What would it take to revitalize depleted soil in an area the size of Nebraska while also economically empowering low-income populations and women? Governments often turn to investment in chemicals and infrastructure as the obvious approach. But at the grassroots level in Karnataka, India, it’s all being accomplished with worms, women, a few low-cost tablets and cartloads of manure.
Jaya Organic Yojana (JOY) is not a business or an NGO, but rather a movement that leverages the collective power and networks of 300 Indian non-profits to restore soil fertility and provide business opportunities for thousands of impoverished villagers and farmers, just by switching to organic farming and composting. At the core of JOY’s activity is a training program that teaches thousands of villagers (most of whom are women) how to create nutrient-rich fertilizer through vermiculture, a process of composting that uses live earthworms, manure and green waste. Villagers can secure a livelihood by selling the fertilizer to farmers, who in turn benefit from organic farming practices.
While ‘organic’ and ‘wealth’ have different connotations in developed countries (the latter often being a prerequisite to obtaining the former), according to JOY’s founder, Smita Shah, JOY is “not concerned with selling organic produce at high prices, but rather with making the soil healthy.” Local farmers agree, and express eagerness to go organic. “Chemical farming is expensive,” explains Shah. “It drains the farmer’s pocket as well as her land. With the damage to the land, more and more additives are required to get a good harvest.”
Shah has been a lot of things in her life – NYU film student, musician, activist, self-proclaimed hippie – but throughout her life she has been consistently inspired by the landscape of Southern India, a landscape now depleted from decades of exposure to chemical fertilizers. JOY is the culmination of Shah’s work to address problems of drought and soil degradation head-on, while also boosting prosperity and nutrition for the region’s population. “We are painting the landscape,” Shah says. “It’s a work of art and when we are done the Karnataka belt will become organic, and chemical free!”
Assisted by microloans, villagers pay Rs 11,000 (USD $177) to participate in JOY’s six-month training program. The program includes a toolkit for three composting beds with live earthworms, and extensive on-site training seminars that use low-cost tablet computers to show instructional videos and collect data remotely. The remaining supplies are easy to come by, says Shah, “waste material that would otherwise be burnt is converted into life-giving compost.” And the payoff is sweet: for villagers, Rs 22,500 (USD $362) every sixty days from selling compost and surplus earthworms to farmers; for farmers, a sustainable alternative to costly chemical fertilizers; for the region, reasonably priced organic produce and a fertile landscape.
A Growing Brand
Vermiculture, popularized in India over the past forty years by Dr. Radha Kale, is a newcomer to the subcontinent’s 10,0000+ year-old agricultural scene. To disrupt the status quo, JOY operates like an agile startup, blending traditional, village-based networking and canvassing with mobile communication, cloud computing and even viral marketing. Having mapped out hundreds of villages across Karnataka, JOY representatives have already begun training village organizers, who in turn recruit and train locals for the vermicompost program. Participants sign up on tablets, and all data is then uploaded to the cloud at wifi hotspots. To reach prospective participants, JOY operates in partnership with Sumangali Seva Ashrama, a vast network of 300 NGOs operating throughout 8,000 villages. With support from this network, and an endorsement from its decorated founder, S.G. Susheelama, JOY’s brand carries serious clout.
Still, some additional advertising doesn’t hurt. “We are also creating branded products – t-shirts, backpacks, caps, coffee mugs – and as if that weren’t enough,” adds Shah, “we are also getting Hamsalekha, a famous film composer, to create our homemade Field Workers song, and a choreographer from the Kannada film industry to work with these same field workers to create a music video.” The ultimate goal? “To train 10,080 people this year, and 200,000 rural people at the bottom of the pyramid in the next ten years.”
With a strong viral coefficient, JOY’s potential for socioeconomic as well as environmental impact in India is enormous. “What [JOY] is doing will mitigate urban migration,” Shah claims. “It gives youth a reason and a livelihood to remain in the countryside, it reverses damage.” This prospect has caught the attention of the public sector, with up to USD $1,000,000 in grants and loans in the pipeline from the Indian government.
Given its nascent stage, skeptics may dismiss the vision of Jaya Organic Yojana as overly idealistic. But the ambitious movement is based on proven methodologies and rigorous data collection, and ample support at the community and government levels further bolsters JOY’s prospects for success. JOY is also certain to be propelled in the longer term by India’s burgeoning demand for organic foods, Smita Shah’s delightful quip notwithstanding: “May ‘certification’ rest in glory, and the soil live on!”