Mumbai, MM, India
Fellow Since 2001
This profile was prepared when Ravindra Shetye was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Ravindra Shetye is connecting middle-class investors and poor agricultural workers in an innovative plan to turn derelict, uncultivable land into profitable commercial farms.
The New Idea
By attracting investment to convert uncultivable land into profitable farms, Ravindra is creating a successful agricultural model for regions in India with large stretches of land suffering from deforestation, fragmentation, and a lack of farmers. Tapping into the resources of villagers who have gone to work in the city but who still own land back home, Ravindra is creating a system to encourage investment in agriculture and help poor farmers attain prosperity. To show that his idea works, Ravindra has transformed seventy acres of derelict land into a high-yielding plantation of crops including mango, cashew, and coconut. He has shown the investors that agriculture can be a profit-making venture and has demonstrated to the agricultural workers that local farming can generate employment, as well as a much needed green cover. His idea is a powerful combination of focused and unified strategies: cost-effective farming methods, a fair labor policy that provides marginal farmers and small landowners with year-round employment and training, maintenance of high-quality seeds and crops, and effective marketing. His idea is replicable in the many other regions with similar socio-economic and ecological characteristics.
The Konkan region stretches seven hundred twenty kilometers across the Western Ghats on the west coast of Maharashtra with the Sahayadri hills on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Except for the four monsoon months, the narrow corridor is a dry place, with fishing, agriculture, and horticulture as the main activities. Owned by locals, many of whom now live in the city, the majority of the land is hilly, has no perennial water source, and is considered uncultivable. In fact, 60 percent of village holdings in this region lies derelict. Compounding these problems, large-scale deforestation has led to serious soil erosion. This entire region also suffers from severe land fragmentation. For example, one hundred acres of land can have the same number of owners. A farmer may have one acre of his own land at the bottom of one hill and another half acre on the top of another hill. With no formal training in modern agriculture or horticulture, villagers have little idea how to farm such small, isolated pieces of land. These adverse conditions result in widespread migration of agricultural workers and small landowners to the nearest city. Many of these people work in the cities as contract laborers, earning very little; a few, however, find employment that enables them to invest in projects back home.
Ravindra's model for enhancing the socio-economic and ecological conditions of areas such as the Konkan region offers four primary benefits: it saves land from becoming further fragmented; it provides new green cover; it generates employment by building agro-based industry around self-sustaining and locally-owned plantations; and it connects investors and farmers in order to enhance investment in agriculture and help poor farmers attain prosperity. Chosen crops for the Ratnagiri district are mango and cashew, but the same techniques can be employed to grow oranges in Nagpur or apples in Kulu. Ravindra calls his model Socio-economic Eco- development, or Seed. Ravindra's first step was to persuade a group of investors to spend a small amount of money to buy a plot of unused land. He chose what he says is "the worst-case scenario": seventy acres of "uncultivable" land in Dahagaon village in Ratnagiri district. This land reflects the entire gamut of problems that the Konkan area faces: large portions of derelict earth that have never been cultivated, no perennial water source, no electricity, and a mixture of slopes and hills that are typical of this region. The investors, who are mostly local people now living in the city, own the seventy acres, and the farmers are salaried local workers who, in addition to salary, receive a share of the profits. This innovative business model has built-in protection for the farmers in the case of forest fires or bad crops: they continue to earn their salaries, but may not receive a commission. The investors bear the brunt of a bad year, but the investment is not great enough to disrupt their way of life. From the beginning, Ravindra knew he had to demonstrate that farming in this region can be cost-effective. He employed cheap rainwater harvesting techniques, collecting and storing rainwater during the four monsoon months in deep man-made storage tanks. He then rationed the water for the next eight months. He chose to plant cashew and mango because they are rain-fed crops that need little or no water after the first three years. A cashew tree takes three years and a mango six to yield, so the plantation starts earning returns after the third year. Using a mix of organic and inorganic fertilizers to aid crop growth, Ravindra also trains the farmers in in-situ grafting. He employs the process of zonal farming, breaking the plantation into four zones, each representative of a particular kind of locationhill, slope, tableland and plainso that specific farmers can keep an eye on specific sections of the land. Under this system, each zone has a group leader. Thus, farmers are encouraged to develop leadership skills, work as a team, and hone their problem solving methods.Another of Ravindra's effective strategies is the creation of a labor policy that guarantees farmers full health insurance (Ravindra now pays the premium). There is a festival bonus equal to 50 percent of their salary and a one-month paid leave during monsoon so that the farmers can go home to cultivate their own land. Wives of the farmers form the major contract labor force during the harvesting season and earn wages, without benefits. The plantation employs about two hundred daily laborers throughout the year and eleven contract ones, in addition to fifteen permanent staff. Ravindra now wants to take his idea to regions across the country. He speaks about his model at conferences and seminars in an effort to spread his idea. Already, local farmers with unprofitable orchards are visiting his plantation to learn about his techniques. In response to many requests, he has started an official six-month training institute. As a result, farmers who were planning to abandon their land to move to the city for work stay to learn modern crop planting, harvesting and post-harvest techniques. Food and lodging are provided during the training, in addition to a monthly stipend of two hundred fifty rupees. To further disseminate his idea, Ravindra is developing an audio-visual presentation of his work, and he plans to travel from village to village to give lectures and demonstrations. Ravindra has undertaken a study of the Konkan region that will help him identify corporate partners who may be willing to invest in the plantations. His long-term plan is to grow industries around the plantations that will offer employment to many more villagers. He also wants to start self-sustaining schools in the villages. Present village schools have hardly any amenities and are totally dependent on insufficient government grants. Ravindra plans to use about two acres of villages' holdings to develop small plantations where school children will learn farming. Each student will spend one day per month working the land. The harvest will be used to generate funds for the school.
An environmentalist by training, Ravindra spent his early years in a village, moved with his family to the city, and then returned to the village to learn about farming on his grandfather's mango plantation. One day, Ravindra realized that a co-worker's daily lunch consisted of only five boiled jackfruit seeds. This experience planted a conviction in Ravindra to somehow improve the socio-economic condition of the region from which he comes.All through his young adult years, during which time he was away at school, Ravindra tried to develop strategies to make his home village prosper. Eventually he earned a PhD in environmental science. In 1980, he formed an informal association of workers in Mumbai who were from his village, with the purpose of trying to improve conditions back home. He persuaded them to help install pumps and start schools, but soon realized that this work was not addressing the root cause of the poverty in the region. It was then that he started designing the foundation of a farmer-owned, cost-effective enterprise. He fine-tuned his research and marketing skills through his subsequent job as a business development manager for a British multinational manufacturing company. In 1991, while attending a conference, he diagramed the strategies for Seed, employing all the lessons he had learned as a business development manager. The next day, he resigned his post with the British firm and went to work persuading eight friends to become involved in his plan. In spite of a near-fatal car accident that led to extensive surgery and heavy medical debt, Ravindra struggled to keep the plantation going for the first three years. Finally, he managed to pay off all his debts, and the crops started yielding. Ravindra lives with his wife, who is a labor lawyer, a daughter, who is studying medicine, and a fifteen-year-old son who maintains the Seed website.