This Assam social startup is easing the agrarian crisis with agroforestry
The Balipara Foundation

The streets of Baligaon Miri village have become the battlefield against the forces that seem to limit the effective utilisation of its natural potentials. Growing up in this part of the world, hunger and undernutrition are not uncommon terms, not for a lack of riches, but due to the absence of foresight. Despite the natural assets and resources, Northeast India is blessed with, poverty seems to be slipping through the cracks. Considering the fact that food takes up a substantial amount of income, finding a feasible solution to food and nutritional needs will significantly reduce poverty.

With a large percentage of people in India’s Northeast plying farming as a primary source of livelihood, mushroom cultivation and agroforestry are suitable solutions to nutrition and food security. Experts believe that agriculture will not only solve the hunger conundrum but will also create jobs for the population. In 2020, the World Economic Forum predicted that agriculture can potentially provide 195 million jobs through important transitions in both sustainable land and ocean use, renewables and infrastructural efficiency.

A local women group, led by Dusila Mili, an entrepreneur in the Baligaon Miri Village, has begun establishing mushroom incubation units all over the area, in a bid to eradicate hunger. This path has led to the provision of jobs and financial benefits for the people involved, including Dusila. “It’s profitable to do mushroom cultivation. My household expenses are taken care of by it and additionally, I can save some time and money as well.

“The procedure also offers mitigation co-benefits, as the mushroom farming uses rice straw waste, which would otherwise be burned and cause noxious smoke and greenhouse gases. The leftover from the mushroom cultivation can also be used as biofertiliser and thereby helps in replenishing the soil and reducing both the amount of chemical fertiliser needed and the costs and pollution from excess chemicals in the soil,” Dusila asserts. As an important part of the Balipara Foundation, Dusila is leading the charge towards the growth and development of agroforestry in Baligaon and beyond.

From interest to fruition: The evolution of Agroforestry

Agroforestry has evolved from being just a major interest in developing nations into a tangible source of revenue generation for the country. Preserving nature’s beauty has the potential to produce a significant financial impact on any nation’s economy, especially those with abundant natural assets like the Eastern Himalayan region, which was able to generate about $2 trillion every year through farming and agroforestry.

An interesting statistic from the 2018 New Climate Economy Report shows that up to 65 million new low-carbon jobs could potentially be created by the year 2030. Little wonder ventures like the Balipara Foundation have stepped up their game in the area of agriculture, to leverage on the huge potentials. This social venture has introduced rural programmes that promote innovative agricultural models in Northeastern communities blessed with vast forests and wildlife. 

The organisation provides agricultural opportunities

By engaging the youths in agroforestry, Balipara Foundation has been able to create a self-sustaining system in which the communities no longer rely on imports, but can grow their own food and export the same to neighbouring communities. The foundation provides seed capital to people in the indigenous communities. Saplings of various plant varieties are shared with people to plant in their homes to promote biodiversity. Locals then plant these saplings in their homes and nurture their cultivation and harvest. Based on this framework, the Balipara team curated a model of economics to gather insights on what the communities can earn from those crops grown in their homes in a timeframe of 12 months to 3 years. The agroforestry model is scalable and managed by indigenous communities themselves to grow organic produce. 

Balipara Foundation currently is implementing agroforestry in Meghalaya and Assam. They follow a food forest model in which crops are grown across the seven layers of the canopy. The crops include moringa, papaya, lemon, king chilly, sweet potato, turmeric, pumpkin, ginger, and black pepper. Additional variations in agroforestry design also include cotton plants, for communities to create material they use in their own weaves. The profits generated go back into the community. This ensures the stability of the economy and creates employment within the community. Presently 170 households are involved in agroforestry work.

The foundation hopes to get the community excited enough about agroforestry, by setting up factories and establishing where they can produce and sell forest products like bamboo. Bamboo cultivated and harvested by the forest communities can be utilised to build houses, artisanal products, and small furniture. There is a growing demand for bamboo, also known as the green-gold of the Northeast in the market, especially for conversion into biofuels. 

It is interesting to note that the foundation has also taken several pivotal steps to support and sustain the existing models of agriculture. One of such steps is the establishment of Elephant Country. Through this program, they can partner with various farmers to help them sell and distribute their products in the market. This helps build an organised system in the agriculture sector, thus increasing accessibility and penetration in the local markets for product offerings by forest communities.

The man behind Balipara Foundation

Founder of Balipara Foundation, Ranjit Barthakur can be described as a social entrepreneur dedicated to the cause of social change through new and innovative concepts. Looking through his long and steep resumé, one might wonder where it all began. Ranjit paints a clear picture, “My journey began here in the tea gardens of Assam, inspired by the pristine beauty of the Eastern Himalayas. I have always been passionate about driving change, especially in the Northeast. 

Ranjit Barthakur, Founder of Balipara Foundation

“The journey to achieving this has been a rollercoaster, with many ups and downs but never, for one minute, boring,” he adds. Indeed, the tales and stories from the region tell of a journey that has been eventful and impactful. His aim has remained constant – “to create interdependence between ecology and economy, and to create Naturenomics – whether through his for-profit ventures or this not-for-profit entrepreneurial endeavour”.

As Chairman of FICCI’s Northeast Advisory Council, Ranjit has also contributed to the growth and development of the Northeast by facilitating the implementation of public-private partnerships in the health, tourism and connectivity sectors. Through his position as a senior advisor-NE programme with Tata Trusts, he is working to create a development impact in areas of health, education, and livelihoods. Ranjit has served in diverse roles in both the private and public sector, most notably as an advisor to the former chief minister of Assam. He brings over 40 years of expertise in FMCGs, the hospitality sector, IT, sustainability practices in business and sports to his numerous concerns.

