The Naandi Foundation, along with the NGO Project Nanhi Kali, recently published the Teenage Girls Survey. A direct conversation with girls across all 30 Indian states and six major cities, the survey sought to understand their everyday realities and aspirations. The findings were disquieting: every second girl was underweight, and many of them did not have access to toilets.

Naandi is one of the largest and fastest growing social sector organisations in India. Founded by K Anji Reddy, who also founded the pharmaceutical giant Reddy Laboratories, the Naandi Foundation completed 20 years in 2018. Besides collaborating with Project Nanhi Kali on various issues related to the girl child, the Foundation is behind several farmer rehabilitation projects, including the successful Araku Coffee, which has a flagship store in Paris, and is now selling online in India.

The organisation’s chief executive office, 49-year-old Manoj Kumar, was instrumental in creating the Araku brand. Born in Kerala and raised all over the country, Kumar was trained as a development economist. After short stints with the government of India, development banking and micro-finance, he joined Naandi Foundation as the CEO in 2000.

In an interview with Scroll.in, he talks about lessons from the Teenage Girls Survey, creating an economic model behind Araku, and how the Beti Bachao slogan translates to action.

Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.
Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.

It’s been 20 years since Naandi was founded. What are your new goals?
Over the years, it has become more and more clear to us that tackling poverty needs a multi-pronged approach, which includes addressing education, health, gender issues, ecology and livelihoods. This approach continues to be our way of doing things.

Today, when we look back, [we] see that we have been able to channelise over Rs 1,000 crore of grant money and impact seven million lives – mostly girls, youth and farmers. In the 5,000-plus people that comprise team Naandi, 98% are women. It has been a successful experiment.

We are doubling the number of our skilling centres from 1,500 to 3,000 and ensuring that a million unemployed youth are trained and placed under the aegis of the Mahindra Pride Schools. Project Nanhi Kali, which Naandi has been implementing since 2005, has helped almost 3,00,000 girls to complete 10 years of schooling in different parts of the country. Now we have started working in new places.

We would like to move into a 2.0 version of Project Nanhi Kali, which will work with girls up to the age of 21, and ensure all the girls are graduates. What we have done in Araku, we want to first expand in Araku itself – make more small farmers into lakhpatis, and attempt similar experiments in Vidarbha. Working in urban areas and making urban farming a lifestyle product [rather] than a poor farmer’s burden, is also on the cards.

What has changed for the girl child in the past few years, especially after the Beti Bachao initiative by the government?
A slogan like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, a kind of an admission by the government that girls need to be saved, puts the pressure on us – as families, communities, practitioners, policy makers, elected representatives – to do something about the issue.

There is no denying that access to social media, internet and television has exposed girls to positive stories and successful women, [thereby] emboldening them. Media and journalism have a large number of women, which is a very good thing – they bring women’s issues to the forefront.

Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.
Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.

What are the biggest takeaways of the Teenage Girls Survey?
There are about 80 million teenage girls in India today, [and] most of them are going to be first-time voters this year. When we looked for more information about them – their hopes and hardships, their current status on education, health, sanitation – we realised that no such data existed. Teenage girls have never been the central focus of a national survey. So we decided to go out and collect the data ourselves. An all-women team of 1,000 surveyors visited a representative sample of 74,000 teenage girls in their homes, in over 600 districts across all 30 states of India. They conducted interviews on digital tablets, took height and weight measurements and checked haemoglobin levels of all the girls, also interacting with their families, local opinion leaders, sarpanches and corporators.

Results of the survey tell us that more girls [are] studying, aspiring towards higher education, careers and want to get married only after the age of 21. Every second teenage girl was found to be underweight and anaemic, and open defecation is the reality of many girls’ lives. In the 2.0 version of Project Nanhi Kali, we will be working to address many of these findings.

Our hope is that in the imminent elections, every political party’s manifesto will have a section on teenage girls.

One of Naandi’s biggest achievements is the Araku Coffee grown by adivasi populations and sold at the flagship store in Paris. How did it come about?
Within a few years of work in Araku we realised that any agricultural produce, more so in a remote place like Araku where farmers have only about half to one acre of land, the produce, even if it is organic, would never be able to help the family climb out of poverty. We realised we need to engage the farmer right up to the consumer end and pay him forward with a much higher price. So, from the beginning, when a kilo of clean coffee had a market price of Rs 35 to 70, we were paying more than Rs 240. For this we needed to have our own processing unit as that would ensure quality control – first we were doing B-to-B [business-to-business], now, we are in B-to-C [business-to-consumer].

Though we brought in organic and fair-trade certification early on, we realised that was not enough. Enhancing quality to world-class levels was needed, so we had to bring in global expertise. We converted this into speciality coffee, which needs a cupping score of over 80 on 100. And the penny did not take long in dropping – quality of coffee is so interlinked to the biodiversity, soil nutrition and micro climate of the region [among other factors] – we had to work on those aspects too. Today, Araku is an economic and ecological model that shows it is possible.

A farm in Araku Valley. Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.
A farm in Araku Valley. Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.

What are your findings about farmers in India? What kind of support do they really need?
The Indian farmer’s biggest problem today is that farming is a loss-making venture. But culturally, emotionally, he is attached to his land and incurs more and more losses each year. Farming is unique in being the only industry where the ancillaries are making huge profits, but the core business is failing.

We need to support farmers to make agriculture a viable and profitable venture – the farmer needs to have control over his or her circumstances.

The adivasi in Araku was a coolie, a labourer, surviving on dole. We have transformed this status – he is now a coffee estate owner. Our work is not just economics and ecology, it is about psychology and inspiration – this transition from a nomadic, hunting-gathering forest dweller to the phase of confused developmental guinea pig to now, owners of estates and orchards. This transition comes along with being a major medium of climate change reversal.

What kind of a business model does Araku Coffee follow?
Araku Coffee in India sells four of the six unique terroir coffees sold in our flagship store in Paris and through select distributors in France.

These are roasted fresh in Hyderabad, and managed by award-winning roaster and brewer Andrew Delgado from Honduras. We sell at the Paris flagship store and online, and there are plans to open cafés in Bengaluru, Mumbai and other cities.

The Araku Coffee store in Paris. Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.
The Araku Coffee store in Paris. Photo credit: Naandi Foundation/Facebook.

I recall how in 2005, over drinks in the bar at The Oberoi, Anand Mahindra and Anji Reddy explained to me how the story of our work and the coffee has the potential to become an iconic global brand. The two major shareholders [of the four] are Mahindra and Kris Gopalakrishnan [an Infosys co-founder], Rajendra Prasad Maganti is the fourth investor.

The idea was to create an aspirational, global brand from India that ticks all the boxes: a world-class quality product, sustainable, bio-diverse organic agriculture that is profitable for farmers and aesthetic packaging.

The Araku coffee accessories are designed by the famous Norwegian duo Anderssen & Voll – their moka pots, cups, saucers and spoons are manufactured in India.

The 250 gm refill packs of Araku coffee are available at www.arakucoffee.in.