Mr. Bisoi got his MBA in Delhi, then returned to Orissa nearly 8 years ago to pursue his organic farming / vermicomposting dream, and his vision for maximising the utility from a common resource in a rural/peri-urban household in India - the cow.
The vermicomposting technique he uses requires at least 50% cow dung, with the remainder coming from fleshy green leaves (such as banana leaves and water hyacinth, both ubiquitous in India). At present this entrepreneur does not himself maintain any large vermicomposting or other production facility. Instead, he trains other organic producers, farmers, and composters, and holds workshops for rural farmers in the region.
- What interested me most during our discussion was that he had developed and was already distributing "vermicomposting micro kits" to farming households in rural / peri-urban parts of this region.
- In fact he had just concluded a workshop for about 200 landless rural women where he distributed these kits and trained the women for a minimal fee, and taught them to use the resulting compost to grow some vegetables and greens for household subsistence.
- These micro kits are portable, and come in a range of sizes. The smallest measures 6' x 4'.
- Unlike in some of the other notable slums in Bhubaneswar, a number of residents in our target slum (Kargil Basti) actually do have access to (own or rent) some land in addition to their houses. So we thought that these micro kits could be an interesting way to increase the resource base of these houses.
- There is also a lot of currently unused common property in the Basti. So we wanted to explore the possibility of installing some 'community' kits and encouraging the households to throw their kitchen waste into these common bins to simultaneously create compost and clean up the community space.
Cities vs. Villages : Tackling the Constraints of Access to Cow Dung
What we debated during this initial discussion itself, was the problem of access to adequate amounts of cow dung in urban areas - slums or otherwise. Ideally, vermicomposting in rural India would rely more on cow dung while that in urban India would rely more on organic kitchen waste.
- In the absence of appropriate techniques (namely, the right species of worm), traditional composting could be a second best alternative despite vermicomposting typically resulting in more fertile soil.
- But it is also true that at least in Tier 2 and 3 Indian cities, one will find a number of "urban dairies" so access to cow dung is not entirely lacking. So we also debated the possibility of providing kits only to urban cow owners.
- A problem with the above solution is that we would now be doing value addition for the livelihoods of those urban poor who already have more resources than others - land to house the kits, cows that provide both income and household subsistence.
- Acknowledging the above bias, we decided that we would offer these kits to any community resident that was interested, and we would explore the possibility of both group-managed and individual vermicomposting, using whatever resources were available in the community as a whole.
- We also wanted to see if we could encourage those households without cows (or land) to team up with those who had either (or both), and together supply larger amounts of the cow dung and kitchen waste combination.
Just last week, we finished recruiting a set of 4-5 community members who agreed to give these kits a try. None of the community members without cows wanted to participate in this vermicomposting project even though they could have gone around other parts of the city collecting cow dung. Many of them expressed that it would be inappropriate and undignified to scrounge for either organic waste or cow dung, unless these outputs came from their own households.
Since community members with cows tended to have access to larger areas of land, they decided to go for the 12' x 4' sized kits rather than the smaller ones. The heavy rains made it challenging to install these kits specifically in land covered by mud and cow dung, but our project coordinator, project manager, and Mr. Bisoi, were great sports. We have bought a total of 6 of these medium sized kits, and we shall be installing the last of them this upcoming week.
- The way it works is that for the next 2-3 weeks, as much cow dung shall be thrown into the kits as possible.
- Worms and organic waste are added in subsequent phases.
- It shall take about 3 months for the final product to be ready.
- At that point, the cow owners shall sell the compost back to Mr. Bisoi. At present the cow owners are selling the cow dung in bulk for approximately Rs. 750 per kg. The compost shall sell for about Rs. 3000 per kg (or more), a good amount of value addition. Our project shall share in the profits since we paid for and installed the kits, are paying for the training, and established (and will be managing) the linkage with Mr. Bisoi.
- We are also interested in working with agricultural scientists who have developed vermicomposting techniques that utilise 100% organic kitchen waste. I have initiated discussions with the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT) located in the city, which does some excellent work in the lab and in the field across a variety of agricultural food production, and food processing sectors.
- The goal is to first see how things turn out in this initial phase, and slowly add more kits and different kinds of composting / vermicomposting techniques to the mix. Hopefully by the end of the year, we shall also be ready to create a community cluster that uses compost produced by other residents in the same community in order to engage in micro/small scale organic production of vegetables and greens.
I just came across this article in the publication Down to Earth (a publication I was introduced to by my late advisor - Dr. Lin Ostrom - and advised by her to regularly read) - The Magician Farmer: How a farmer from Bihar used magic tricks to convert others in his village to organic farming.
It starts out with the story of a rural farmer who discovered how much his profits grew by using organic farming, and how he used innovative magic-show based storytelling techniques to get other farmers in his village to start organic farming. However, as seems to be the case with so many other innovative interventions in India, this intervention too failed to be sustained in the long run. The reason put forth in the article was that successive droughts led to rock-bottom farming incomes for two years, most youth migrated to cities, and most households couldn't afford to keep cattle at home anymore. Thus the village farmers couldn't produce compost anymore and hence couldn't continue organic farming.
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There is much to say and much to do about the lack of supporting institutions and infrastructure in India, not just in rural but also in urban India. With respect to our own project that's focused on the micro enterprise sector, I find that none of the enterprises we help set up shall be likely sustained in the long run (no matter how much the training, or financial investments we provide) unless some very basic structural changes are made. As I work on this project, I'm realizing more and more that real, sustained impact will only happen through (i) coordinating government policies
(ii) making public administration systems more efficient (iii) identifying grassroots innovations (iv) creating an enabling environment for translating these innovations into effective, long term interventions.
More on that later, over time.