As we near the International Women’s Day 2019, we gear up to celebrate women in all walks of life. At such a juncture, Efforts For Good aims to highlight some incredible women achievers, who are uplifting marginalised communities and the lesser privileged gender, away from all the limelight.
In our first article of the series, we bring to you the story of Swayambhu – a project which provides green electricity from biogas to low-income farmer families in rural Bihar. The project is founded and spearheaded by Akansha Singh, a young social entrepreneur.
No electricity in many villages of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar
Akansha’s story dates back to 2014. Freshly graduated from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she embarked on a journey through the rural hinterlands in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, trying to identify the primary problems plaguing the overlooked communities there. Aside from usually highlighted issues like lack of toilets or limited access to modern farming methods, the complete absence of electricity in their lives struck her the most.
“During my stay in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, I spotted that the womenfolk cooked on cow dung cakes. They always rushed to finish their chores before sunset, so did the men toiling in the fields. With no electricity, it would only be pitch black darkness once the sun goes down,” narrates Akansha to Efforts For Good, sharing how the unique concept of Swayambhu came up. She saw a more or less similar picture in Rajasthan, followed by Bihar and Maharashtra as well. “Without electricity, the number of active day hours inevitably reduces. Children cannot study. People cannot engage in any part-time profession in the latter half of the day, even if their survival demands that. They end their day eating a cold plate of food cooked in the morning,” she elaborates.
The defunct biogas plants across the country
Akansha’s knowledge and experience in social entrepreneurship prompted her to think on the lines of bio-electricity. Firstly, it was not feasible for a lone woman to arrange for electric power for these rural households, after fulfilling all the governmental paraphernalia. Secondly, cow dung and biodegradable waste were available in abundance in these hamlets, which could actually generate sustainable electric power. “I saw biogas electricity plants in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Even Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) started this project in parts of Maharashtra,’’ informs Akansha. But, the story did not end on a happy note in these regions.
“I learnt that a household needs to maintain at least three cows to successfully run even a small biogas plant. But extreme poverty and prolonged months of drought often forced these families to sell their cattle for sustaining themselves. As a result, the biogas plants lay defunct in most of these areas owing to lack of maintenance,” she adds.
This is when Akansha first realised that her dream project was not bereft of its cons. She had to ensure that the benefits outdid the hurdles that come with it.
Benefits of the biogas plant
Before piloting the ambitious project, Akansha scoured the districts of her home state, Bihar, to ascertain its feasibility.
“Our first project was in Pusa block of Samastipur, Bihar, benefitting around 50 households, all belonging to the Dalit community. We succeeded in arranging for six hours of bio-electricity for them every day, at a minimal cost of 30 rupees per month,” reveals Akansha. The gas from the plant also powers the kitchens in these homes. In addition, the by-products of the slurry generated in the plant come in handy as organic manure and biopesticide.
However, Akansha’s real success perhaps lies in overcoming the endless hardships she encountered on her way to success.
Severe objection from the villagers
“We decided on implementing the Deenbandhu model of biogas plants, which perfectly suited the rural topography and available resources. But, initially, people were adamantly against us. Their experience tells them that it is useless. They declared that they were fine without electricity or cooking gas in their lives,” Akansha shares.
Overworked and undernourished, the villagers rarely found time to calculate their sizeable expenditure on fuel lamps and candles per month, which often reached around 300 rupees. On the other hand, a biogas plant would cap their fuel expenditure within 100 rupees a month, while providing them with electric power.
Despite resistance from the villagers, Akansha was not someone to give up. Teaming up with Ashutosh Kumar, she kept on detailing the advantages of a biogas plant to the villagers in Pusa. It took four months for them to finally concede a plot of land for the project. “Now when they are enjoying the benefits, they often come and tell us to increase the duration of electricity. They are even ready to spend some more for that,” Akansha shares with a smile of success.
Does costlier pesticide mean better pest control? Not always
“Mehnga Dawai Matlab Behatar Keet Nashak (Costlier pesticide means better pest control)” – was the ingrained concept prevailing in these rural belts. This led even the small-scale farmers to opt for expensive chemical pesticides and fertilisers, up to 2000 or 3000 rupees per litre. However, whenever the crops failed, they ran into debts, increasing their woes manifolds.
“When we told them that the biogas plant would give them green manure and biopesticides at 100 rupees per litre, they brushed us off. A handful of farmers who believed in us reaped the profits the following harvest season. For instance, one potato farmer from Muzaffarpur got a yield of 1.4 tonnes after adopting bio-manure, nearly 40% higher than his usual yield. He inspired his fellow cultivators to follow suit,” details Akansha.
Future plans for the spirited founder
Swayambhu sourced their funds 50% from the beneficiary households and the remaining half from governmental and non-governmental entities. This was until they received financial support from the Bihar government which has allowed them to scale up. Presently, they are constructing one of the biggest bio-electricity plants (120 cubic metres) in Narkatia near Nepal border which will bring 75 households under its beneficial ambit.
In the next three years, Akansha eyes to electrify around 1500 households in three districts of Bihar through the construction of 36 biogas plants. This, in turn, will also help cultivate over 1200 acres of land.
A spirited leader and changemaker, Akansha Singh’s sole efforts have brought forth such noticeable development in one of the most underdeveloped areas of Bihar. Efforts For Good hopes more Indian women are inspired by her work and come forward to join her in transforming the society.