A career in astrophysics was his lifelong dream. But Ajay gave it up to help hundreds of struggling farmers increase their profits by 20%!
In 2008, Ajay Tannirkulam was all set to leave for Nice, France to pursue his life long dream of studying the sun, stars, planets, galaxies, and other non-Earthly bodies and phenomena.
The excitement was sky-high and his close ones proud—after all, the boy from Ranchi had completed his PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Michigan and obtained a fellowship in Astrophysics.
Before embarking onto his new life, Ajay took a break and decided to put his knowledge and skills to productive use. He applied as a researcher to the Institute of Financial Management and Research (IFMR) and secured it in Chennai. One of his projects involved studying banking systems in rural parts of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.
Little did Ajay know that this break would one day change his life goals and lives of hundreds of small-time farmers.
Learning the Harsh Realities From Farmers
As part of this fellowship programme in Tamil Nadu, Ajay regularly visited Thanjavur which is also known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu.
There, he found how farmers were struggling to cultivate rice due to several reasons like poor quality seeds, erratic climatic conditions, insufficient water and expensive labour.
“My interactions with the farmers were limited to their plans with regards to financial management. But often, they ended up describing their problems which were not impossible to solve. All they needed was access to the right technology to cut down capital costs and increase the yield,” says Ajay to The Better India.
After learning about the harsh realities of farming conditions in India, Ajay gave up his lucrative fellowship and formed an organisation called ‘Magasool’ (yield in Tamil) in 2012 along with Jayaram Venkatesan in 2012.
Magasool provides technology-based solutions that reduce investment prices, cultivation costs, usage of toxic fertilisers, water and manpower.
In turn, this has increased the yield and income by 20 per cent of close to 1500 marginal farmers in nine districts of Tamil Nadu.
In a paddy field, rice seeds are first sown and raised in a nursery. Once they grow in seedlings, they are transplanted across the field. These seedlings are as high as ten inches, and the majority of farmers in rural India transfer them manually.
Though transplanting requires less seed for good output, it is very labour-intensive and time-consuming. It takes approximately 14 workers and one day to complete the process in an acre of land.
While planting the seedlings, it is crucial to ensure that there is adequate space between each one. If this is not done, there is a risk of seedlings eating into each other’s nutrients and water, which can lead to sub-optimal plant growth.
Arranging for skilled labour is another challenge as most of them prefer working in big fields for more money. Since the labourers are hired on an hourly basis, farmers end up spending a lot, especially if the transplantation has to be repeated. This way, they not only lose a lot of money but also risk a low yield.
“We have seen from past experience that paddy profits can be increased by Rs 3500 to Rs 7000 per acre (more than 40%) with lean farming techniques of a modified system of rice intensification,” says Ajay.
The Solution For Farmers
Magasool lends the Modified System of Rice Intensification (MSRI) machinery that cultivates rice with a mix of organic fertilisers to farmers.
While the machine is lent without any charge, the farmer has to pay salary for the trained operator given by the organisation, running cost of machine and daily maintenance. Since the operator is a local who has been trained, the machine also generates employment.
“We did not provide training as multiple farmers in that village use one machine. So, whenever any of them need the machine, they call us and our operator goes to the field and does the job,” explains Ajay.
Weighing around 120 kilos, the machine transplants the 20-day old seedlings without disturbing the roots and plants them in an equidistant format allowing access to sunlight, water and root growth. It also weeds and loosens the soil, thus leading to better aeration and increased tillage. MSRI fields also require 25% less water in the initial ten days.
Vani Muthaiya, a farmer from Tamil Nadu’s Periyakulam town, was one of the first farmers to use the machine on his 7-acre field.
“I used to spend Rs 1.26 lakh on seeds, manpower to sow and transplant saplings every year with no guarantee of profits. Despite spending lakhs, it took ten labourers to transplant paddy on just one acre of the field in a day,” Vani shares with TBI.
After the intervention by Magasool, Vani’s capital cost reduced by almost 4,000 and yield improved by 15% per acre.
Additionally, Ajay claims that most farmers have recorded an increase of 10 to 20% in production and a rise in their incomes (anywhere between Rs 2500 to Rs 5000 per acre).
Tackling Problems In Drylands & Farms
As the company gradually made inroads in rural spaces, they encountered different issues on their way. One of the biggest issues was the indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals and fertilisers in fields for higher growth and killing of pests.
“The rampant use of harmful pesticides was most found in rain-fed fields. In districts of Tuticorin and Tirunelveli, farmers have only one cultivation cycle during monsoons. The sudden rainfall post-summer attract pests in huge numbers. Farmers spray high volumes of fertilisers on fields as they have only one chance for earning from their land,” says Ajay.
To help such farmers, the organisation trained them to develop eco-friendly fertilisers from cow dung and organic waste.
They have set up two vermicomposting units in Parameswaramangalam and Cuddalore village. Every month, both the units generate five tonnes of compost that serve around 400 farmers.
Though the farmers have not completely shunned pesticides, the usage has reduced to half, and farmers save around Rs 3,000 per acre by replacing it with organic compost.
The organisation has also introduced an alternate source of food consumption for farmers utterly dependent on rains.
They help farmers set up organic kitchen gardens and also provide vegetable seeds of leafy veggies, chillies, tomatoes, beetroots, and so on for free. A total of 500 farmers now grow their food for self-consumption four months in a year.
Ajay and Jayaram are now working towards collaborating with Gramvaani, a community radio that addresses local issues.
“The list of problems that farmers face daily is never-ending. While the government has made provisions where farmers can look for solutions in subsidies or YouTube tutorials, they are not region-specific. We want to produce content that caters specifically to the farmers of Tamil Nadu region, and feel that community radio is the best way to reach every farmer,” concludes Ajay.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)