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Supporting India’s Farmers To Regenerate the Soil

In 2016, Vikash Abraham abandoned his work as a corporate engineer and IT security specialist and discovered his dharma.

His life’s purpose was to be part of a movement to, as he puts it, rethink agriculture back into nature’s cycles for the good of farmers, consumers, and the soil itself.

Now fluent in the worries and joys of farmers from India’s cities to forests, he is Chief Strategy Officer for Naandi Foundation. His focus is on helping develop innovative ways to bring regenerative and profitable agriculture to a country of 1.417 billion people with a poverty rate of about 16.4 percent where farmers have worked hard to alleviate hunger but struggle themselves to earn a living.

Naandi’s Composting Hub near Delhi. (Photo Courtesy of Naandi Foundation)

Naandi, founded in 1998 and based in Hyderabad, works in 17 states across India with the overarching goal of eradicating poverty. Its three key agricultural goals are to heal degraded soil and provide consumers with nutritious food while ensuring farming is profitable for the farmers. The Rockefeller Foundation began supporting this work in 2020.

One of Naandi’s latest initiatives is Urban Farms Co., focused on proactively helping farmers in their fight against depleted soil by creating organic compost that is provided to farm fields quickly and inexpensively, while lining up markets for the farmers’ produce.

The nonprofit has helped about 150,000 farmers convert to regenerative agriculture practices.

Given that there are an estimated 800 million farmers in India—more farmers per capita than any country on the globe—“there is a long way to go,” Abraham acknowledges. But the movement toward sustainable farming practices—both for philosophical and practical reasons—is gaining speed. Eventually it will take off, he says, “and I think we are at that time.”

A look at the causes of soil degradation. Click on the image to enlarge.

Topsoil Linked to Global Food Security

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which marks an annual World Soil Day on Dec. 5, says 95 percent of food eaten across the globe comes from the soil, but about 35 percent of the earth’s soils are already degraded, and 90 percent could become degraded by 2050 unless steps are taken to reverse the impacts of erosion and unsustainable agriculture practices.

(Video courtesy of Naandi Foundation)

The impact of soil degradation could total $23 trillion in losses of food, ecosystem services and income worldwide by 2050 unless land resource management practices are changed, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification says.

Conventional farming “is a losing proposition because the cost of cultivation is so high that the farmers spend more than they earn, and at the other end of the growing season, they don’t have good market linkages,” says Naandi’s Chief Policy Officer Rohini Mukherjee.

Conventional farming operates in part on the theory that plants get their nutrition through water-soluble chemical fertilizers. So, farmers must pay for that input each season, and conventional farmers view weeds as competing for those nutrients.

In regenerative farming, practices are based on the knowledge that plants get their nutrition through biological cycles—and the practices that renew soils can renew the very communities that tend to the land.

Thus, cover crops are valued because, through photosynthesis, they feed the soil, while also protecting it from erosion. This also offers protection from the loss of topsoil.

While large scale conventional farming has contributed to a loss of valuable topsoil, sustainability practices such as cover crops, no-till, biodiversity, crop rotation and more can restore depleted soil over time.

But when soil is severely weakened, and speed is important, additional help is needed. This is an area where Naandi is transforming the landscape.

Convenience, Cost and Results Prioritize

For farmers to change, Abraham says, three conditions must be met:

  1. The new approach must be convenient.
  2. The results must be quick.
  3. The financial return must at least equal what the farmer earned before transitioning.

Worker at Naandi’s Composting Hub. (Photo Courtesy of Naandi Foundation)

“The farmers know better than us how depleted the soil is,” Abraham says. “But they will continue to use chemical fertilizers if it is most convenient. If we say, you have to dig a hole in the back of your garden, create a compost system, do a lot of extra work, wait three months and then carry the composted soil kilometers away to get more nutritious crops in time, they aren’t going to do it.”

It’s also critical that the farmers see near immediate results, including in their bottom line, he notes.

