Unsung heroes on the field: How EMPIWF is empowering farmersSnigdha Sinha
Back in mid 2006, Abhishek Pandey, a hospitality and catering graduate, noticed that customers were being charged exorbitant prices for organic food while interning at a famous chain of hotels.
This seemed unfair to him – why should anyone pay more for organic food? Why do the profits from the organic food industry not trickle down to the person who toils the hardest against all odds — the farmer? How can these farmers be empowered? He set out seeking the answers to these questions and as luck could have it, he met his future mentor, Dr. Afzal Ahmed, an erudite person who had dedicated a major part of life working extensively with Dr Teruo Higa, the Founder of Effective Micro-organism (EM) method of farming. Abhishek found his mentor in Dr Ahmed and the answers to all his questions in the EM method of farming. From that point onwards, there was no looking back. Abhishek knew that it was time for him to take the plunge and do what was closest to his heart — empowering farmers and cleaning the environment.
Knowing where the answers lay and getting the ideas to actually start bearing fruit was a rocky road. In 2009, Dr. Ahmed passed away, and Abhishek was bereft of guidance. This felt like an abrupt and unseen roadblock in Abhishek’s journey, and he put the brakes on his dream and took up a job to tide through this phase.
Meanwhile, he kept trying to get in touch with Dr.Teruo Higa. After a series of letters and e-mails, he was able to secure technical assistance from Effective Microorganism Research Organization (EMRO), Japan, and also came to know that they had an official manufacturer of EM in India. Abhishek finally felt he had been succoured.
In 2012, Abhishek bounced back to his dream and built a team. One of his friends, Ashutosh Dixit (Director, EMPIWF) joined him and both of them worked together and succeeded in raising some money, by winning the “Mahindra’s Spark the Rise” contest in Idea category in 2013. This was his “Aha” moment and it prompted him to found Em-power India Welfare Foundation (A Section 25 company) in 2013. Not one to ever stop learning, Abhishek went ahead and enhanced his knowledge of organic farming and allied agriculture activities by finishing a course on ‘Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Projects: Soil Carbon Monitoring (climate change)’ from World Bank e-institute for development (World Bank Group), and other courses from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Do we really need to change our ways?
Yes! In the last three decades, the exponential increase in the burning of fossils, fuel mining, smelting of metal rich ores, fertilizers such as urea, DAP, MOP, etc., and pesticides pose a major threat to environment and human health. In our endeavor to increase food productions by hook or by crook, we conveniently overlooked the consequences of our actions. Maintaining soil fertility and nutrient balance are critical to a good yield. Synthetic fertilizers can eat up the soil nutrients, creating a micro-nutrient deficiency in the soil — urea accounts for 82% of total nitrogen consumption and Di-Ammonium Phosphate (DAP) for 63% of phosphate consumption. Such imbalance plays havoc with the micro nutrient balance in the soil, thus affecting soil fertility, and also greatly changes the environmental balance. Weak and diseased crop has a hazardous effect on the health of the population that consumes it as well.
The good news is that we can start undoing part of the damage by using the Effective Micro-organism (EM) way of farming. There is more good news — in a world that faces food scarcity, experts in the EM technology believe that it has the potential to feed the entire world population and cope with the increasing demand without harming the environment.
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What is the EM method of farming?
EM is a liquid solution which contains beneficial organism from three main genera phototropic bacteria — lactic acid bacteria and yeast. This is not a fertilizer, a chemical, or a genetically engineered synthetic product. Japanese Bokashi method is used to prepare compost with EM solution, manure and agricultural waste is added to the compost. EM technology is based on the idea of coexistence with native and originally-dominant micro-organisms, not on their exclusion. This method rectifies all diseases of soil and tries to retain it to its true composition. This resultant yield is greater; the crop is pesticide free and has higher nutrition value. “We believe that safe and nutritious food is everyone’s right and it should be affordable and accessible for all,” says Abhishek.
So what is EMPIWF all about?