Behind every successful entrepreneur is a team of competent professionals that share a similar vision, and are dedicated to achieving it. Ranjit describes his founding team and the road to launching the startup as a fulfilling experience. “Back in the mid-2000s, my co-founder Prabir, our NatureFirst team and I were looking at the existing climate and biodiversity science. We were increasingly convinced that ecology is an economy – which is the driving idea behind our concept of Naturenomics.

“We began introducing this idea to businesses, making a case for them to measure their impact on natural capital, especially what we call LEWWAC (land, energy, waste, water, air, and carbon). Since then we evolved into the Balipara Foundation and with a young, ambitious team, we are bringing this idea of Naturenomics to the rural economy. My experiences in the business world convinced me the future is rural: we have to start with our rural communities to fully transform our economy from a nature negative to nature positive economy,” he adds.

Ranjit, through Balipara Foundation, has been able to spread the good news of sustainability in farming. Whether it be agroforestry, bamboo cultivation or even mushroom cultivation. Mushroom cultivation does not only have a high market consumption thereby improving the economy but also addresses the topic of undernourishment in these communities. Balipara has done an amazing job of implementing the idea of mushroom cultivation in Assam. 

“Of late our focus has been on the cultivation of oyster mushrooms because of ease of access to quality spawn and the relative ease of care for these mushrooms, which allows greater flexibility for women managing cultivation units as the time they have to divide between their household duties and this income-earning activity is minimal. Currently, 60 women are engaged in mushroom cultivation, with 10 women working in 6 mushroom cultivation units. We’ve witnessed around 40% increase in income for women specifically,” Ranjit says.

He further informs that on average, based on per capita income (derived from net state domestic product), the overall increase in income/per capita would be 23.4% across Northeast India, through successful implementation of mushroom cultivation. Balipara Foundation by 2022 aims to scale up approximately 10 mushroom units across the Balipara Reserve Forest area, strengthening the livelihoods of the Nepali, Garo, Boro and Assamese communities around the area. Simultaneously, they will continue working with the Mising community in Panbari and Jorhat in Assam, to scale up an additional 10 units in these areas.

Mushroom cultivation in Assam

Since technology plays an important role in agriculture, the subject matter experts at Balipara Foundation also train indigenous communities and the youth in GPS and GIS technology. They aim to create a digital system to understand the deforestation patterns in the Eastern Himalayas and figure out in which region their immediate intervention is required. They plan to use the digital platform as a leadership assessment tool to understand deforestation patterns in the forest belt effectively.

Ever since ventures like Balipara Foundation took centre stage, many other startups have begun sprouting up and following in their footsteps. Ranjit believes this is a step in the right direction for the agricultural sector in the country. “The Northeast has two million hectares of land that can be enriched through agroforestry, to become self-sufficient and food secure while creating Rs 194 billion in incomes for communities.

“This income coupled with foods that can be sold and consumed locally will go a long way in solving the malnutrition crisis our children and youth are facing. I celebrate the growth of agri-startups in Northeast India, especially the startups that are celebrating the local crops and produce that our indigenous people have been cultivating over centuries and bringing them to a wider market,” he notes. 

Speaking further, Ranjit observes that “Community entrepreneurship is the way for us to go. Most of our region is agrarian. Instead of disrupting the land, or disenfranchising communities we can work with them to optimize their natural assets and create rural entrepreneurship opportunities for them– for example through agroforestry or mushroom cultivation, and value addition activities around these. In addition to solving the undernutrition crisis our young people are facing, this will be the fastest way to create quality, sustainable rural jobs to absorb returning migrants while building a nature-positive circular economy”. 

The experiences and tumultuous path he took in the early days of the startup have helped shape him into the entrepreneur he is today. “Growing up on a tea estate, I saw firsthand the damage that unsustainable agricultural practices were causing – and how bad that was even from an economic perspective, given the narrow profit margins of many of our tea estates. This experience is what led me to realise that the Law of Land has to come first. My experiments with natural capital businesses all stem from this early realisation that, to revive our land, we have to switch to sustainable practices like organic or agroforestry.”

Balipara Foundation promotes sustainable agricultural practices

As Ranjit argues, encouraging these local farmers is the way to go to improve sustainability in agriculture. Taking it a step further, he says going beyond agriculture, there is a need to look at two key pillars for building a nature-positive economy in the Northeast: forests and tourism. “Investing in our forests and switching to sustainable timber is the key to combating the existing illegal timber trade. As tourism is one of the biggest industries, with immense potential, we need to move towards mindful natural tourism models, particularly of community-owned homestays.

“These are low-carbon, with a low ecological footprint, but importantly revenues go directly back into the community and build the local economy. Because food is sourced locally, it gives a boost to farmers in the area, while preserving critical local knowledge about traditional foods – including wild foods. This is the key to a holistic circular economy in the North East. We have to begin by valuing nature and to do this, we have to invest in building our natural capital– our real wealth of nations.”

In 2018, Balipara Foundation started a homestay initiative in three villages — Balingaon Mishing, Sengelimari Garo, and Phuloguri Nyishi. These villages have designated homes that function as homestays for anybody who wants to visit. The three villages represent three tribes from the region: Mishing, Garo and Nyishi.

It is almost impossible to consider a progressive, poverty-free community without also considering the role of sustainable agriculture and tourism will play in achieving it, especially with the efforts of ventures like Balipara Foundation towards promoting community focused revenue generation models.

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