“In India, many farmers get their livelihood from a single acre of land. So, from Day One of converting to regenerative farming, the field has to grow the same yield and make a profit,” Abraham says. “We knew we needed to develop a model to address this challenge.”


A Topsoil Recipe to Kickstart Biology

The first step to developing that model was to devise a scalable way to make and distribute organic compost. Naandi began by creating centralized hubs to serve about 200 acres of land at once.

Naandi’s Composting Hub near Delhi. (Photo courtesy of Naandi Foundation)

Step Two: They set out to create compost material that could immediately improve soil quality, combining organic matter from multiple sources. Naandi collects paddy crop residue, which is typically burned—so this practice also reduces air pollution. Then they buy cow dung from gaushalas, or shelters to care for old cows, as cows are sacred in India. Finally, they clear public land of weeds for free, gathering biodiverse green material with various micronutrients.

Step Three: These ingredients are used to create a recipe and, under watchful eyes, is turned into compost. “We have shredders, turners and a team dedicated to monitoring the temperature and aerating the mixture,” says Abraham. “We convert this into very, very high-quality organic fertilizers.”

Step Four is simply that the farmer calls the hub and Naandi supplies the topsoil.

“You can think of it like a foundation that a house is built on,” Abraham says. “When land is devoid of the biology it needs, we add a ten-ton foundation of compost. So, we immediately create the top layer of soil with the right nutrients, and that kickstarts biology. When convenience comes, people are willing to change.”

In fact, not only soil, but “seeds, saplings—the farmer can get all nature of supplies from the hub, and we also find them markets for what they grow.”

Naandi also identifies markets for the farmers, so they can focus on growing. “We supply 10 to 12 tons of vegetables every day to most of the large supermarkets and online markets in the Delhi region, and this is growing,” Abraham says.

Coffee Plants Thrive on Enriched Soil

Naandi supports farmers growing in three types of geographies: urban, rural and tribal. In the tribal areas, where Indigenous farmers are growing coffee in a forest environment, Naandi’s afforestation work is funded by investors who are interested carbon credits and the potential of carbon sequestration achieved through tree planting.

Naandi’s work began, in fact, with remote tribal communities in the Araku region of southern India nestled in the Eastern Ghats, where farmers were supported from seed to cup in growing world-class coffee in their fields.

As part of that regenerative effort, Naandi has planted 30 million trees in and around about 1,000 villages, pulling carbon into the soil and saving a forest that was showing clear signs of depletion.

As the soil became richer and the valley lusher, the coffee notes became more complex. In 2018, Araku Coffee won the prestigious Prix Epicures gold medal, recognizing it as one of the world’s best coffees.

Coffee farmers in Araku Valley. (Photo courtesy of Naandi Foundation)

Naandi dubbed its approach “Arakunomics” – an integrated economic model to ensure profits for farmers and quality for consumers through regenerative agriculture. For its work in Araku and vision of the future, The Rockefeller Foundation awarded Naandi as one of 10 “visionaries” in the Food System Vision 2050 Prize, culled from more than 1,300 submissions.

Naandi puts on an annual celebration called Gems of Araku, when international jurors select a winning cup of coffee made from freshly roasted beans in what is called a cupping session, and it is announced in Araku, where farmers and their families have gathered for a day of festivities.

Abraham describes being there a few years ago when the best cup was announced. He watched the tribal farmer whose land generated the winning cup walk up with his family to receive the award.

  • The farmer was asked, ‘now that you have won the best cup of coffee in the world, what is your aspiration?’ He answered, “I want everyone in my village to be able to produce the best cup of coffee also.’ That sense of community really touched me. I think it’s the spirit we should build on.
    Vikash Abraham
    Chief Strategy Officer, Naandi Foundation

Abraham had no background in farming when he began working with Naandi. He was immersed in the corporate world. A course in agriculture as a hobby started him on another path. “This has been the most beautiful journey,” he says. “I’m very clear about what I’m doing with my life now.”