Green signal

In Sikkim, a crop of young entrepreneurs is leading the charge for a shift to organic farming

Despite the government declaring the Himalayan state 100% organic, its farmers need help to transport, sell their produce.

Decades after farmers on India’s plains flocked to the Green Revolution, reliant on chemical fertilisers to drive agricultural growth, the northeast Himalayan state of Sikkim is trying its luck with organic farming – a pull for young, green-minded entrepreneurs who could help get the produce to market.

Last year, Sikkim was declared 100% organic by the government, while across the country, organic farming is growing rapidly.

India has the world’s highest number of organic producers at 650,000, or over a quarter of the global total, according to the Europe-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture.

Abhinandan Dhakal, 28, who lives in Sikkim’s state capital Gangtok, has invested Rs 34 lakh over four years, as well as his time and energy in laying the foundations for an organic business growing and selling Peruvian ground apple, or yacon, a crisp, sweet-tasting tuber.

“I have always been passionate about rural livelihoods,” said Dhakal, who joined an organisation helping farmers in Tanzania after finishing his studies in environmental economics. Two years later, he returned to Sikkim with the ambition of becoming an agricultural entrepreneur.

To capitalise on Sikkim’s organic status and stand out from the field, he decided to focus on yacon, a high-value product that is often eaten raw or consumed for its health benefits in the form of syrup and powder.

He has taught other farmers in east Sikkim how to cultivate and sell the tuber.

“Ground apple grows only in hills and has a great demand in the market, especially outside India,” Dhakal said, noting its popularity in West Asia, Europe, Singapore and Australia. “It is much sought after by the food industry and health-conscious people as it has a lot of medicinal value.”

Dhakal’s Shoten Network Group has tied up with marketing firms in Bangalore and Delhi to sell yacon to retailers and pharmaceuticals companies both inside and outside India.

He plans to raise his venture’s current annual production of 10 tonnes to 200 tonnes next year, by collaborating with more farmers.

Dharni Sharma, a 33-year-old farmer from Linkey in east Sikkim, said growing Peruvian ground apple had “brought a refreshing change”. It is also productive, he said, noting that a kilo of seed yields 40-50 kg of ground apple, which sells for around Rs 45 a kilo.

Renzino Lepcha, chief operating officer of Mevedir, a Sikkim-based company that offers farmers services such as export and processing, said the shift to organic agriculture could lure back young people who had left for urban centres to find work in recent years.

“Some are returning to farming with big hopes,” he said.

They include Sonam Gyatso of Dzongu in North Sikkim, who previously worked for a state security agency. He quit his job after deciding to focus on organic farming on his four acres of land. “I think I am doing well, as I now have a livelihood which I control myself,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cut off from markets

But not all of Sikkim’s farmers are so positive about the state’s “100% organic” label.

Some say they need more help from the state government to make the niche business profitable for them – especially to reach markets outside Sikkim where consumers are more willing to pay higher prices for organic produce.

Suraj Pradhan, a farmer of vegetables and spices in Nemche in South Sikkim, highlighted the need for cold storage and advice on improving yields using only organic fertilisers.

Sonam Lepcha in Dzongu in the North of the state, who grows oranges, ginger and cardamom, said farmers in remote rural areas had yet to reap the rewards of Sikkim going fully organic.

“We love organic farming but we don’t have a good market,” he said. “The government has been saying that organic products from remote villages will be collected by government agencies, but so far we have not seen it happening.”

Mevedir’s Lepcha said transporting produce to market is a major challenge because the tiny, landlocked state has no railway or airport.

“The risk factor is quite high as there are no proper facilities,” he said. Local farmers lack refrigeration, processing equipment and packaging materials, while access to inputs such as organic pesticides and fertilisers is another obstacle, he added.

However, last March, the government launched a $62-million, three-year programme to develop organic value chains in the country’s Northeast, including Sikkim, intended to help the region become a major supplier of organic commodities for national and international markets, Lepcha noted.

Anbalagan, executive director of the Sikkim Organic Mission who goes by one name, said efforts are underway to establish cold-storage facilities and improve connections with the rest of the country, including construction of an airport.

Health-conscious

Organic agriculture is growing rapidly in all of India’s states. The area under certified organic cultivation grew around 17-fold in the decade to 2013-2014, to 723,000 hectares.

Claude Alvares, director of the Organic Farmers’ Association of India, said the growth is higher than reflected in official records because they leave out some traditional crops grown without chemicals by small-scale farmers.

“For instance, the value of a single organic crop – jackfruit – is more than the value of the entire certified export of organic food from India,” he said.

With growing awareness about health, changing lifestyles and increased spending capacity in India, experts say the country’s organic food market has a bright future. A recent government study predicted its value would reach $1.3 billion per year by 2020.

Indian scholar and green activist Vandana Shiva, who runs a campaign to make India’s food supply healthier by regenerating soil, water and biodiversity, believes the whole country should become 100% organic.

That would enable the South Asian nation to save annual spending of $1.2 trillion on fertilisers and fuel, ward off social and ecological harm, and avoid another $1 trillion in damage to health, Shiva said.

According to environmental group Greenpeace, over-use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, fuelled by subsidies, has been a key driver of soil degradation and slowing farm productivity growth in India – a problem that has also been acknowledged by the government in recent years.

Shiva said organic farming holds the solution to climate change and water scarcity. “[It] increases climate resilience by putting more organic matter and carbon in the soil which holds more water, thus addressing drought,” she explained.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.