Bite the Talk Episode 17 : The Power of Biofortification: India's Agri-Entrepreneurs

Daphne Ewing-Chow: This podcast will shine a light on people who are working to meet the 2030 targets of UN Sustainable Development Goal number two. My name is Daphne Ewing Chow. I'm a journalist and food systems advocate, travelling the world and talking to those on the frontlines of change, helping to overcome food related challenges in their own countries and communities. 

In this podcast series powered by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN, we will encounter a myriad of intersecting issues, themes and solutions. We will hear from regular folks like farmers and mothers around the world trying to put nutritious food on the table for their families. We will also talk with food systems leaders, social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and people like you. 

Today's podcast is about a successful partnership among the Swiss NGO Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN, HarvestPlus, an organisation that fights hidden hunger worldwide by scaling staple food crops that are rich in essential vitamins and minerals. And the Syngenta Foundation, an organisation that focuses on productivity and the inclusion of farmers in commercial value chains. 

In May 2018, HarvestPlus and GAIN launched a landmark partnership to accelerate progress and improving access to essential vitamins and minerals for vulnerable people. This partnership was created to address hidden hunger within a number of geographical contexts, one of them including India, by bringing nutrient rich bio fortified foods to a billion consumers around the world. This project is really important as it brings together the expertise of HarvestPlus in all areas of biofortification with GAIN’s track record of working with private companies to create sustainable market models for nutritious food systems. The partners are currently managing the programme jointly to accelerate commercially driven expansion and demand for selected biofortified staple crops and food products. And in India, they are collaborating with the Syngenta foundation. Today I have with me Rahul Tidake, welcome Rahul, who is the Head of Strategy and New Initiatives at Syngenta Foundation. Rahul, can you tell me more about your role at Syngenta and also about what Syngenta does around the world and in India in particular? 

Rahul Tidake: Yeah, thank you, Daphne, for having me here and glad to you know and get connected with you. I moreover, look after the agri-entrepreneurship project in India. And my role is you know, how exactly we bring the new initiatives to the programme where we impact the smallholder farmers to enhance their income. Biofortification in India is one of the key components which will add income to the smallholder farmers. But secondly, it will eliminate certain problems like a deficiency in nutrient in children as well as lactating mothers, pregnant women, as well as the adults, those who face the challenges. Syngenta Foundation as such, runs a programme called agri-entrepreneurship programme. Where we go into a village, we select a rural youth. And we train them for 45 days. Again, the training is certified by the central government for the institute, or with this certification, the candidates then start working with the 100 or 150 farmers in a village or two. Now the idea is you know how this local agent or local last month delivery agent in terms of agri-entrepreneur would serve the farmer in a better way, as well as you know, try to solve the local challenges. And that's how been a model of Syngenta Foundation for last eight years, but has been matured in 2019 and is now in a scale up mode across India in 15 states. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: So, it's my understanding that you basically take young people and you educate them in how to be entrepreneurs, from an agricultural perspective and to work with other farmers. Am I correct that there's a retail and also an advisory component to this project? And the training?  

Rahul Tidake: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely correct. So, every agri-entrepreneur has to, you know, provide mandatory free advisory services to the farmers on crop and related activities, whereas, you know, to sustain their livelihood, they can choose one of the businesses in agriculture and allied sector, which would help the smallholder farmers to gain their income. At the same time, the agri-entrepreneur can take a small cut out of the services being provided, and they can survive on them. So, this way the model is sustainable. And, you know, even if Syngenta Foundation goes out of the geography after two years, it is [sustainable] on its own. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Okay, so it's sustainable. And can you tell me, obviously, the root of the issue with respect to this partnership among GAIN, HarvestPlus, and Syngenta is malnutrition? Can you tell me how big is the problem of malnutrition in India? 

Rahul Tidake:  Right, so, it's a big problem in India. And in fact, you know, we have been seeing this from childhood that, you know, the rural people are, in fact, now, in cities also when people don't get the nutrition, the adequate nutrition on time. And as required. If I say in terms of percentage, as per some data, you know, 24% of the pregnant women, they don't get the right nutrition at the right time. Also, there is a big problem where, you know, the families are not educated as much to... you know, provide the right content of the nutrition. So, if we talk about the child, if we talk about the women in the house, if we talk about the pregnant ladies in the house, so they don't have a proper knowledge about the nutrition, at the same time, you know, they don't get the access to the nutrition. Yes, of course, you know, the other option is available, you know, having access to the medicines or other, you know, hybrid technologies. But, you know, the natural ways, of course, the right way to continue nutrition in the food, 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: HarvestPlus and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, who were partners in this Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops or CBC Project. They needed a partner in India, and they came to Syngenta Foundation and Syngenta while working with people within the agricultural sector is not specifically focused on malnutrition per se. How did this partnership come to be? And where is it at today? And how has it all come together? 

