Ashoka Focuses on Agricultural and Sustainable Development in India

Last week, Ashoka announced that the organization will use a US$15 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the placement of Ashoka fellows in Africa and India.  The grant money will specifically target social innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture and sustainable development.  According to their press release,

Agricultural and rural sustainable development initiatives supported by Ashoka will be oriented around key issues such as new technologies, farmer productivity, key agricultural policies, and connections between smallholder farmers and markets. Ashoka’s network already includes many Fellows working on agriculture and rural development related issues— whether developing markets for small farmers in Kenya, or using local knowledge to regenerate arid land through natural farming and permaculture in India.

The most promising aspect of this partnership is the approach that Ashoka espouses in ensuring that their social innovations become sustainable – a community based approach:

Ashoka realizes that innovations alone do not create sustainable large-scale solutions in agriculture and sustainable rural development. These new solutions endure only when social entrepreneurs have a community-level understanding, build a broad citizen base of support, introduce incentives for participation, and topple traditional barriers to entry or involvement. This partnership will allow Ashoka to launch 90 social entrepreneurs and their powerful, pattern- changing ideas that are built on this bottom up approach. Additionally, as a product of the increased number of entrepreneurs in this area and their broad base of supporters, Ashoka will be able to identify transformative universal principles that will ultimately revolutionize the field.

Looks like this is a great time to become an Ashoka fellow in India.  I’m looking forward to seeing what developments Ashoka comes up with in 2009.

Examining Organic Farming in India

In a series of articles on Slate.com, Mira Kamdar (of the World Policy Institute and author of Planet India) discusses the challenges and outlook for organic farming in India based on her visit to Punjab farms.  After an introduction to her visit and the history of the Green Revolution, Ms Kamdar delves into the reality of the matter, derived from the insights of farmers and academics.

In “The Organic Farmer,” Ms Kamdar focuses on why organic farming is beneficial, yet difficult. The involved labor itself presents employment opportunities, but government policies discourage the growth of organic farming:

Abundant cheap labor is one of the potential advantages India can bring to expanding organic agriculture. Picking off pests by hand, harvesting inter-cropped fields with a mix of plants ready at different times, eliminating weeds by frequent hoeing between tight rows, preparing soil with organic fertilizers, deploying micro-irrigation lines positioned to release water at the roots of each plant-these are all labor-intensive tasks.

But organic farming in India faces significant disincentives. Most government policies favor industrial agriculture, with heavy subsidies for India’s chemical-fertilizer and pesticide industries. The focus, understandable in a developing country, is on maximizing yields and boosting exports. The mindset of the Green Revolution is well-entrenched, despite the widely acknowledged social and environmental damage those practices have wrought and the knowledge that they are simply not sustainable.

According to a farmer in her article, seventy percent of Indian farmers are organic producers, since chemical farming is expensive. And although there is a huge export market, the fact that they aren’t certified (the articles point out that it takes three years to receive certification – a lengthy period for farmers) means that they are missing out on lucrative opportunities for profit. Continue reading

Food: The New Luxury Good

TC-I frequently covers the headlines concerning the current food shortage crisis in India, and this issue has deep roots and sobering implications. Infochange interviewed M S Swaminathan, a plant geneticist and advocate of sustainable agriculture.  Swaminathan breaks down the global issue, its effect on India, future scenarios, and what needs to be done to address this problem.  He makes it clear that this is a problem that will become a lasting reality, and just as many of its roots are due to human action (and inaction), alleviating its consequences are up to humans running governments, policy, research, and technology.  The bottom line is that a basic staple of life is quickly becoming an expensive burden in India, and this is an area that will need attention and action.

Swaminathan’s thoughts on the future:

The government has to come up with a firm action plan. The National Food Security Mission (NFSM) must prepare a plan which will look into all the various inputs required to raise production.

The other point I would like to emphasise is that, in the future, governments across the globe are going to ban the export of food from their own countries. It will simply not be available. Today, we are paying Rs 1,000 as the minimum price to farmers for the purchase of wheat, but we are paying Rs 2,000 for imported wheat. A day may soon come when the import of food items stops. We have to be ready for such a situation.

Let me make it very clear that the days of cheap food are over, just as the days of cheap oil are over.

On the need for action:

We need to come up with a drought code, a flood code and a good weather code. I put this point before the agriculture minister. They need to come up with a scheme very quickly. Grain reserves are important for food security, seed reserves are important for crop security, and a proper contingency plan must be in place to ensure minimum devastation in case of floods. Such a plan does not mean a mere piece of paper, rather it should help direct a farmer who has lost his main crop to come up with a second plan; what kind of crop he should grow next.

Evening Edition

  • Microfinance:

    • The Annual Policy Conference on Microfinance was held last week “to streamline India’s mircrofinance infrastructure, facilitating sustainability to support the Indian microfinance sector’s current rate of growth and provide for future growth rates.”
  • Agriculture: A pilot with agro-industries will involve a 40 crore project in every state, with the intent to utilize manpower and raw products in rural India to create livelihood opportunities.
  • Health: The government plans to introduce the HiB vaccine, which will vaccinate children against pneumonia. Pneumonia kills 4 lakh children every year in India.

Midday Newsfeed

  • Technology: Although it is a hub for information technology, India is only #50 on the world’s most networked economies list, partly due to its poor ICT infrastructure.
  • Health: According to a survey, in the next decade, one in 20 female deaths in India between the ages 30 to 69 will be caused by smoking. (Source: India Today)
  • Citizen Advocacy: Indian citizens are submitting an open letter to the Prime Minister urging the reconsideration of a bill that would place restrictive regulations on civil society organizations receiving foreign contributions.
  • Business: New Ventures India launched a Coaches Network at the Green Investor Summit. The members of this network would devote time in nurturing seed and early stage green companies. (Source: Business Wire India)
  • Agriculture: Via the UN News Centre: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today bestowed its highest award, the Agricola Medal, on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his efforts to spur agricultural development and reduce hunger and poverty in India.

Reclaiming the Land

As brought to our attention by InfoChangeIndia, the phenomenon of urban migration is a multidimensional issue, with social and economic repercussions, both for rural and urban India. As described in an article entitled, “This Land is Ours!”, as a result of urban migration, women in rural communities are undergoing changes in terms of their roles within the family structure:

The village [Narsenahall, Karnataka] is part of a nationwide trend in agriculture, which over the last few years has seen huge changes. While more and more men are migrating to urban areas and large industrialised farms looking for paid work, women stay in the village and are increasingly taking over cultivating the land. According to estimates by Bina Agarwal, an academic researching and writing about women and land rights, almost half of the land in India is now farmed by women. The changes mean that in the rural areas the vast majority of women — around 85% — are now farmers.

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2008 Global Development Marketplace Competition (DM2008)

The competition’s focus is Sustainable Agriculture for Development. This was brought to our attention by PSD Blog.

Here is the information provided on the competition’s website:

Applications are accepted through March 21, 2008 and will undergo rigorous review by more than 200 development experts. About 100 finalists will be announced in June and will be invited to World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC in late September to vie for grants in person at the DM2008 Marketplace event.

This competition offers a unique opportunity to turn your innovative idea for sustainable agriculture in developing countries into reality. If selected, your idea could receive up to US$200,000 in grant funding for implementation over two years.

Key Dates:

March 21, 2008: Deadline for all proposals

June 23, 2008: Finalists announced

July 28, 2008: Finalists’ proposals due

September 24-25, 2008: Marketplace & Knowledge Exchange

The proposals must address one of three sub-themes, which are after the jump.

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