Thursday, August 12, 2010

Patiala peg: A new venture proves that agriculture too can work

Vikas Kahol, Mail Today, 11 August 2010

A small initiative by a Punjab youth - who set up blended value agribusiness - has made a major contribution towards environment protection and bringing down the cost of farm production.The social venture - Zimidara Farm Solutions (ZFS) - started by the commerce postgraduate, Vikram Aditya Ahuja, in the border town of Fazilka has resulted in the training and employment of rural youth in the agricultural sector in addition to bringing some farmers out of the debt trap.

Vikram has now expanded his venture to Punjab's Malwa region including Ferozepur, Jalalabad, Fazilka, Arniwala, Tahliwala, Mamdot, Malout, Mukatsar, Abohar, and parts of northern Rajasthan like Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh.

Vikram's father Surinder K Ahuja, an agriculturist, motivated him to start his venture about six years ago. He started a farm equipment bank - the first of its kind in the private sector.
The equipment offered on rent by Vikram to farmers aimed at dissuading them from raising loans for buying farm machinery.He motivated about 500 families against investing in equipment and offered machines on pay-for-use basis which promoted his business interests too. The proposition suited the farmers and they started saving about Rs 2.50 crore yearly on interest since they did not buy expensive equipment on loan.

They collectively spend less than Rs 25 lakh on renting the farm machinery. At present, Zimidara Farm Solutions has been undertaking mechanisation of farms owned by about 6000 families in the region. A majority of them relied on laser leveling of land before sowing crops which resulted in water and energy conservation.

Teams of management professionals, agricultural experts and NGOs support the young entrepreneur in promoting environmentally responsible farm practices.They have been promoting direct seeding of rice to save money on labour, water and check emission of greenhouse gases.These teams hold village level meetings at least 4 times a week. They have been training farmers to use rice straw as manure after harvesting.

Straw is usually set on fire for clearing the field for the next crop. The practice leads to environmental pollution and loss of moisture in the field. Burning straw also kills crop friendly insects and deprives the land of natural nutri- ents. It is a menace which successive governments could not control despite a ban.

Since reaching out to every farmer is sometimes difficult, Vikram came up with another solution. He offers call centre services in Punjabi and Hindi languages. The service is operational for over eight hours daily. The female staff at the call centre, drawn from rural areas, assist farmers with solutions.

Vikram - who is also a recipient of a state award for helping small and marginal farmers - believes agriculture can be profitable if its input costs are reduced and avocation made sustainable. The key lies in the conservation of fuel, water and creating job opportunities in the rural sector.

He also helps organise awareness camps for apprising farmers of the benefits and shortcomings of traditional farm practices. His ZFS also partners with public and private organisations to make agriculture a sustainable activity. Recently, Vikram trained youth for launching the country's first " Dial-a-Tree" and Green Ambulance project for improving the green cover in Punjab's border town Fazilka. The service was launched in association with Graduates' Welfare Association of Fazilka (GWAF) and the Forest Department, Punjab.

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