Rahul Tidake: Great. Of course, you know, Syngenta Foundation's approach is always how exactly we help the farmers when as the income as well as how we reduced their cost of cultivation, right? Whereas the model itself is very agile. The agri entrepreneurship model where one agri-entrepreneur is connected to 100 or 150 farmers, it's already there in the field, right? So when we were in discussion with GAIN and HarvestPlus, we thought that you know, agri-entrepreneur need not do these activities separately, and we need not you know, reinvent the wheel only for the biofortification - we found that the agri-entrepreneur can have a top layer of the biofortification as one of the limit for their work and they can deliver it to the farmers and at the same time the agri-entrepreneur can buy back the produce from the farmers and sell it to the certain customers. And that's how it worked out. 

Again, you know, the entrepreneurs have a better connect with the farmers. So, it makes very much easy for them to you know, convince the farmers to grow the biofortified crop and that's how the problem of production of CBC gets solved. But at the same time, it's a village ecosystem and agri-entrepreneur also gets connected very well. So, they also help the farmers to sell the surplus quantity by putting up a collection centre on their own, they buy it back from the farmers and then they sell it to the certain customers. Now customers could be a solo customer or customers from the village itself who are buying the grains and then you know making roti out of it, but there could be a processing unit who are making cookies, ladoos or any other by-product of CBC crop. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Okay. And can you tell me which communities have been impacted by this project and what kind of biofortified seeds are being I guess, pushed into the system into the market? 

Rahul Tidake: So, at this stage, there are two types of seeds which are being promoted through the agri-entrepreneurship model. One is zinc we wheat which is fairly promoted in northern part of India, which is an Uttar Pradesh and part of it in Bihar, and we have the iron pearl millet which has been promoted in three provinces in India, one is Maharashtra which is largely part, second one is in Rajasthan, the third one is in Karnataka. Whereas, if we talk about in terms of numbers, for zinc wheat, Uttar Pradesh is the largely grown area under the agri-entrepreneurs. Whereas, for iron pearl millet, Maharashtra is the larger area. Now, the impact is being generated on, you know, I would say three type of customers or three type of categories: one is on the labourers, you know those who migrate from certain villages to cities you know for some work? And they usually prefer to eat the biofortified or the pearl millet during the winter season, that's one impact area. Second one is the farmers themselves, not all the farmers you know, they grow the pearl millet. So, usually you know, in India, the winter season is preferred to eat the pearl millet. So, the farmer community is also part of the impact or impacting community. The third one is the people who live in cities or who live in urban markets. So, I mean, of course, you know, most of them are coming from the villages and that's how you know the roots are there. So, they will prefer to eat the pearl millet as a source of food during the winter season. So, we also try to promote this particular variety during winters. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: So, would you say then, that the biofortified crops are being used more for personal consumption? Or are they being further commercialised? 

Rahul Tidake: At this stage, it is being used more for the personal consumption at the family level, you know, usually, they make roti out of it, and then they share between the family, that's how it is. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Okay. And with respect to the issue of malnutrition on a long-term basis, what kind of impact do you expect to see within the community? 

Rahul Tidake: That's a very interesting question. And I would say that, you know, of course, it's a start of the revolution, I would say in terms of biofortification. Whereas, it is going to be a big impact on the children, and second one is the pregnant women, as well as ladies in perspective, women's perspective, because usually, we have seen that you know, in scientific methods, so and so, women have a lack of iron, even you know, we find it in haemoglobin content as well. So, it will have a larger impact in these two segments, whereas, it is also very well recommended to the normal human beings, including men, adults to consume the biofortified crops, because it carries a good amount of iron in it in terms of the iron pearl millet. Whereas, zinc wheat again, you know, it's an essential component and wheat is being preferred by most of the Indian families in terms of middle and north Indian part. We are trying to replace the regular wheat variety with the biofortified wheat variety which shall you know, enhance the zinc consumption in the families 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: And as compared to the typical seeds that are used by your agri-entrepreneurs under your project, what is the difference outside of being biofortified. Are there any special characteristics? Are they superior seeds? 

Rahul Tidake: Yeah, when we interacted with the farmers, there are certain elements which farmers have announced: one is the crop size of the iron pearl millet is very good compared to the regular you know, commercialised varieties. It's bigger in length compared to the regular variety, whereas the grain size is pretty big compared to the regular commercial varieties. Third, it is it is little blackish in colour compared to the regular varieties. Fourth. and you know this is the feedback of the farmers that you know, it is a little sweet in taste now, if you compare with the two different rotis of iron pearl millet or pearl millet I would say, then the iron pearl millet roti is little sweeter - goes good with the milk and milk products like you know ghee and jaggery. So, and that is the essential component being preferred by the farmers at this stage. Again, I think you know, post processing part is same as far as the other varieties are concerned, but these are the four elements which are different compared to the regular 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Has it been difficult to convince the agri-entrepreneurs and then by extension the farmers to embrace these new seeds? 

