Sunday, 24 January 2010

Agriculture Practicals at a Primary School

Friends on my Facebook and Twitter network already know of a school programme I attended today, on bringing agriculture through practical work. This was at Academic Heights Public School’s new campus in Nagole (Hyderabad). This school was set up by a bunch of six professional managers / entrepreneurs who took a franchise for Andhra Pradesh from the SK Group of Bachpan fame (more popular in Delhi). Today I was the Chief Guest at the launch of their new programme called “Continuing Education and Learning Programmes for Students”. The first domain for this programme is titled “Hello Farmer” to enable students experience villages and farmers lives.

Many of you gave me valuable inputs on what I should cover in my talk. I’ve synthesized all of those ideas into my talk, as you can make out from what I reproduce below! I enjoyed the whole experience largely because of this interaction with many of you on Fb & Twitter over the last two days :-) Thanks a ton!

Before I started my talk, I wanted a sense of what the parents and kids present there thought about the whole initiative. Since the numbers were large, I couldn’t ask individual opinions. Instead I gave two options and asked for a raise of hands.

1. Parents: First choice was whether they “agree that practical / project work is great; exposure to agriculture is wonderful”. The second choice was if “all this is a waste of time and distraction from studies in today’s competitive world”. Overwhelming majority went with the first choice. There were a few who raised hands for the second choice too.

2. Kids: One choice was if “all of this was fun and joy” or anyone thought “this was pain, hard work and more burden”. Every single kid raised hand confirming this was fun!

I was therefore talking to the converted. So I focused on underscoring the value of this approach and brought out some nuances.

Here’s a summary of my talk:

I compliment the management and the faculty of the school for conceiving a structured programme that helps “learning by doing”.

In my opinion, ‘learning by doing’ is the second best form of learning, in the sequence of ‘learning by’… 1. ‘listening’ to a teacher / parent / friend, 2. ‘reading’ books, 3. ‘writing’ notes, 4. ‘seeing’ action as it happens or in films, 5. ‘doing’ by oneself, and 6. ‘teaching’ someone else using whatever method, the ultimate method of learning!

I believe, through this programme, the children learn three things:

1. Life Skills: Through any method of “learning by doing’, whether this programme or other such practicals / project work etc., children learn the very critical life skills. By life skills, I mean capabilities like gathering information, determining alternatives, making choices, appreciating future consequences of current actions, time management! These are as important, if not more, as the many subjects the children learn in the class room. Growing plants, watering them, monitoring the progress will develop a disciplined routine in the child.

2. Focus on practical work in agriculture & rural builds the character and value system in the kids: After experiencing the hardwork involved in farming, the unpredictability of survival & growth of plants, the children will value and respect a farmer. They will appreciate the dignity of labour. The children will also realize the value of food after experiencing the hard work involved in growing, and hopefully not waste food any more! Some parents know that this approach is likely to produce better results than any amount of telling and scolding the kids about wasting food :-)

3. This programme is also a great opportunity for the children to gain knowledge in some very important areas: While introducing me, the Principal mentioned ITC’s brands like Bingo Snacks, Aashirvaad Atta and Classmate Notebooks. I know, most kids are already familiar with these brands, now they will also know how agriculture is the starting point for all such products! Most of you heard about 2012 prediction, some of you may have seen the movie too… The end may not happen in 2012, but won’t be that far away if we do not bother about global warming; I am sure many of you are familiar with that phrase. I know some kids who actively farm on Farmville via Facebook are very aware of this phenomenon. It is important that all of us learn and practice various methods of conserving natural resources. Say, reusing kitchen waste water in the garden, composting vegetable waste into manure, using drip irrigation for saving water etc. I am sure the children will come back from school and teach a thing or two to the parents on this front. And, after all, if we are worried about global warming, it is for their future! Through these practicals, children will also learn about different soils, different conditions under which different crops grow, importance of variety localization, problems in growing some alien breeds etc. Most importantly, I think, the children will start loving fruits & vegetables and eat such nutritious food, without the nagging from the parents!

The beauty is that all of these important lessons – be it life skills, or value system, or the much needed knowledge – are all learnt while having a lot of fun by playing with sand and soil:-) Therefore will be internalized better!

In order to realize all of this,

1. a lot of innovation in the classroom is required, say showing films like ‘Bee Movie’ or pictures of ‘Urban farming’ using the multimedia, besides what is covered in the science class

2. supported by outdoor practicals at the school including growing a nursery from where the children can collect saplings for growing at home. Could be simple crops like pudina, coriander or even tomatoes and chillies

3. supplemented by a highly engaging homework like growing plants in pots or small patches at home, monitoring them and bringing results back to the school.

In short, an integrated design of the programme. That’s my recommendation to the school management and the faculty.

Before the launch speech, I planted a sapling. After the launch, the kids performed a skit on village life. That was lovely. At the end, all of us took a green pledge! Included in the pledge that each of us will plant at least one sapling every year and tend to it, knowing that that’s how a whole garden is taken care…

Before closing this blog, I want to again thank many friends on Facebook and Twitter who gave suggestions on what I should cover in my talk. I hope I’ve been able to incorporate all of them.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Agriculture & Climate Change: Aligning Small Farmers

Last week I spoke on this topic at the Global Forum on Food & Agriculture, Berlin. These were the broad talking points I had jotted down for myself:

A. All of us know the three dimensions of agriculture vis-à-vis climate change

1. That agriculture is a part of the problem, causing climate change through Green House Gas emissions (methane from flooded paddy fields & ruminants like cows, nitrous oxide from the soils, CO2 from fossil fuels used in farm equipment etc)

2. That agriculture is also one of the most vulnerable sectors impacted by climate change (fall in productivity due to changing weather patterns)

3. And, that agriculture can be an important part of the solution to climate change (through emission reductions, carbon sequestration, increasing soil organic matter etc)

B. At a macro level, what needs to be done to produce abundant food that is safe, healthy and climate friendly also seems to be reasonably well known!

But, unlike in other sectors, the key actors that need to implement these solutions are hundreds of millions of small farmers spread around the world.

C. The challenge of aligning the small farmers to climate change issues is four fold!

1. Bringing relevant information to farmers living in dispersed geographies, especially where the supporting infrastructure is weak

2. Personalising the sustainable crop & livestock management practices to individual farmer circumstances, and then transferring that knowledge

3. Coordinating availability of all inputs like credit, water, seeds, risk management instruments etc, so that the new knowledge is actually adopted by everyone

4. And, most importantly, providing a financial incentive to the individual farmer when he has a difficult trade-off between today’s cost and tomorrow’s benefit, or between individual effort and common good

D. There is a solution to this apparently complex challenge. In fact, it is practically demonstrated through our company’s innovative business model named ITC eChoupal; that reaches four million small farmers in India today.

Although Information Technology is the most known face of ITC eChoupal, the model has three equally important components.

1. Firstly, leveraging Internet and increasingly Mobile phones so that real time information and personalized knowledge can reach the small farmers in an audio visual mode

2. Secondly, co-opting social capital through user groups that can help equitable distribution of common resources like water; also helps in accessing indeigenous knowledge and in conducting participative research

3. Thirdly, a collaborative network of organizations working together to bring a complete end-to-end solution to the farmer through a meta-market approach

E. With this approach, I am confident that we can align small farmers in the war against climate change. This alignment will happen faster, if the international community creates a fair reward system for farmers recognizing their contributions to climate change mitigation (eg carbon sequestration activities and bio-based energy services)