I moved to Mumbai a year ago, recruited from an American university to join Mahindra’s Global Recruit Program. Over the past 12 months, Mumbai has come to feel as much like home as Boston, but understanding Mumbai is a far cry from understanding India. When Mahindra added a rural project with the Naandi Foundation to the induction of new recruits this year, I asked to go along.
At the briefing, Executive Vice President of Group Human Resources Allen Sequeira voiced the open secret that most middle-class urban Indians—in a word, us—feel as little connected to rural India as rural Idaho. But we are connected to them as people and as countrymen, and Mahindra is connected to them as customers and business partners. The rural stint, he hoped, would teach us about Bharat and integrate an understanding of rural India into our roles in a corporation capable of large-scale impact.
During our ten days in the Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh, Naandi tasked us with creating a survey of tribal farmers’ baseline incomes to use as a yardstick for measuring its impact. As we designed, field tested, and redesigned our survey, we learned about the insights that have enabled Naandi’s success—and learned how to stimulate insights of our own.
Building on the positives
Conventional wisdom tells us it’s a shame that tribals were bypassed by the Green Revolution, when India boosted agricultural productivity with widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides (among other things) in the 1960s and 70s. But it’s because of their inability to afford pesticides, not in spite of it, that tribals are now earning more in the Araku Valley.
Naandi’s key insight is that since tribals can’t afford pesticides, they already grow organic coffee by default. By exporting it to an international specialty market leery of Green Revolution chemicals, they can earn far more than they do in local markets. The solution is elegant: no additional inputs are needed, villagers need not change the way they live and work, and the importance of organics safeguards the valley from environmental degradation.
To date, Naandi has helped over 11,040 farmers become International Organic and Fair Trade certified. Through a farmers’ cooperative (set up by Naandi and now fully self-governing), they pool the yields from each household’s 1-3 acres to sell to firms from countries like the US, Japan, and Italy. Naandi reports that the price of the processed coffee has risen 92% since 2006.
Making what’s good for the planet good for villagers
As the price of coffee goes up, so does the health of local forests.
When villagers started logging the slopes of the Araku Valley for some extra cash, Naandi proposed a smart intervention that protects trees by addressing the root problem—insufficient incomes. Coffee needs shade. As it becomes more lucrative, farmers choose to grow more coffee. The income incentive now protects trees instead of threatening them.
Naandi is also helping villagers reforest the Araku Valley and earn carbon credits. They train local farmers to grow teak, bamboo, and fruit tree saplings to sell back to Naandi at half the market price. The valley’s ample rainfall minimizes the cost of irrigation and growing saplings where they are sold cuts the cost of transportation. Then Naandi plants the trees in barren land to revitalize depleted soils. More than 2 million trees have been planted so far, enriching the environment and strengthening the local economy.
Our experience: Crafting a survey that gets what it asks for
Over the ten-day stint, we built our survey through a pattern of field testing and revision. It was a slow process, funneling our questions through a translator. We learned as much from the slowness as from the responses. The pace of life. Something you’d have to experience at length to really understand.
And as we became comfortable tucked under the eaves of village houses in the rain, our insights began to change. The cultural immersion in village life helped us ask the right questions—questions that come from the village, not the city.
No such thing as a free checkup
We learned that health is a big concern. Malaria often strikes the same person three or four times in a year, and joint problems from long hours in the paddies are common. For treatment, villagers choose between visiting the local untrained doctor for traditional remedies, the free government hospital, and private care. But why did so few people visit the free government hospital?
Sriram, a wiry middle-aged blacksmith in a dhoti, explained that each time they visited the government hospital it cost them bus fare, a boxed lunch, and a lost day’s wages. Summed up, free care cost more than the local doctor!
What’s mine is yours
How much land do you own? How much land do you cultivate?
At first, we thought these were simple questions. We couldn’t understand why the land villagers owned plus the land they cultivated but did not own (mostly encroached government land) invariably failed to match the sum of their acres of coffee, chilies, turmeric, and paddy. And the amount of land they claimed to own never matched their titles. Not even once.
After four revisions, we realized that the problem wasn’t how we asked the question—it was the question itself. Villagers simply didn’t experience land ownership the way that we did. For them, land ownership is granted not just through titles, but through panchayat rulings and mutual understandings between friends. By redefining landholdings to describe village life, we were able to get much better data.
Seeing the whole elephant
Naandi’s strategy in the Araku Valley rests on the idea that smart interventions should fit into villagers’ existing way of life—they shouldn’t force cultural change. And in order to be sustainable, they should be good for both people and the earth.
Our lesson was similar. Our past learning shouldn’t hegemonize what we learn today. We had to stop trying to fit our observations into what we thought we knew. When you move across the world, across the country, or even just across the office, you also need to move away from your old perspective—to let insight flow from observation rather than prior knowledge.
There’s an ancient Indian parable about six blind men who want to know what an elephant is like. One man grabs hold of the trunk and says it is like a rope. Another feels its leg: it is like a pillar. A third touches its ear: it is like a fan. After my stay in the Araku Valley, I still don’t know what India is like. But I know that there is much more out there, and I feel like I have at least touched its feet.
About the Author
Kate joined Mahindra in June 2010 as a Global Recruit. A member of the Mahindra Rise team, she works on internal and external brand engagement campaigns. Originally from a small town outside of Boston, MA, she has loved being overwhelmed by Mumbai. She graduated from Cornell University, USA with a degree in Economics in 2010.