Rahul Tidake: It was in the very first year because farmers didn't trust us that you know, this is the new variety, you know, how should we grow it and all. Last year, what we have done is, a limited number of farmers, partnering with the 130 of them, we have done it in Maharashtra - we have to, you know, all the farm details very well we understood you know, how exactly it goes: which are the soil types, which are which can be preferred for this. Second is what is the right time to sow? What is the moisture required for this? Third is, how the stages of the growth the variety has. And then fourth at the time of harvesting, we also took some testimonial of the farmers which helped very well for us in this season in 2022, to convince the farmers of course, you know the farmer's mouth publicity only, you know, kind of explored this variety very well in the villages. This year, we had quite a lot of demand. So, we could you know, provide whatever predicted demand we had for the seed, we have given all of them to the farmers. So, yes, it was difficult last year, but you know, that helped us you know, the good part of the seed helped us in promoting this year. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Amazing. So, it sounds like the project has really taken off now. 

Rahul Tidake: Yes, it is. And I mean, we are already started getting the demand for the next year. Farmers are the interesting part is we tried convincing farmer that whatever surplus amount of bajra we have, please give it to us we will you know, promote it very well in the commercial market. And you know, but farmers are very much liking this variety and they would like to consume on them.  

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Amazing. So Rahul, I know that you are so closely involved with not just the agri-entrepreneurs, but also the farmers that are impacted by your projects. Is there a particular success story or a nice story that you would like to share with me about this this project that would be entertaining? 

Rahul Tidake: Yes, one success story of a farmer which can't be ignored is there is a farmer called Nitin Raut, he is from a district in Maharashtra. What he has done has been a very innovative and this hasn't been done in the pearl millet crop at search and if you haven't seen that, he has you know implemented certain IPM and INM practices. And he actually kept the distance between row to row as four to six feet, where he can drive a small orchard tractor inside it. And you know, he has seen kind of a different result altogether into it in quarter to one acre field, the farmer have got 18 quintal of the pearl millet yet which is very unnatural we could not see that in one acre in natural scenarios. We hardly get 8 to 10 quintiles of yield whereas in this methodology, a good double of it. There are two reasons to it. One is, he maintained the certain distance in two rows, which certainly have avoided the pest infestation. Second, every plant had seven to eight tillers, right, every one single seed had seven to eight tillers because of that the production enhancement went double. And again, you know, because of the distance the plants also got very good nutrition and the IPM and INM practices and because of that, you know ultimately the final result he got very good crop in the to say, I mean a very different story which we never saw. We also capture data as a regulated process in our system. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: That's amazing and is he training others on his methodology to improve yields on the iron pearl millet? 

Rahul Tidake: He did. In fact, he has done an exposure of around 50 farmers altogether in his field during the crop period, whereas we have also taken him along with the cops and everything to different farmers and Syngenta Foundation's Global Head, Robert Berlin was visiting India in October. So, he has also shown that difference as well as presented in his case studies. So, certainly, we are taking it to the next level. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: So, actually, speaking of millet, I would love to ask you, obviously, millet is playing a critical role in the agricultural strategy of India, at least for the year 2023. Can you tell me more about that and how this project played into that? 

Rahul Tidake: One example I would like to give here as a Pune based start-up., initially they were working on the millet in different parts, but they were pretty small, you know, and then they were doing on their own whereas, you know, when we interacted with them, we found that you know, they have a potential to take it to the next level. We requested them to do some certain products out of the millet. And it was pretty successful with that, we have taken them to a certain exposure meetings which has been held by Syngenta Foundation GAIN, HarvestPlus and FICCI in in Mumbai and New Delhi. Now, that start-up is trying to gear up very well and work in the millet to bring a revolution in terms of processing, right? Keeping a millet year 2023 in mind, Syngenta Foundation is very open to expand the network to Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Karnataka in terms of IPM in terms of wheat, Uttar Pradesh is the focus one, but we are also open to do it in Bihar. And we are expecting we can you know, go three times of the farmer numbers what we have today. Next year, so given that it is a millet year, and we can certainly have a large number of customers or I would say the people impacted through this project. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: It's amazing. So do you foresee Syngenta getting involved in more CBC type projects going forward? 

Rahul Tidake: Yes. In fact, Syngenta Foundation and HarvestPlus also signed an entity level MoU for the global expansion. In fact, in India as well as outside India, we are trying to take this ahead. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: That's fantastic. So it sounds like a revolution going on, by way of the bringing malnutrition into the effective use of markets, bringing together consumers with producers, bringing markets to farmers. It sounds like an amazing project, where I will like thank you so much for joining me today and I hope to see great things coming out of this partnership in the future. Thank you. 

Rahul Tidake: Thank you so much Daphne. I certainly echo your words that this is a revolution, which is going to impact large number of people in India outside India as well and certainly together all of us will help in reducing the malnutrition in certain period of time. Thank you so much Daphne.