Walking down a path of freshly watered red earth, Prathibha Reddy points out the varieties of produce growing in sectioned-off beds at Kamadhenu Organic Farms. The sun is pouring down onto rows of cauliflowers and cabbage, while vines of gourds creep up wooden trellises towards the cloud-filled blue sky. “They’re tiny during the summer and large in the winter,” Reddy explains as she gently moves the leaves aside to reveal a tiny head of white cauliflower.
Located in Bangalore’s rural district of Janthagondahalli, Kamadhenu is part of an area known for its sprawling agricultural land interspersed with colourful villages. It’s a far cry from the tech hub neighbourhood of Whitefield, a 30-minute drive away, where the offices of Xerox, IBM, Oracle and other large multinational corporations reside.
Freshly equipped with a masters in microbiology, Reddy says she prefers to work on her family’s farm, which grows over 40 varieties of vegetables on nearly two hectares of land. Using her hand to shade her eyes from the bright afternoon sun, the soft-spoken 25-year-old farmer shares, “We used to grow only one type of crop – carrots – and had no intention of growing multiple crops like cauliflower and eggplant together.”
But then, in March 2017, their regular middlemen – intermediaries tasked with assisting farmers to sell their harvest – cheated the Reddy family out of almost ₹300,000 (S$5,927) in annual carrot sales. Exploitation by middlemen is just one of the problems Indian farmers face today. The results of the 2018 World of Organic Agriculture report revealed that even though India accounts for 30% of the world’s total organic producers, its organic farmers are struggling to survive due to rising input costs, gaps in regulatory framework and challenges in obtaining certification and quality assurance. And in cities like Bangalore, rapid urbanisation has had further detrimental effects.
In fact, Bangalore has gone from being dubbed the Garden City in the 1920s, when it was filled with verdant spaces, to being renamed the Silicon Valley of India by the end of the 20th century. The frenetic pace of such a transformation has led to consequences such as an increase in sewage from new residential areas being diverted into Bangalore’s lakes, and unsustainable farming practices to support the city’s ever-growing population.
Many Bangaloreans are becoming more concerned with the environmental repercussions of such rapid development. Some locals have taken action by setting up socially conscious farms, retail operations and restaurants that address the lack of transparency in Bangalore’s food ecosystem and offer a greater choice when it comes to sustainable food options.
For 58-year-old S Madhusudhan, the cheery founder of back2basics, a Bangalore-based organic produce delivery service, the motivation to learn how to farm his own chemical and pesticide-free produce kicked in after witnessing a vegetable vendor in his neighbourhood washing carrots in sewer water. It was the only source of water available to him, a stark reality for some of Bangalore’s urban farmers, many of whom farm near the city’s polluted lakes. The self-taught entrepreneur began learning the basics of organic farming before starting the company in 2011.
Today, using ground water from bore wells dug deep into the earth, back2basics grows around 90 different varieties of domestic and exotic fruits, vegetables and greens, spread over approximately 202 hectares of farmland around Bangalore. Clients include farm-to-table restaurants like Go Native, organic grocery stores like Nisarga Shoppe and select gated communities within Bangalore.
Healthy Buddha, also a direct farm-to-home delivery service, was started in 2014 by two former co-workers, Gautham PB and Anurag Dalmia. For the upbeat Gautham, the impetus to start Healthy Buddha was born out of frustration with the lack of access to organic produce he experienced while working in the city. “It was always very expensive,” the 35-year-old Gautham recalls. “We realised if we can harvest it fresh and deliver it at a mid-point price, it will be a win-win for everybody.”
The company offers fresh produce like potatoes, pomegranates, gourds and beans, all seasonally grown and sourced from organic farmers near Bangalore as well as around Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Farmers who are part of Healthy Buddha’s network receive between 60–65% of the retail price. The founders believe that paying farmers a fair price for their work will motivate them to stick to organic methods.
Today, Healthy Buddha delivers organic products to over 2,000 customers each week, with most of their clientele being health-conscious Bangaloreans. According to Dalmia, the biggest challenge is awareness. “People think that organic is a fad…they don’t really understand why one should eat organic,” he laments. This is why Healthy Buddha also organises regular farmers’ markets as a way for consumers to directly engage with the farmers responsible for growing the food that lands on their plates.
In fact, it was regular visits to farmers’ markets that inspired 25-year-old Bangalorean Anvitha Prashanth to open a farm-to-table restaurant. The idea first came to her as an intern at an audio software company in Berlin, where she frequented the various farmers’ markets. Sitting in the dining space of her newest venture, Prashanth recalls the ease with which she was able to connect with Berlin farmers and discuss how their produce was grown. This connection was not something she had access to while growing up in India. Recognising the opportunity, the first-time entrepreneur moved home and set up Go Native, a retail-and-dining space in the Jayanagar neighbourhood, in 2017.
Clearly, she has hit on a burgeoning trend, evidenced by the steady stream of young urbanites filling the restaurant at lunch hour. “Ninety percent of our ingredients are sourced from within Karnataka state,” Prashanth says of the restaurant’s inventive Indian-focused seasonal menu. The brand’s success led to a second Go Native in March 2019 in HSR Layout, an upscale Bangalore suburb. There are now plans for four more locations.
Go Native is not alone. Since the 2002 opening of Lumiere, Bangalore’s first organic restaurant, there are now over 10 restaurants in the state capital crafting sustainable menus that focus on seasonal, often hyperlocal ingredients. Fava, helmed by former MasterChef India guest judge and award-winning chef Abhijit Saha, is one such establishment. “We source our ingredients from local farmers, while our vegetables and fruit are sourced from Mapletree,” Saha says, name-checking the Tamil Nadu-based organic farm that grows produce with zero pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Over at Forage, situated in the trendy Indiranagar neighbourhood, chef Himanshu Dimri crafts modern European cuisine using organic vegetables and meats sourced from in or around Bangalore.
It’s not just businesses that are getting in on the sustainability game. Everyday Bangaloreans are also now growing their own organic produce, an initiative made easier with startups like Farmizen. This mobile app enables consumers to create their own mini-farm by renting a 55m2 plot of land on a local organic farm for ₹2,500 per month (S$50) and choosing vegetables to be planted by the farmer. When it’s time for harvest, the app notifies customers so they can visit the farm and pick their crops.
Farmizen co-founder Shameek Chakravarty began growing food on his terrace before upgrading to a small 8m patch of land, which yielded about 20 to 30kg of produce per harvest. He soon realised other people were also interested in growing their own food but practical limitations prevented them from doing so. “That a-ha moment led us to start working on Farmizen,” Chakravarty says.
Convincing farmers to convert part of their land to mini-farms was one of the challenges the company faced when beginning in 2017. However, for the Reddy family, still trying to recoup the loss of carrot sales, the decision was an easy one. “Now we need not go to market and struggle to sell,” Reddy says, referring to Farmizen’s 50-50 profit-share model and guaranteed monthly payments. Seeing the Reddys’ success, more farmers came onboard with Farmizen. Starting with just 79 subscribers in Bangalore, the company now has over 1,500 as they begin to set their sights nationwide, with the launch of new programmes in Hyderabad and Surat mid-last year.
“Many of the problems that plague the city’s food system can be tackled if we were all just a bit more mindful of the consequences of our consumerist actions,” Go Native’s Prashanth says. “Giving people an opportunity to buy produce that’s affordable and accessible is key to helping Bangalore achieve its sustainability goals.”
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This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine