

After completing her Masters in Social Entrepreneurship from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2014, Akansha had set out to Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh as part of an internship.

She was 24 at the time.“That was a devastating eye-opener for me. The two weeks that I was there, I observed no households had toilets neither did they have any proper power supply. Which meant, the women had to cook food before nightfall as their farmer husbands finished their farming activities by that time. One thing that had particularly affected me was that these families consumed their meals cold because they had to finish preparing dinner while there was still natural light,” says Akansha.

During this period, she noticed many social and environmental issues in the region. The women were still cooking using cow dung cakes, and the entire family was inhaling hazardous smoke regularly.

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Furthermore, the region was primarily agrarian with impoverished farmers holding small land holdings and depending heavily on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

“The years of usage had messed up the pH levels in the soil, and thus its fertility. Also, the village pond—their primary source of water—had been much abused out of ignorance. There was no proper management for biodegradable waste from kitchens. The villagers dumped the waste in the same pond from they took water for household purposes as well as to wash their livestock,” she explains.

The accumulated biodegradable waste led to mosquito breeding threatening the lives of the families and affecting the livestock and the farmers burnt rice husk to curb it, thus completing the circle of an unhealthy lifestyle.

“All of these issues affected me quite a lot. There were electrification schemes for rural India, but here was the prime example of its inefficiency. The villagers were quite literally burning holes in their pockets paying corporations for fertilisers and pesticides. But it was only worsening their livelihoods. I felt why farmers should pay external agents if they could generate their electricity and in ways that could resolve all of their other issues too,” she explains.

And that’s how the idea of bioelectricity came by.

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“The rural parts of India is heavily dependent on the cattle population, which makes the scope of bioelectricity immense. A typical biogas plant can easily generate electricity to power an entire community by using manure and biodegradable waste. Also, the gas from the plant could help the women in the kitchen. What is even better is that the farmers can utilise the slurry, a bye-waste, as bio-fertiliser as well as bio-pesticide,” she says.

With that, came the conceptualisation and establishment of Swayambhu, a project dedicated to light up the lives of poverty-stricken farmer families through bioelectricity. And to realise her ambitious plan, she decided to pilot it in her home state of Bihar.

“I zeroed down on Samastipur, where a Dalit community of 50 households resides in abject poverty and without any electricity. My roommate at TISS, who made the suggestion, was the Block Development officer here. It had been a difficult journey, but the result is that these families now have electricity in their houses by paying a nominal amount of Rs 60 per month,” she proudly adds.

But it took Akansha roughly four to five months of relentless convincing for the villagers to even acknowledge her plan.

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“The case was that these people knew about biogas plants but felt that paying this much for electricity would pinch their already meagre incomes. I could understand their dilemma, but I tried to dig deep,” Akansha recalls.

She found out that these farmers had leased lands from landlords and wealthier farmers, but they were leaching them for the electricity charges incurred during farming activities. For instance, the landowners paid Rs 2/hr themselves and forced the farmers to part with Rs 150/hr toward the electricity bill.

“On the other hand, these farmers and daily wage earners would willingly pay Rs. 5 per day to recharge their mobile phones among other things but were unwilling to pay for the electricity. We had to change their mindsets,” Akansha recalls.Finally, after months of convincing and explaining to them the many benefits of the project, the villagers yielded, and Akansha began looking for land to build the plant.

“Fortunately, a person from another community volunteered and donated a patch of land for the project. It is remarkable as caste system is much prevalent in the region, but this kind individual wanted the underprivileged community to lead better and empowered lives. From there, our journey started,” she says.

She credits Ashutosh Kumar, co-founder of Swayambhu as well as Ayushman Foundation, a non-profit organisation, of playing a vital role in making the project a success.

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“The foundation has been providing technical as well as marketing assistance. The biofertilisers and biopesticides are tested in their labs to certify they’re 100 per cent organic. They also help us market these products,” Akansha adds.

She also attributes word of mouth to have played a role in furthering their initiatives. Today, they have two biogas plants in Samastipur; one with 2-hour bioelectricity capacity while the other supplies power for four hours.

Swayambhu received its initial funding from DBS Bank, Singapore. Her project was also aided partly by the beneficiaries and mostly by both government and non-government agencies.

“There has been a visible change in these areas. After seeing how electricity has 

brightened up their lives, the beneficiaries have become truly committed to the cause and pay charges without fail. Also, ever since they have ditched chemical pesticides and fertilisers for the organic manure from the plant, they have been saving a considerable amount of money as well as observed better yield. Our solution has impacted in multiple folds,” Akansha adds.

In addition to community biogas plants, they have also worked on individual plants for bioelectricity, including one in collaboration with students of IIT Patna.

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Akansha shares that they are keen on looping in women and empowering them with sustainable livelihoods framework through their initiative.

