This Professor Is Helping Tribals In Making Eco-Friendly Furniture From Harmful Forest Weeds

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You might have spotted Lantana camara plants with brightly-coloured flowers in nooks and corners of urban cityscapes. However, inside the pristine forests of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, these very plants were a threat.

When Dr Maya Mahajan was pursuing her PhD research in the forested lands of Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, she discovered how different species of invasive forest weeds are completely destroying the natural vegetation. The rich botanical biodiversity of the region was particularly threatened by the uncontrolled growth of Lantana camara. The loss of valuable plants, in turn, was affecting the livelihood of local tribals which is dependent on forest products. Biological or chemical control of the weed was not environmentally sustainable. Hence, the forest department resorted to mechanical removal of the plants by using trained elephants – which was again a slow and elaborately expensive affair.

No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank

Dr Maya Mahajan was aware of the increasing demand for eco-friendly furniture. After detailed experimentation, she engaged the tribal people to turn these Lantana weeds into beautiful, and highly durable furniture. Since 2015, due to the efforts of Dr Mahajan and her research assistants Aravind R and Ramkumar, Lantana furniture has gained popularity in the urban market, which is, in turn, is generating good revenue for the aboriginal communities of forested areas in Tamil Nadu.

Local communities were sceptical about Lantana eco-friendly furniture

Born to social worker parents in Maharashtra, Maya had grown up watching her family actively helping the underprivileged people with food, clothing and funds for building houses. Due to her exposure to the masses, she always nurtured the desire to help them live better.

“Through my research project on the forest product harvesting, I have had close interaction with the tribal inhabitants of Siruvani, Mudumalai, Wayanad and Silent Valley. I shared a good rapport with the communities. Yet when I approached them with the proposal of making furniture from Lantana, they were reluctant, doubting its feasibility,” said Maya

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Most of them were complaining about other non-profit organisations who trained them in various skills in the past with the promise of employment but left with no fruitful results. It took Maya a lot of time and effort to convince the tribal villagers.

“We are basically creating wealth out of waste”

The unexpected success of the first batch of furniture was enough to attract more people, mostly tribal women, who eagerly volunteered. Professional furniture-makers were engaged to train them. Through meticulous research, the team had devised an intricate process of turning the undesired forest weed into furniture. Firstly, the villagers collect matured Lantana plants from the forest. The branches and stems are boiled and the barks peeled. This helps to smoothen the texture and increase flexibility.

Next, these are shaped and put together into exquisite chairs, tables, sofa sets etc, which appear similar to cane or wood furniture, but have certain advantages over them.

First and foremost, Lantana furniture is completely eco-friendly with zero chemicals being used in its manufacture. Being an invasive forest weed, Lantana has certain chemical compounds that render it resistant to all kinds of pests. Hence, Lantana furniture is more durable than bamboo or wood, which are prone to termite attack, especially in tropical climate. Moreover, since the raw material is free, the furniture is highly cost-effective for the consumer.

The villagers are also trained to make ornaments and toys from the Lantana twigs. Indirectly, this entire project is saving a biodiversity-rich zone from losing its biological wealth, while helping to sustain the aboriginal communities at the same time.

 

Tribal women are the prime beneficiaries

“95% of our workers are tribal women who previously had no source of regular income. This project is very convenient for them as they can continue the work in their own homes while attending to their children and taking care of household chores,” Maya explains.

Till now, the project has predominantly been funded by the Ministry of Environment. Word of mouth and social media has played the biggest role in the marketing process. But, the team, headed by Maya, plans to launch it soon as a full-scale business and popularise the unique products through e-commerce sites.

The furniture project has been adopted by some of the villages like Singhampathy, Kalkotipathy and Sarkarporathy, where the first batch of upskilled workers now train upcoming batches. In fact, the training has also facilitated a few youngsters to find better jobs. Recently, the Lantana furniture making has been recognised as a certified skill-training course and the proud founder wishes to replicate this project in different parts of the country.

Maya Mahajan has been awarded the International Women Achiever Award at the 2018 International Women’s Meet held in Chennai. A video created by Maya and her students at Amrita University, Coimbatore, explains the details about Lantana furniture making.

The organic farming initiative

However, the villagers in Sadivayal and adjoining hamlets did not take much interest in this project as they were traditionally agriculturists with fertile lands. However, frequent elephant raids in the fields and water scarcity were posing serious threats to their livelihood. Maya, an established botanist, introduced organic farming in these villages. She has trained them to cultivate mushroom, turmeric, rice, chilly, pulses and vegetables, which are not prone to be attacked by wild elephant groups. The villagers were overjoyed to find their production to be doubled using completely chemical-free methods. Maya has collaborated with some NGOs to train the villagers in making bio fertilisers and biopesticides. Presently, the crops are marketed locally, but the spirited professor is trying her best to connect these farmers with the urban market.

If you wish to know more about Lantana furniture, you can reach out to Maya Mahajan via mail: [email protected] or call her at 9489518865.

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‘Happy Fridge’: The Key To Bridge Food Wastage And Hunger Problem In India

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Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.

Say Goodbye To Throwing Away Excess Food Because Now You Can Donate The Food To The Needy – Happy Fridge

Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge

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Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles

It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.

The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.

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Making memories, sprouting awareness

“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.

In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.

“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.

On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.

Feeding India will set up 500 Happy Fridges

Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.

“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.

After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.

Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.

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It's not how much we give
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