“We train our farmers in the Japanese Bokashi method to prepare effective micro-organism enriched compost and pest repellants with EM solution. We also teach them various other applications of EM technology during the entire crop cycle. Our farmers don’t have to buy pesticides and fertilizers anymore, allowing a cash saving of 30%-40%. We encourage them to earn extra income (10% – 25%) by selling surplus farm produce and self prepared EM compost and pest repellant. We also assist in forming a Farmer’s Producer Organization and set up their own distribution channel and in getting their farms organic certification under National Program for Organic Production (NPOP) standards. We later aid them in finding a market where they can get the fair and premium prices for their organic farm yield. We have a versatile portfolio dealing with several issues such as soil conservation, bio-diversity conservation, checking nutrients pollution and chemicals in farming, and controlling green house gas emission,” says Abhishek.
EMPIWF is currently assisted by the NABARD-SDC RIF Scheme, Chandra Shekhar Azad University of Agriculture and Technology (Directorate of Research and Soil Testing Department), Effective Micro-organism Research Organization (EMRO, Japan), Maple Orgtech India ltd., MPSOCA/UPSOCA and a couple of local NGOs.
Initial challenges, training program and execution
Farmers might not have a formal education and tools but they have always known how fertilizers have been affecting soil health and yield. However, they were not ready to believe that any other organic method would be able to substitute chemicals totally without compromising on quantity of their farm yield. Since actions speak louder than words, EMPIWF decided to conduct a free pilot for the farmers. EMPIWF was able to secure a grant as Project Champion from National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development under NABARD-SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation) Rural Innovation Fund which helped them showcase the EM way to a wider set of farmers.
The general awareness and (EM technology) introductory session are open to all farmers. Later, a batch of interested farmers (especially small and marginal) is selected. They are provided intensive training via workshops and interactive sessions with other agricultural experts such as scientist from Agriculture University and other agro-based institutions. To round up the training program, there are around eight workshops and monitoring sessions carried out on the farmer’s land in one crop cycle. All this knowledge and guidance is imparted free to the registered farmers.
Getting started does not need any major setup. Simple drums can be used to store and treat the EM solution. Other raw materials are agricultural waste, cow dung, cow urine, EM solution enriched with gypsum, and bone meal Bokashi for preparation of EM-compost. Leaves and fruits of various plants, easily available locally are used for the preparation of the pest repellant. The best part is that soil starts adapting to the EM method from the very first crop season.
The road ahead
“We’ve luckily won a couple of grants and that takes care of our finances right now, but moving forward, we need a business plan to generate revenue. After discussing with the farmers, we are toying with the idea of 40% of the difference between the premium price and market selling price. The other idea is to get 10% of the sale of EM technology products but with lesser number of farmers we cannot have a self sustainable business model. To spike the volume, we, therefore, plan to set up our own processing unit where we can directly procure, process, package, and sell the products in the market. The added advantage is that we’ll be able to cut down the intermediaries in between, and thus enhance profit margin for farmers and EMPIWF,” says Abhishek.
Talking about the challenges ahead, Abhishek tells us, “Some challenges are manageable and some are unavoidable. Bad weather is unavoidable and affects us massively; we’re looking to collaborate with insurance companies. Insurance Policymakers have to be cautious given the fact that it is mainly small and marginal farmers who are earning their bread from agriculture. Rural infrastructure is rather poor, especially irrigation and storage. We’re in talks with the Agriculture Department of District Administration and NABARD for strengthening Infrastructure. Even though there is demand for Organic products in urban areas, the absence of an organized local and national market and a structured distribution system for certified organic food remains a challenge.”
Inspiration and dreaming big
A farmer’s life is back-breaking, literally and figuratively. Right from poor infrastructure, minimal support, managing debt to poor weather, bad quality of seeds, etc. the list is endless. EMPIWF has been working relentlessly to alleviate the deplorable condition of farmers. The goal is to be the one-stop shop where a farmer can reach out with confidence that his problems will be answered via the EM way. Part of the goal is to create more income opportunities, so that a farmer can get hold of the ever elusive “financial security”. Abhishek hopes that the urban population will recognize these everyday heroes and spread awareness.
When asked about the world that he wants to see for the farmers of tomorrow, Abhishek says,
The day a farmer wants his son to be a farmer not out of compulsion, but by choice; we’ll know that we’ve succeeded.
Abhishek was selected as one of India’s leading Top 100 Social Entrepreneur by Action For India (AFI Forum 2015).