I wish Elon Musk worried about the rhizosphere: Manoj Kumar

Farmers at a plantation   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If there is a silver lining to the gloom, it is that the pandemic has pushed us to rethink a number of faulty modern-day practices. For Manoj Kumar, CEO at Hyderabad’s Naandi Foundation, the time is opportune to educate people about why agriculture isn’t all about spraying chemicals in fields. “Food can be used to fight climate change by understanding how it is grown, who is growing it, and later, by taking a philosophical stand and refusing to consume food if the farmer isn’t making any profit from it,” says the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation’s annual Food Vision 2050 prize. Launched last year, the award is an invitation for organisations across the globe to develop a vision of the regenerative food system they aspire to create by 2050.

Manoj Kumar

Manoj Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For Kumar, the award recognises his application of Arakunomics — an integrated economic model that ensures profits for farmers and quality for consumers through regenerative agriculture (a system of farming that focusses on top soil regeneration and increasing biodiversity) — in Araku, Wardha and New Delhi. Marking a spot among the 10 awardees gets the Foundation a $200,000 grant, which he plans to direct towards twin purposes. First, to build a technology backbone and develop reliable software for their farm projects. The second vertical will have them build robust, evidence-based advocacy for policy changes. This includes studies on the nutrient and immunity quotient of commonly consumed food.

Future farms

For an organisation that works solely with rural communities, one would imagine weathering a pandemic would be particularly challenging. However, keeping their acclaimed agriculture projects (in tribal areas) insulated did not take much effort, explains Kumar. “In the past decade, we’ve only had five non-natives stationed at our farms in Araku and Wardha. The remaining 400-odd ecology trainers are from the area. While the villages were cordoned off, it had no effect on the food production in the projects and urban farms.” This, he adds, is proof that local self-sufficiency in food production is the only secure way forward. His aim is to use such lessons to make agriculture biodiverse, sustainable and accessible for Gen Z.

All things coffee
  • Come November, Kumar hopes to see one of his more ambitious projects take off: a two-storey café at Bengaluru’s Indiranagar. “Spread across 6,000 sq ft., it will have a handcrafted brewing section, a machine-driven section, coffee tasting, etc. We’re also planning short-term and long-term barista courses.”
  • Customers can expect a predominantly continental menu offering a gourmet take on millets, vegetables and fruits, all sourced from the farm in Karnataka’s Krishnagiri district, along with a selection of the café’s own breads and ice creams.

Inspired by the success of his economic model, Kumar is now working towards putting the spotlight on food and nutrition through urban farms. “Why should our food come only from areas beyond 2,000 km from our cities?” he asks. While the maiden urban farm project launched in New Delhi last year, similar initiatives will be launched near Bengaluru and Hyderabad later this year. Following the New Delhi model, the 10-acre farm in Karnataka will not only serve as a food processing unit, but also hand out organic seeds and specially-formulated top soil to organic farmers. “We focus on life below the soil and around the roots of a plant, known as the rhizosphere. I wish Elon Musk worried about this more than the stratosphere!” says Kumar, who will strengthen these initiatives with the new funding.

A farmer harvesting cauliflower

A farmer harvesting cauliflower   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Green by design

Early next week, the Foundation’s in-house e-platform, urbanfarmsco.com, is all set to go live. While the plan is to eventually function as a full-fledged e-commerce site, for now it will list information on all the produce at the Foundation’s farm projects and where customers can get them.

Keeping in mind the stress Arakunomics lays on global knowledge exchange, he is also exploring collaborations with pepper processing experts in Denmark (who specialise in pepper essence and oil production) to understand how the spice they grow in Araku can be used to make oil. “We’ve gained our knowledge about harvesting coffee mainly from Japanese, Korean and French experts, who in turn gathered their expertise in places like Ethiopia. We might be agriculture experts primarily, but we can learn value addition from the world,” he concludes.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 4:03:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/manoj-kumar-of-naandi-foundation-on-winning-the-rockefeller-foundations-annual-food-vision-2050-prize/article32402530.ece

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