IIT-IIM Alumnus Quits US Job, Helps Grow 6000+ Acres Of ‘Food Forests’ In Native Madhya Pradesh

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A changing climate and thus an aggravating agrarian crisis is putting India’s ever-growing population at grave risk. While droughts and crop failure continue to plague the agro-rich zones of India, most farmers struggle to find a viable alternative. Added to that, the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture to meet up to the bulk demands is actually taking a serious toll on the health of the consumers, aside from polluting the environment. However, in Madhya Pradesh, IIT-IIM alumnus Sandeep Saxena seems to have found an ancient solution to thwart an impending food crisis. His organisation Aranyaani is raising ‘food forests’ in 2500 acres of fallow lands in the central state. Aranyaani is also assisting farmers to manage such food forests on their own landholdings, amounting to another 4000 acres approximately.

What is a food forest?

A food forest is typically a very dense vegetation, created using all-natural resources but not exploiting the resources. Talking to Efforts For Good, founder-innovator Sandeep Saxena informs, “We are basically structuring a proper forest, but a sizeable part of it can come in use for human consumption, but only up to a certain limit that does not affect the ecological balance.”

So how are these food forests created?

Imagine a large area being selected for handcrafting a thick forest. At the centre, evergreen trees like Peepal, banyan etc. are planted. This, according to experts, enhance diversity and thereby increase natural production. Radially surrounding the central zone, fruit-bearing trees are planted, and the open spaces are filled with smaller plants like lemon and cranberry, which do not grow much tall. The outer circumference is sown with lentils and legumes while plain grass dominates the forest ground. Vegetable bushes and shrubs grow interspersed between the fruit-bearing trees.

As evident from the afforestation pattern, biodiversity is strictly maintained in growing food forests.

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Instead of tilling the soil, seed balls are used so that the nitrogen cycle of the soil is not disrupted. Regeneration of seeds on their own is one of the main attributes of Aranyaani food forests.

No mechanical or chemical intervention

“A forest grows naturally without any human intervention, abundant with all its resources. So, for our food forests too, we had to ensure that human intervention is limited. So, we stepped away from all machinery and equipment, as well as any chemical or artificial additives in the soil: no hybrid seeds, no synthetic fertiliser. Everything grows as per the natural forest ecosystem,” he shares.

Food Forest Aranyaani
Aranyaani nurseries

The produce of these food forests finds a sufficient number of consumers in the local as well as the adjoining urban markets. Presently, much of their fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are also exported pan-India.

How Aranyaani happened

A chemical engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur, IIM Lucknow alumnus Sandeep Saxena has had an illustrious career in the corporate world, holding prestigious positions in USA-based firms. “At such a time, when I visited India, I discovered that cultivators in my native are harming the nature profusely in search of better yield. I saw how unplanned chemical farming has caused the perennial rivers in Madhya Pradesh to dry up. I was deeply stirred. I had an inner urge to find a solution to this since agriculture has always been the mainstay of the Indian economy,” narrates Sandeep, who soon decided to quit his job and move back to his motherland.

In 2007, for around a year, Sandeep did extensive ground research about the problems plaguing agriculture in India. He realised that the natural green resource of India is still the unexploited champion of sustaining the ecological balance. “So, it is necessary to preserve and propagate this resource at all costs,” realised Sandeep.

Initially, in only ten acres of land, Sandeep decided to try out his innovative concept of growing a man-made forest, as followed in many developed countries. “At first, we resorted to advanced machinery for quicker execution of basic tasks like tilling and levelling the soil. However, a failed production that year exposed the fallacy in my methods,” admits Sandeep.

Local farming experts and veterans joined hands with Sandeep to support his initiative with their knowledge and experience. Almost all of them advised him to refrain from mechanisation as much as possible. And the result was overwhelming.

Food forests all over India

“At the start, I had little idea that the food forest programme would be so successful. Soon, my friends from IIT, my family and local people volunteered to expand the project in other areas. At present, farmers are approaching us to guide them for growing food forests in their small plots and sell the fully organic produce in the market,” informs Sandeep.

Not only have the income levels of these rural farmers multiplied, but also they are now more environmentally aware than ever before. Sandeep Saxena and his environmental crusaders envision to popularise the concept of food forests throughout India, wherein lies the solution to a lot of India’s problems.

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A Group Of Karnataka Women Pushes Alcoholic, Abusive Husbands & Social Stigma Aside, Earns Through Recycling Workshop

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At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.

No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank

Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.

Hosa Belaku – a new dawn

“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive. 

“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.

Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017.

At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli. 

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The gritty women of Hosa Belaku

At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.

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Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku

Posted by Efforts For Good on Sunday, July 21, 2019

Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.

If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.

Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives

The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.

The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.

At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.

True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.

Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.

The only solace

How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.

The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.

“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.

“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.

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It's not how much we give
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