“The slurry from the plant can be utilised for making incense sticks, dhoop, flower pots as well as manure pellets. The village women can easily earn a good income by making these products. With biogas in their kitchens and bioelectricity in their homes, there is enough time for them to earn a livelihood,” she explains.

In a time when most youngsters would rather work abroad or enjoy the perks of a cushy job in metropolitan cities, we ask Akansha what prompted her to walk an unconventional path and why particularly the rural side.

“As a student of social entrepreneurship, the prevalence of social disparities 

distressed me. Facilities like electricity, water supply and better lifestyles are the basic right of every individual, whether they live in urban or rural settings. For most people, besides the obvious lack of facilities, there is no charm in working in the villages. I was driven by the realisation that if I, being an educated person, would not do it, then who would?” she shares.

The Swayambhu team is working on scaling up their bioelectricity project and surveying states like Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand for feasibility.

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They are also looking for aid to fund their efforts in making rural parts of the country access bioelectricity.

Akansha’s determination and earnest efforts in transforming the weaker sections of the society are commendable. Swayambhu is a model of empowering the rural poor to lead an economically stronger and healthier life.

Article Credit: Better India

 

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How India can increase its farm productivity

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Addressing the knowledge gap among smallholders can significantly improve productivity, farmer prosperity, and environmental sustainability all at the same time

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In March 2018, Nature magazine published a groundbreaking 10-year study by China Agriculture University involving millions of smallholder farmers adopting enhanced practices. Through a scaled, countrywide effort, farm productivity rose by 11% while the use of nitrogen fertilizers — critical to increasing crop productivity, but also harmful to the environment when overused — declined by 14-18%. The profitability of the intervention, even before monetising the positive environmental impacts, was $12.2 billion.

The programme was an impressive marriage of knowledge workers, researchers, farmers, new technology, and businesses — all supported by a committed government that stayed the course. The result stunned the scientific community for its scale, success and impact.

The project was carried out under the sponsorship of the Chinese political leadership who aimed to transform agriculture at an unprecedented scale and speed. In December 2014, their central government shifted the focus of agricultural policy from high yields to sustainable production to achieve both food security and environment sustainability. In January 2015, a government document described the future of agriculture for the first time as efficient production, safe products, resource-use efficiency, and environment friendly. A month later, the government released a policy of zero-increase in chemical inputs by 2020. Collectively, these policies aimed to create a high quality, high efficiency, and environmentally sound agricultural sector without a dependency on subsidies.

Between 2005 and 2015, China Agricultural University led a nationally coordinated initiative for 20.9 million smallholder farmers in wheat, rice and maize to promote adoption of enhanced management technologies for greater yields and reduced environmental pollution. The project began by conducting over 13,000 field studies across all agro-ecological zones, from the subtropical south to the frigid north. Based on the trials, over 1,152 agricultural scientists from 33 agricultural universities collaborated with local farmers and experts to develop packages of recommended practices tailored to local conditions. The practices were based on a comprehensive, adaptable framework of integrated soil-crop system management (ISSM), which consists of cropping strategies (crop variety, planting date, and density) derived from the crop model simulations for optimal use of solar and thermal resources and strategies for nutrient and water application according to soil tests and crop characteristics.

The next step in the programme was to disseminate the ISSM practices through a national campaign in collaboration with 65,420 public extension workers and 138,530 private agribusiness staff. A variety of remarkably low-tech approaches were utilised to get the word out, including workshops for farmers to share experiences; in-person, on-site, timely advisory services; enhanced access to high-quality seeds, fertilizers and other chemicals, and demonstration plots.

Importantly, the outreach campaign recognised that changing a farmer’s behaviour required more than scientific recommendations. It required building trust and local capacity. Termed “participatory innovation,” field staff would engage with the most skilled and engaged farmers in the community through close dialogues and interactions. These “lead farmers” would help refine the recommendations to fit the local context, be the “early adopters” of the practices to influence others and serve as resources to answer questions and share experiences during demonstrations. Other local agents and experts would assist in translating the scientific content to common language more understandable to farmers.

A fascinating model emerged in parallel, the Science and Technology Backyard (STB), in which professors and graduate students lived in villages for two years, working shoulder to shoulder with farmers to carry out research centred on transferring scientific results into concrete knowledge and practices relevant for the local community. While carrying out research on improved practices, these students also developed deep bonds with the community through participation in local cultural events. The STB programme has become very competitive, attracting the country’s best students, and will soon be incorporating precision agriculture and agribusiness approaches.

Given the global birth rates, food production needs to be doubled by 2050. The large food producing countries will need to balance their growing national and global consumption requirements with the productivity and environmental challenges they face. This project shows that addressing the knowledge gap among smallholders can significantly improve productivity, farmer prosperity, and environmental sustainability all at the same time. The secret ingredient, though, is not the science. It’s coordinated and consistent action among agricultural players — government, academic institutions, private sector, and farmers.

Article Credit : HT

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