Ekta Jaju is the founder-CEO of ONganic Foods Pvt. Ltd. Prior to ONganic, she had co-founded Switch On. She has excellent knowledge of sustainable development and agricultural growth and is empathetic towards small farmers; she thinks their problems will lessen with the pursuit of organic farming. Team Optimist in conversation with Ekta Jaju. Excerpts…
Team Optimist: What led you to adopt the idea of ONganic?
Ekta Jaju: Before setting up ONganic, I worked as co-founder at Switch On. There, I worked with small farmers from Nadia and set up the company as a farmer-producer unit. I saw the declining conditions of the farmers:
* There were no next-generation farmers
* The existing farmers were slowly losing interest in farming, too
* Farming was not proving profitable and was compelling the farmers to move away from their occupation
Agricultural income is extremely low. Surveys have shown that farmers earn only about Rs3,000 per month. The cost of growing crops has increased significantly over the years, the inputs have increased and the seeds are expensive. Besides, in our system, farmers are the only people who can’t decide the price of their commodities — the market has the right to do so. So, organic farming is the only alternative to solving the problems farmers face. I completed a course in farmer culture and was part of a voluntary group that held organic farmer-consumer connects in Kolkata. We saw that, if small farmers could switch, they could find solutions. How does it work?
Organic farming brings down the cost of cultivation. It prepares the inputs and grows and saves indigenous varieties of seeds. It is pest-resilient and climate-resilient, which means unfavourable climate has less impact. So, organic farming has great potential. It has a premium market in all segments, such as export and domestic. The growth of the organic market is high. It creates access to healthy food and improves biodiversity, soil and the ecosystem.
Although organic farming is the answer, when we worked with small farmers, we came across certain challenges. There’s no existing market. Moreover, there’s no supply chain in the organic segment for farmers — which creates issues. The farmers did not want to take the risk because, at the end of the day, they had to feed their families. So, we came up with this idea and decided to buy the produce from the farmers and sell, both nationally and internationally.
Team Optimist: Is organic farming sustainable? Is the primary investment cost feasible for a traditional farmer?
Ekta Jaju: I strongly believe that, in most places, farmers have forgotten the traditional ways of farming. They rely more on modern advancements. They don’t get accurate information. They have moved away from traditional varieties to hybrids, which need more chemical inputs. As soon as one switches over to sustainable organic practices, organic farming becomes more reliable and sustainable. Financially, it has higher demand. Consumers look for organic food and the gap between producer and consumer needs to be filled.
Team Optimist: What initiatives and innovations did you take when you started ONganic?
Ekta Jaju: We processed purely our own innovation at ONganic. Organic farming enables opportunities to create access to indigenous varieties of seeds. We made it possible for some farmers to dream about such profitable farming. We looked at a variety of product ranges with high international demand. Based on data suitable for the land and its salt type, we decided and analysed what kind of crop was suitable for which type of land. We created access to certified organic inputs and also trained the farmers in how to make it on their own. We have agreements on premium prices to buy all the food. We harvest, sow and work together. Value-added processed varieties of rice are sold to B2B, B2C channels where the unpolished varieties are sold to consumers.
Team Optimist: Sustainability and good market price are considered essential parameters in agriculture. How are they looked at in organic farming?
Ekta Jaju: When we talk about environmental sustainability, we only have organic farming, which is sustainable. Higher prices are available in both the national and international markets, but one of the challenges is that the produce has to be certified. We ensure that our farmers produce certified products for both the markets, allowing them to get a premium price for their produce. Chitto Biswas is one of our first farmers who converted to organic farming. He saw a three-fold increase in his income. He grows a variety of black rice and gets paid even more than hybrid ones. We have many such farmers who have benefited under ONganic.
Team Optimist: Rapid urbanisation has caused unilateral conversion of agricultural land. Is agricultural land adaptable to it? How can organic farming save the rural economy from such urbanisation?
Ekta Jaju: Let’s discuss a few instances. Can you convert an agricultural piece of land to organic farming? Yes. It’s a two-year process, where you stop using chemicals and use only organic inputs. By the third year, your land is ready for organic farming. It takes time to make the land fertile. When you talk about urbanisation and rural migration on the other hand, we take a small step to prevent migration.
Team Optimist: What plans do you have with ONganic in the coming years?
Ekta Jaju: In terms of growth, we’re planning to expand more in the eastern and northeastern areas. We also look forward to adding four to five more groups and expanding abroad, as well.
Team Optimist: Do you think India’s future depends on organic farming? What should the ideal way to reach long-time profitability be?
Ekta Jaju: The road map for India is organic farming, or anything that promotes food security. If we can plan our produce more and think of nutrition as a backbone, we can solve the food security problems of our country.