This startup is helping preserve Mizoram’s biodiversity by encouraging women to cultivate native plants
Lalhlupuii Ralte started Zo Bio Hub in 2018, a startup that aims to preserve the biodiversity of Mizoram by encouraging farmers to grow native aromatic and medicinal plants.
Wednesday May 03, 2023,
5 min Read
Lalhlupuii (Mahlui) Ralte spent her childhood in different villages of Mizoram as her father was a forest officer and was constantly on the move.
She considered the forest as her home, and was aware of the rich bio-diversity it offered, and also how the depleting forest cover and excessive cultivation was affecting the environment and the livelihoods of people.
After completing her studies in Science in Shillong and Pune, Ralte took up a job in a consultancy firm in Guwahati, following which she returned to Mizoram and started her own consultancy firm in Aizawl, Mizoram.
“As part of my work, I worked with farmers, helping them avail of loans for various projects, and during this time, I realised that while Mizoram is traditionally rich in bio-resources, not much was being done to preserve them or help farmers tap into these resources,” she tells HerStory.
In 2018, she started, a startup that aims to conserve the rich biodiversity of Mizoram by helping farmers, especially women, to cultivate indigenous plant species.
She points out that Mizoram is home to various aromatic and medicinal plants, natural dyes, wildflowers, and fruits, and the potential is unlimited.
Zo Bio Hub’s initial focus is on processing aromatic plants into essential oils and offering them a bigger market for distribution.
An environment-friendly alternative
To understand why this is important in the larger scheme of things, Ralte explains the Jhum (shifting) and monoculture cultivation practised in the state.
Under this method, tracts called Jhum are cleared by burning, cultivated for a limited period, and then abandoned for several years to allow regeneration of natural vegetation and nutrients in the soil.
However, it causes loss of soil fertility, soil erosion, deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, and flooding of water bodies.
The process has also destroyed many valuable native plants indigenous to the region.
“We have introduced permaculture farming by which wild medicinal and aromatic plants are grown in their natural environment. We are promoting inter-cropping/hetero-farming where endemic plants with commercial viability such as epiphytic plants, trees, and shrubs are grown together in a compact area for maximum output,” Ralte explains.
“We have introduced rhizome crops that take just three years to mature and aromatic trees that take five years. We start buying it back from them. So far, we have deployed this in seven villages with 60 farmers being a part of this in every village with the help of the State Medicinal Plant Board,” she adds.
In essence, whatever is destroyed by the Jhum practice is compensated by permaculture farming in patches of forests in these villages in the plants’ natural environment.
Zo Bio Hub also offers farmers with on-ground support for cultivation, and helps them avail of government schemes for permaculture farming.
“We sign agreements with them, fixing a certain price for the produce. What is important is that we do not cut down the trees. For example, if it’s cinnamon, we use only the branches and leaves and prune them during the February-March season. We pay Rs 300 for each tree we use,”
The farmers also cultivate sesame, wild apple, shatkora, gooseberry, Sugandh mantri, rhubarb, and cinnamon, all used to extract essential oils at Zo Bio Hub’s extraction centre. She also says they are using Perilla (Deulgireum( to extract oil and to make a herbal tea from its leaves. These oils are sold to dealers in Mizoram, with plans to take it to other markets in India soon.
Empowering women farmers
Ralte has roped in 300 farmers to practice permaculture farming, out of which 200 are women.
“Since most of the plants are native to the region, they don’t need much care after planting. This has found favour with women farmers as it is not as labour intensive as cultivating other crops,” she says. She hopes more women farmers will join the fold.
Ralte used the money she earned from the consultancy business to set up Zo Bio Hub. She says growth has been slow, but they are making enough profit to continue operations. The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns also saw equipment stolen from its premises, but thankfully, she says, business has picked up from mid-2021.
She works with a team of six along with members of the State Medicinal Plant Board to provide technical support to farmers. She’s also looking at a sizeable grant from the Agricultural and Horticultural departments to scale operations.
Her challenges include timely co-ordination with farmers and also convincing them to switch to a new method of farming.
“They expect everything free–seeds or money, and we do what we can. Even if there is enough in their own villages, they expect us to collect the seeds and hand them over. Some of them need help with drip irrigation too,” she adds.
Despite these hurdles, Ralte is confident that she can rally more farmers in her effort to preserve Mizoram’s biodiversity.
“We plan to use these medicinal plants to produce food supplements and are also hoping to manufacture Perilla gel that is rich in Omega 3,” she says.
Edited by Megha Reddy