2016 turned out to be a great year for Sikkim, as it clinched the honour of being India’s first fully organic state. The state’s farmers have become 100% organic, their produce free of chemical pesticides or genetic modification. However, it also means their fruit and vegetables are smaller, less vibrant and more expensive than conventionally available non-organic, which makes marketing a major challenge.
As this caught the attention of brothers Abhinandan and Abhimanyu Dhakal, they devised a plan—introducing crops which would be unique and could be grown only in Sikkim.
After researching on about 30 varieties of crops, Abhimanyu and Abhinandan shortlisted yacon and shiitake mushroom because of their health benefits and the fact that it can be grown only in a region where the temperature remains below 25 degree Celsius.
Yacon is native to South America, a neutraceutical root that is a naturally occurring sugar substitute. It tastes sweet but does not increase the blood sugar levels, a boon for diabetes patients. It has 80 to 90 per cent water as well as high fibre content and aids in digestion, relieves constipation, acts as a probiotic and is known to help in colitis and yeast infections.
Popularly consumed as syrup, yacon also reportedly helps in reducing bad cholesterol, boosting immunity, skin rejuvenation and weight loss.
As Abhinandan puts it, market forces drive prices lower due to production in the plains as well. The team aims to work on Himalayan exclusivity, which has received further boost by Sikkim going organic.
With the contract farming model, the group gives non financial, technical support to these farmers as well as a buy back guarantee. This way they can grow the product efficiently and are also assured of a fixed payment.
The startup claims that in comparison to crops like ginger and turmeric, a farmer can earn four times more by growing yacon and eight times more by growing shiitake mushroom.
Unlike yacon, shiitake mushroom is well-known among consumers and hence marketing of the products needs two different approaches. In case of ground apple, the group has to make the consumer aware of its taste and benefits; in case of shiitake mushroom, farmers have to be taught about benefits of growing it. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) became their knowledge partner to accomplish this task since 2014.
Abhinandan’s journey started when he was pursuing Masters in Environmental Economics at the University Of New York.
He would often think that the most impact would be generated if one works in sectors like agriculture and water management. He chose to come back to India and got a job as an analyst at People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, where he worked for a year.
His work spanned 21 villages across Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, which helped him in collecting data and developing relations with farmers.
“The wealth of the Himalayas and what it offered to the world struck a deep chord in my heart,” he says.
But this was also his first brush with the harsh realities faced by farmers in mountain regions. He realised that these farmers would benefit from adopting sustainable practices. Around this time, he accepted a partnership in an agro-based startup in Tanzania which specialised in organic farming. Eventually when he returned to Sikkim, he was armed with ample information on the subject.
Abhinandan came back with the determination to help farmers with the knowledge he had acquired. His brother Abhimanyu agreed to be a partner in the startup and the duo credits a number of influencers, from state Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling to the state governor Shriniwas Patil in their success. They also say that PM Narendra Modi’s emphasis on the ‘organic feat’ at national and international forums has helped greatly.
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