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Restoring lands across South Asia with a unique entrepreneurial approach

An underlying threat to India’s people, climate and economy, land degradation has affected almost 30 per cent of its total land. As more than half of this degraded land consists of either farmlands or forests, it is directly affecting lives of more than 700 million people who either depend on agriculture or forests for their sustenance. Restoring these farmlands and forests is not just critical for supporting livelihoods of these farmers and forest dwellers, but also for building India’s defence against climate impacts. The good news is, over 100 million hectares of India’s total land offers opportunity for forest protection and landscape restoration, which can sequester 3 to 4.3 giga tons of above-ground carbon by 2040.

Tapping into this opportunity, the Land Accelerator South Asia, a unique program curated for South Asia, inspires and supports entrepreneurs working on sustainable business solutions. Intertwining sustainability in profitable business models, these ‘restoration entrepreneurs’ successfully lead and demonstrate sustainable business operations. Sustainability ensures that the business is operated without impacting the environment negatively. Such green businesses, function in the best interests of the local and global environment, as it supports local communities as well as economy, thus creating a healthy planet. Sustainable business practices are imperative for entrepreneurs, leaders, and administrators. It starts with awareness about the issue at hand and understanding just how important it is to make changes, both for businesses and the planet, to combat issues of land degradation and climate change. A sustainable business earns profits by being socially responsible and protecting overuse of ecosystem resources.

Now is the time for businesses to become part of the solution, practising tree based farm interventions like agroforestry and farm forestry, cultivating climate resilient indigenous crops that retain the soil productivity and ensure nutritional security, developing value-chains for organic and chemical free farm produce protecting natural flora and fauna for ecological biodiversity, reducing emissions and recycling waste – are just some of the areas where these entrepreneurs are striving to make a difference. Continuing to drive this incredible action, this year’s cohort of Land Accelerator South Asia program is hosting and supporting 46 more such extraordinary restoration entrepreneurs.

Array of restoration business solutions

Technology is emerging as a key supporting factor for land restoration solutions. Gathering farm level data on agro-ecological conditions through drones, Fuselage Innovations support in early detection of pests and weeds and provide advisory services. This not only enables optimal utilisation of resources, but also prevents dumping of harmful chemicals in the fields. Fuselage Innovations is presently supporting more than 220 farmers through farmer producer companies. Similarly, Aumsat Geospatial Technologies and Ekatvam Innovations are working towards data centric management of water resources for sustainable irrigation. Upai Analytics Private Limited and Almericus Blue Ventures Pvt Ltd also use data and technology to help farmers practising aquaculture by monitoring the fishponds and helping them choose the right approach for better yields with lesser carbon footprint.

As the world population and food production demands rise, maintaining soil health as well as productivity will become more challenging. To ensure this, several farmers are proactively working on improving their soil’s organic matter with more microbial activity by adopting organic land amendments to restore damaged or lesser productive lands. While Ekosight provides affordable soil testing solutions to farmers, Farmsons Agri Solutions Pvt Ltd and BomLife are providing organic soil supplements that take care of the nutritional needs of the plant and boost immunity. As a result, farmers are able to sequester more carbon, increase water infiltration, and improve soil microflora — all while harvesting better profits and better yields.

To localize fresh food ecosystems, companies are also creating value chains that are chemical-free and can boost soil productivity through diverse solutions, such as mixed farming, better awareness on sustainable agricultural practices etc. For instance, Good Food Village and myHarvest Farms are working to develop backward and forward linkages in this segment by training farmers on organic and sustainable farming techniques, developing food-forest models and also support them in value addition, thus providing healthy food for consumers and better incomes for farmers. To promote sustainable cultivation of millets, Grandmaa Millets, is also building a strong chain of customers preferring nutrition-rich, millet-based confectionery products Stronger value chains are crucial for boosting millets intake, which are not only significant for improving nutritional security with their high nutritional content, but are also considered as climate resilient crop.

Creating value chains for Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFPs) and indigenous crops is a critical step for improving livelihoods of communities living in and around forests. Enterprises such as Konkuwan Herbs, Thapasu and Vanabandhu Naturals work on sustainable livelihood opportunities, which can promote and protect genetic diversity of native crops, indigenous knowledge and also support community-led landscape management across India. These enterprises help in strengthening of NTFP value chains by providing better prices for NTFPs and indigenous crops by sustainable harvesting and value addition, thus boosting sustainable livelihoods for local communities.

As compared to these NTFP and farm-based value chains, developing market linkages for tree-based farm interventions an even more challenging. Timber supply chains are complex and fragmented, often spanning different jurisdictions and regulated by multiple government agencies discouraging the tree growers. Trying to provide an alternate solution for this, Lakkarwala developed an AI based marketplace where tree growers and farmers practising agro-forestry and farm-forestry can calculate the Standing Tree Market Valuation, find buyers online for selling timber, and get better prices through this transparent system. Their mobile app also provides a variety of solutions for tree valuation, advisory, quality report and tree harvesting facilities.

Enabling a circular economy, entrepreneurs are also working on innovative products/by-products which can utilize wastes from agricultural farms, forests, providing alternatives for safer disposal of organic biomass. For example, Dharaksha Ecosolutions and Senergy Pallet make eco-friendly packaging solutions with crop stubble, providing a solution for single-use plastic pollution. Similarly, Wena makes bio-char from bamboo while RExergy(India) Pvt Ltd. has developed e machine prototypes for producing biochar in an efficient way. Mushloop also works on sustainable packaging that replaces styrofoam – form of single-use plastic. They use mushroom mycelium and agri-waste to make the alternative packaging material. Recyteq is another enterprise which is validating a technology for making liquid nitrogen plant boosters from waste human hair by lab-testing and production of small samples of the nitrogen boosters. Green Cross Agritech’s Trinetra is a farm waste decomposer that helps farmers with quick post-harvest land preparation, and discourage from residue burning, by rapidly converting into manure.

Way Forward

While these entrepreneurs showcase a promising future with their unique, sustainable solutions, scaling up for larger level impact remains a challenge for these restoration businesses. Business acceleration through Land Accelerator South Asia is a steppingstone for these entrepreneurs to become more confident in building their business models and learn how to measure, document, and communicate environmental and social impact of their work. For this, the program design includes a focused mentorship on developing pitching skills, imbibing sustainability in their business operations and raise more funds. Successful stories from the previous two cohorts supported by Land Accelerator South Asia have demonstrated the potential of such restoration based businesses. With a larger support from impact investors, mentors, and industry experts along with an enabling entrepreneurial environment, these entrepreneurs can carve a better future for not just our planet but also for the people.

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