Goat doctors in Muzaffarpur turn vegetable entrepreneurs

Aga Khan Foundation has given women in this Bihar district a new source of income with state-of-the-art agricultural technology

October 05, 2023 12:11 pm | Updated October 08, 2023 11:04 am IST

A farmer holds her crop of brinjal and spinach.

A farmer holds her crop of brinjal and spinach. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Small lush green vegetable gardens, barely 20x30 ft., hemmed in by colourful saris and green netting to save them from marauding goats and cattle, are changing the rural landscapes of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. Some 6,585 households across seven blocks of the district now have a bounty of vegetables on their table; what the family cannot consume, they sell or gift to neighbours not fortunate enough to have a vegetable patch of their own. And the money earned is hugely empowering women.

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This vegetable revolution was initiated by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). It found that although the 350 women pashu sakhi (para vets), trained by the foundation to look after the goats, were earning about ₹3,000 a month, they seldom had vegetables to eat. Malnutrition was the norm. The pandemic and the sharp rise in vegetable prices impacted their health. So, to counter the nutrition deficit and to empower them financially, AKF selected 11 pashu sakhis and trained them to become nursery entrepreneurs.

Some 70 pashu saskhis now purchase quality seeds and saplings directly from the entrepreneurs.

Some 70 pashu saskhis now purchase quality seeds and saplings directly from the entrepreneurs. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Creeping up huts

Since October 2021, these entrepreneurs have been nurturing vegetable nurseries using modern techniques such as cultivating saplings in a controlled environment, using a soil-less method: growing them in trays and cocopeat without pesticides or chemicals. Even the landless are cultivating creeper vegetables in plastic bags or gunny sacks filled with a mixture of soil and cow dung, or vermicompost, next to their huts. The gourds and bean stalks climb their hut and start fruiting.

The poshan vatikas, or nutrition gardens, as the women call them, are irrigated with the waste water from kitchens and toilets.

The poshan vatikas, or nutrition gardens, as the women call them, are irrigated with the waste water from kitchens and toilets. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Some 70 pashu saskhis now purchase quality seeds and saplings directly from the entrepreneurs and sell them to other women in the villages, creating a chain of women trading in vegetable saplings: cauliflower, cabbage, brinjal, tomato, chillies, beans, and gourds. Every three months, the women grow new seasonal vegetables. If the pashu sakhi buys them from the nursery entrepreneur at ₹1 a sapling, she sells it for about ₹1.50. On average, a household spends ₹75 to ₹90 on seedlings that give them enough vegetables for three months, until the next set of vegetables is available.

The poshan vatikas, or nutrition gardens, as the women call them, are irrigated with the waste water from kitchens and toilets.

Bounty in trays

Laxmi Devi, 31, a mother of three, of Bishanpur Bakhi village in Muzaffarpur, has passed Class VIII and is today one of the successful nursery entrepreneurs of her district. Her husband is a daily wage labourer in Rajasthan and managing the home is her responsibility. In 2019, despite resistance from the family about her venturing out of her home, she joined the AKF Project Mesha and trained to be a pashu sakhi. She also looks after her own nine goats.

Laxmi Devi, a successful nursery entrepreneur.

Laxmi Devi, a successful nursery entrepreneur. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In October 2021, Laxmi was selected, trained and her skills upgraded to be a nursery entrepreneur. The project also provided trays, tarpaulins and other material to start the nursery.

She found the roots developed well in the trays and the survival rate was 100%. Collaborating with other nursery entrepreneurs, she successfully marketed and sold these plants to other goat doctors who in turn sold them to village women who had small vegetables patches. From her first crop, she was delighted to earn a profit of ₹5,000.

Encouraged by her success, Laxmi expanded her nursery. She ordered more trays and cocopeat and grew five types of creeper vegetables. She also ventured into seed packing and sales. The second cycle brought her a profit of ₹19,000. Since then, she has grown saplings in multiple cycles and earned a total profit of ₹98,000. She now orders trays and other items required for the nursery online. With the thriving nursery business, she now plans to buy a parcel of land.

Gaining confidence

Rekha Devi, 34, from Nawada village, has also studied till Class VIII and has three children. Her husband is a farmer, but quite clearly it is Rekha Devi who has the heart and the head for business. She moved on from being a pashu sakhi to an agriculture entrepreneur in 2022. She had half a khatta (1,100 sq.ft.) of land on which she could start the nursery shed. AKF provided her the initial investment of about ₹50,000. She was trained till she acquired confidence. She now grows vegetables of the season from brinjals to gourds, tomatoes to cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and other leafy vegetables. Seventy pashu sakhis collect saplings from her and sell it to the thousands of other women rearing goats. In a year, she makes a profit of ₹55,000 and, like Laxmi, wants to expand her nursery venture.

Sita Devi, 34, of Narauli Sen village, rears goats and was dependent on an unsteady ₹400 daily wage her husband earned as a farm labourer. She had to ensure there was enough food on the table for her family of five. Though she has half a khatta of land and learnt about the importance of nutrition gardens, her attempts at growing vegetables were initially unsuccessful. Then she was introduced to a pashu sakhi supplying quality saplings and seeds. An active member of a producers group in her village, she learnt about the value of vegetables and nutrition in the diet of her family. She has turned her half a khatta of land into a poshan vatika or nutrition garden. AKF helped her prepare beds, and she quickly improved her gardening skills. Now she wants at least two fruit trees in her backyard: preferably papaya and pomegranate.

As the poshan vatika idea caught on, about one lakh fruit trees have been planted in the district: and the most popular fruits are papaya and pomegranate, besides banana, mango and custard apple.

The writer is a pioneering development journalist based in Delhi.

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