This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.
This is jowar and cotton country which make the odds of encountering a papaya plantation here rather slim. Yet, papaya plantations I did encounter on my recent visit to Hubli-Dharwad. thriving in the aftermath of one of the region’s worst droughts in over half a century. So, what are these water intensive horticultural crops doing in the water scarce Navalgund area and why are they gaining favour with the farmers here?
Water wise choices
In what was a successful implementation of its farm pond model, the Deshpande Foundation witnessed that many pond owners had a significant supply of water left over in the on-site storage tank even after they had irrigated their fields. “Since the crops grown here (jowar, maize, chilli, and cotton) are hardy ones requiring less water, farmers often shared stories of stored water they could not effectively use”, says Mohammed Innus Khan, Program Manager (Agriculture) at the Foundation. That got the team thinking of alternative crops that could provide farmers a consistent source of income and allow them to make optimum use of the water they were harvesting while continuing to grow staple food crops like millets and maize. Says Naveen Jha, CEO of Deshpande Foundation,
“The idea for the papaya cultivation project was born out of the farm pond project. Once farmers had a dependable water source on their own farms, they could begin thinking of diversifying their crops and adding to their sources of income. Thus, the two projects are closely linked.”
The vagaries of weather have impacted farmers in the region negatively. In 2014, unseasonal rains and water-logging meant that acres of chilli, onion, and cotton crops were lost. Commercial crops like papaya offer a certain measure of protection against the weather. The trees yield fruit once a fortnight all year round beginning in the eighth month after sowing, and continue to be productive for up to 2 years. Though delicate and prone to virus attacks, with adequate care, papaya can prove to be a profitable choice for farmers who have access to a reliable irrigation source like the farm pond for the long, dry summer months. Known for its nutritive value as a vegetable and fruit, and as the primary source of papain in other foodstuff, papaya yields more income per unit area.
The pilot began in 2013 with 27 farmers in the region who each dedicated 1 acre of their farm land, allowing a total of 27,000 saplings to be planted. “The first of the harvests took place in August of 2014, with farmers harvesting about 6 tonnes per acre and earning about Rs. 10,000 per tonne of fruit”, says Sandeep Naik, Project Manager at Deshpande Foundation. Many of the farmers abstain from synthetic fertilizers, finding it more economical to use homemade bio-fertilizers and pesticides made of natural ingredients like cowdung and neem. A harvest of naturally grown fruit earns farmers a marginally higher profit than one to which chemicals were applied.
Given the proven success of the cost-sharing model of implementation of the farm pond programme, the Foundation built the papaya cultivation initiative along the same lines. “We act merely as facilitators”, says Khan. Farmers purchase papaya saplings from the Foundation which also provides technical guidance across the supply chain from planting to procurement.
A farmer I visit in Navalgund seems convinced of the crop’s potential based on the quick returns it has brought him. “I incurred a total cost of about Rs. 22,000 on the crop (cost of saplings, labour, maintenance, and fertilizer). But, this is my insurance against droughts”, he tells me, “and I made an earning of Rs. 60,000 with my first harvest”, he says. He expects his one thousand trees to continue yielding for the next 16 months, assuring him of an income of between 6-9 lakhs for a total harvest of 100 tonnes of fruit. When combined with the income from his regular crop of cotton, chilli, and maize, he says, “I am in a more stable financial position now.”
Changing mindsets, changing lives
While he does tell a tale of success, such farmers are a rarity. “Farmers here are a conservative lot whose traditional beliefs about the agricultural practices to be followed are very hard to transform”, says Naik. The Foundation visits farmers in their villages, organising meetings to create awareness of the benefits of dedicating just one acre of land to papaya cultivation. Farmers are also taken on exposure visits so they can witness the benefits firsthand. Since there were many instances of farmers expressing doubts about the market for an untested crop like papaya, Deshpande Foundation helped the first 27 farmers with linkages to a papaya processing plant in Hubli, guaranteeing sale and income.
For farmers, going against the grain and experimenting with something hitherto unheard of in the region can be a challenging task. However, a shift in mindsets is slowly taking place. He says,
“As more of my neighbours see the benefits papaya is bringing me, I hope they too become motivated to start cultivating it.”
A direct outcome has been an increased demand for farm ponds which allow farmers to irrigate the papaya crop in the summer. Naik’s team is busy this year, processing requests for papaya plantations from over 100 farmers, many of whom have seen the success it has brought to their friends and neighbours.
Encouraged by the response it has received from farmers, the Deshpande Foundation team is constantly at work, discovering new ways for farmers to benefit at an optimal cost. With the inauguration of its new campus in Hulgur, the Foundation now nurtures papaya seedlings, bringing down the cost for farmers. Efforts are also underway to empower farmers to independently manage the entire process across the supply chain with the establishment of a farmer-governed producer organisation thereby making the farmers a self-sufficient lot and making room for the Foundation to scale its programmes.
The Social Innovation Sandbox is a series chronicling novel solutions across the country that are seeking to transform life quality for the millions at the base of the pyramid in India.
The series is supported by the Deshpande Foundation India that is based out of Hubli and is building a nurturing ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and local, grassroots efforts so that young people can transform this growing country.