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.
Thus the duo started Shoten Group, an enterprise that helps farmers grow two distinct crops—yacons (ground apple) and shiitake mushrooms.
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.
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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.
A popular root-fruit worldwide, the brothers made it possible to grow it in many parts of Sikkim.
Shoten group, which started working with 43 farmers in 2016, on a contract farming model, now has over 190 farmers associated with them.
“Initially people here would grow ginger and turmeric, which can be grown anywhere else too other than Sikkim. The focus of the team was to promote products that can be exclusively grown in the Himalayas,” says Abhinandan.
“Both yacon and shiitake can be grown only on the cold mountains and hence one has to come to Sikkim to get them,” he adds.
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.
Joseph Jacob, Abhinandan’s friend from college who is also part of the venture is handling the marketing and strategy from New Delhi.
“Initially the challenges were many. The first was the difficult mountain terrain, migration of youth from farming, non-remunerative prices for their produce and unattractive portrayal of farming. However both the government and the officials were very supportive and everything fell in place,” Abhinandan says.
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.
The next step was to make farmers aware of the farming model adopted by Shoten group. These was achieved by giving farmers hands-on training.
This year, the 190 farmers of Shoten group have planted 3000 kg of seed covering 30 acres in 16 clusters in all four districts of Sikkim and the total production is expected to be around 300 tonnes.
“To make agriculture attractive, we have to make farming cool and profitable. We seek to make farmers learn, unlearn and relearn the art of business and mould them into units of sustainable agri-business that take care of their immediate and prospective future needs. We will be relentless in our pursuit to make this possible,” concludes Abhimanyu.
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