Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Indian farmers go bananas for easy irrigation

By Cassie Farrell
Alvin's Guide To Good Business, BBC World News, India

With seven months of drought each year, Indian farmers are rarely far from disaster. Could the answer be as simple as a piece of plastic tubing?

Eknath Tabaji Sangulpaye and his banana plants
Eknath Tabaji Sangulpaye has staked his livelihood on his banana crop

In Maharashtra, western India, the temperature is soaring into the forties. The monsoon is over and there are months of relentless baking sunshine ahead.

The fertile lands are turning into kilometre after kilometre of scorched brown earth.

Farming has become almost impossibly difficult. Solitary figures walk behind ox-drawn ploughs, struggling to till the hard soil.

The traditional way to water crops here is flood irrigation. Thick pipes carry water from wells and storage containers to the crops.

But this is only really possible in the monsoon months when water levels are high. When the water runs low, it just doesn't work.

Not-for-profit enterprise using affordable technology to fight hunger and poverty
Turnover in 2009: $32m
Total customers: 1,250,000 farmers
Total earnings of those customers: $1bn
Goal: To reach 10 million farmers in next decade

The average farmer's income here is just $2 a day - and that's when things are going well.

During the scorching summer months, many farmers simply give up the struggle and migrate to local towns. Here they join long job queues and often end up living rough on the streets.

It's depressing and degrading, but often the only way they can feed their families.

Through the parched landscape, Amitabha Sadangi, chief executive of International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), makes his way to a fledgling banana plantation beside a mud hut.

Irrigation targeting

With Mr Sadangi is business expert Alvin Hall. They have come to meet Eknath Tabaji Sangulpaye, whose hut and field represent his entire worldly wealth.

Eknath is one of Mr Sadangi's most recent customers. If he is to avoid the yearly migration to the city, he must find a way of growing crops on his meagre land all year round.

Mr Sadangi's irrigation system claims to be able to do just that - "crops all year round."

Eknath demonstrates his gleaming new purchase. Black plastic tubing criss-crosses his plantation, distributing small jets of water directly to each plant.

A farm in India
Below-normal monsoon rains have made the drought even worse

These small amounts of water are precisely calculated to the need of the particular plant. Hardly any water is wasted.

Mr Sadangi calls the irrigation system the Krishak Bandhu drip - KB drip for short - which means "farmer's friend" in Hindi.

Alvin is astonished that anyone would risk growing a water-hungry crop like bananas in this part of India, but Mr Sadangi reassures him.

"With the KB drip, these plants will survive on 70% less water than using the flood irrigation method," he says.

Bananas are a premium crop in this area and Eknath stands to do very well, if the crop survives. He could even quadruple the amount he would get for a more common crop, such as tomatoes.

But if the bananas fail, he will lose everything. It will be six months before Alvin discovers whether Eknath's gamble has paid off.

Cheap technology

Amitabha Sadanghi himself came from a poor farming background. In business, his goal has been to help farmers achieve a reliable, and even profitable lifestyle.

At first, he raised charitable donations so he could supply the irrigations systems free of charge to farmers. However, it quickly became obvious to him that this was an unsustainable business model.

In the past decade, 50% of farmers left the land
Farmer's average daily income: $2
More than 3,000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2008

Instead, he started to channel the donated funds into the research and development of new, better and crucially cheaper IDEI products.

The result has been extraordinary: irrigation systems costing as little as $10 to $30, by far the cheapest systems on the market.

Now he is developing new methods of powering the water-pumping mechanism.

He hopes a solar panel-powered pump will be on the market this year, which would significantly reduce the cost of power for the farmers.

IDEI have been promoting the KB drip in Maharashtra for four years, and Janardin Kuber was one of the first farmers to take it up.

Subash Kuber on his farm
Thanks to IDEI's irrigation, Subash has profited despite the harsh conditions

Janardin is in his mid-50s and has been farming all his life.

Over the last 30 years, he has been keeping accurate accounts of his farming business and as soon as he installed the KB systems, he started to see his profits rise.

As he told Alvin, "In the last year I have doubled my profits, I am a very happy man."

Janardin was so thrilled he recommended the KB drip to his cousin, Subash Kuber.

For many years, Subash had had to support his farming by working in the local town during the summer months.

Yet last year, the very first season after he installed the KB drip, he grew two crops of tomatoes earning a staggering $2,000 - easily enough to support his family all year round.

"The tomatoes saved my family and the KB drip saved my tomatoes," he says with a big grin.

Invoking the heavens

But what about Eknath and his bananas? Like most people here, he is a devout Hindu. Traditionally, the gods are called upon for help during the long dry months of summer.

Eknath has even built a small temple on his land, where he prays daily for divine intervention.

His banana plantation was not only threatened by lack of water, but also by a freak hailstorm which had battered the leaves and turned them brown.

Indian farmers queuing for jobs
IDEI aims to save more Indian farmers from long job queues

Eknath and his wife felt increasingly desperate. So, one day, he decided to climb down into his 30m-deep well to bless the water. The chanting and traditional smashing of coconuts lasted all day.

It's a heady mix - old India with all its superstition and ritual alongside the simple science of the KB drip system.

But for Eknath, it has all worked out. Six months after the bananas were planted, they have grown into huge leafy trees, heavy with fruit.

At least for this year, Eknath and his family are secure and his continued use of the KB drip system will hopefully ensure good fortune well into the future.

"I thought I would lose my plants," Eknath said. "But the KB drip gave me confidence and the bananas survived because of it. God has showered me with a wonderful crop."

IDEI's irrigation project was featured in the series Alvin's Guide To Good Business, transmitted on BBC World on 20 and 21 February 2010.

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