Two young women’s organic business helps small farmers salvage their soil and livelihood
Kolkata schoolmates Avantika Jalan and Rashmi Sarkar run Mana Organics, a social enterprise that helps small farmers improve soil fertility through chemical-free methods and navigate the country’s complex food supply chain. Organic produce from its two projects in Tinsukia, Assam, and three villages in Madhya Pradesh are sold in New Delhi and Kolkata.
Early days
Registered as an organic trader and producer, Mana began with a seed capital of ₹33.75 lakh in March 2011. Jalan, a major in Biology from Carleton College (USA), says a visit to MP’s Khargone district in September 2010 inspired her to take up the cause of sustainable agriculture. The region was devastated by a failed cotton crop and Jalan wanted to explore organic farming as a means to protect the farmers and fetch them better returns.
Together with Daniel Rath, a friend from Carleton, she spent the next few months learning composting. The two of them got Mana up and running a year later. They began testing the efficacy of a composting system they developed on a two-acre patch, an abandoned tea nursery allotted to them at the Chhota Tingrai Tea Estate (CTTE) in Tinsukia.
“Treatment was a priority since the soil quality was poor. Composting is a meticulous process and we had to get the carbon-nitrogen-mineral ratio right. The soil changed visibly in a few weeks and, using compost heaps, we grew a range of organic vegetables from September through to March,” says Jalan.
It works
In April 2012, an impressed CTTE management asked Mana to test its organic methods for growing tea. This was a larger project, across 30 acres of gardens with poor productivity.
“We dedicated the rest of the year to regenerating the soil; our techniques worked,” says Jalan. Mana’s composting process, unsurprisingly, became the company’s first revenue-generating stream, particularly after two more plantations began using it. “The area under cover has doubled and CTTE, which wanted more organic leaf supply, has become partner,” she adds.
Mana next brought 12 small farmers in the vicinity into the organic fold. They now supply directly to the CTTE factory. A community market will come up for the tea estate’s workers to grow and supply organic vegetables.
Business model
The venture is designed to cover everything from organic training to certification and a buy-back guarantee for its registered producer groups. Compost training is provided free and farmers sell their produce to Mana, which markets it through retail partners such as I-Say Organics in Delhi and Hindustan Petroleum (HP) Speed Marts in Kolkata. Organic tea, its most popular product, is sold through standalone stores.
“The prices are fixed monthly and always exceed market prices in the case of pulses and rice. For tea, we get better quality leaves from small growers and these are processed by registered estates and retailed under the Mana brand,” says Jalan.
The company registered a turnover of ₹2.6 crore last fiscal. Profits are shared with the producers while the retail partners keep the margins. Organic farming consultancy forms a separate revenue stream.
“We’re in a position to scale now. Organic tea, which we’re looking to export, already fetches around 20 per cent more returns for the growers,” says Sarkar, who came onboard as a full-time Director in January 2013 after completing a Diploma in Design from Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
Looking ahead
Last year, Mana began working with adivasi farmers in three MP villages — Sultanpura, Lachhera and Koriyakhal. It has partnered with about 200 small farmers growing pulses and spices. “We are trying mechanisation to package the produce better at our own sealing and packaging unit by August next,” says Sarkar.
With young interns as their driving force, Sarkar and Jalan intend to turn Mana into a holistic development organisation focusing on education and renewable energy. They see collaboration with likeminded establishments as the way forward. “It doesn’t make sense to work in isolation if it’s development we’re after,” Sarkar muses.
(This article was published on November 21, 2014)