DEEP SONU BRAHMA

Target Population:
India,

Deep is working to reshape the negative attitude of young people toward agriculture by integrating a learning model, that provides children a hands-on experience to farming and the agricultural value chain, into the education system. Through his farmpreneur program in schools, Deep is repositioning farming as an aspirational career while simultaneously instilling entrepreneurial skills among children.

This profile below was prepared when Deep Jyoti Sonu Brahma was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.

INTRODUCTION

Deep is working to reshape the negative attitude of young people toward agriculture by integrating a learning model, that provides children a hands-on experience to farming and the agricultural value chain, into the education system. Through his farmpreneur program in schools, Deep is repositioning farming as an aspirational career while simultaneously instilling entrepreneurial skills among children.




THE NEW IDEA

With unrealized wealth locked away in agriculture on the one hand, and high levels of youth unemployment and ensuing poverty on the other hand, North Eastern region of India and Assam in particular, seems to be a paradox. Recognizing that the negative perception to agriculture begins at a young age and is reinforced by the laid-back culture in the region, Deep launched farmpreneur clubs in schools that enable children in the north-eastern region of India to see agriculture as an exciting and entrepreneurial opportunity.

Through the “farmpreneur program” in schools, Deep encourages children to create and take charge of school gardens. His program enables children to master technical and changemaking skills and leveraging them to act key agents of change to create an entrepreneurial energy within communities. They learn and practice chemical-free farming practices and also co-create innovative solutions to address challenges and inefficiencies. Exposure visits to agro-processing units and sale of produce at agricultural fairs enable children to connect with the larger eco-system and see economic returns. By practicing these new methods at home and conducting awareness programs in their villages, children also influence their parents and communities to prepare vermicompost and practice organic farming methods. Engagements with progressive farmers as ‘knowledge partners’ expose and motivate children to practice cutting edge methods and provide the much-needed recognition to farmers. These strategic inter-generational engagements are nurturing an entrepreneurial energy in the communities.

In the last two years, the farmpreneur program has directly impacted 800 students across 40 schools in two districts of Assam. He is now expanding to other districts and plans to extend this to other states. To embed the idea within schools, he is also working to integrate the programme in the Central Board of Secondary Education’s Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system.




THE PROBLEM

All Central Ministries/Departments are required to earmark at least 10% of their budget to advance development in India’s north eastern region. Despite this, the region continues to remain backward. The World Bank describes conditions in the region as a low-level equilibrium of poverty, non-development, civil conflict and lack of faith in political leadership. As per the 2001 census, the annual per capita income of the north-eastern region is 6,625 INR against the rest of India’s average of 10,254 INR.

This situation is partly due to a lack of employment opportunities in the region. Agriculture - which employs over 70% of the region’s population – is characterised by low productivity. Although the region has 8% of India’s total geographical area and is extremely fertile, it produces only 1.5% of the nation’s food grains. The states in the region continue to be net importers of food grains.  

This can be largely attributed to the laid-back culture and lack of an entrepreneurial approach to issues in the region. Fertile soil and abundance of water allows farmers to sustain themselves even if they till their land only once a year.  The abundantly available water invariably ensures a good crop. As this, coupled with what they fish and grow from their gardens is enough to feed him for the whole year, they lack incentive to do anything more. There is a social taboo about going for another crop in the same year. The few progressive farmers, who find new solutions and techniques to improve productivity or income, also do not get much recognition for their work. 

But this practice makes farming unattractive for the youth who seek higher economic opportunities and engagement with the industry. It is not seen as an industry and the lack of positive role models makes farming a less aspirational profession. The younger generation is increasingly migrating to other regions to pursue alternative livelihoods. A recent study in Assam revealed that most of the farmers were above 50 years of age and that 43% wanted to leave farming. Education is seen as a path out of relying on land for livelihood, rather than as a way to learn how to increase farming productivity.

Between 2011 and 2022, there will be 17 million people seeking jobs in the region but they will only have access to 2.6 million jobs. To attract youth to farming and ensure that they have the skills to build local opportunities, it is essential to inculcate entrepreneurial skills amongst the youth and to change their approach agriculture.




THE STRATEGY

Deep’s organization Farm2Food Foundation leverages government-run schools in Assam as primary entry points to influence the attitudes and skills of children and youth. Working with the school leadership, he starts ‘Farmpreneur clubs’ which are aimed at changing the way children approach farming while developing entrepreneurial skills in their formative years. The clubs are launched after a workshop with the parents of the club members to build their alignment with the vision. Each club typically comprises 20 students between grades four to eight. Two teachers from the school, who are trained by his team, act as the school coordinators for the club. 

The club members or ‘farmpreneurs’ create and take charge of the school garden. They  learn and explore how to cultivate crops, improve soil quality and manage pests using chemical-free farming techniques. Children are also introduced to simple but effective techniques to address commonly faced challenges in the region. For example, as most of region is non-irrigated, children are also taught to build jal kund (water font) that can capture and store rainwater. Similarly, as heavy rains typically make it impossible to plough the land, children are encouraged to grow saplings in gunny bags kept indoors till the land is ready to be sown for the next cycle. Further, as malnutrition is rampant in the region, produce from the school gardens is also used to supplement the free carbohydrate-rich mid-day meals provided in government schools with green leafy vegetables, which has improved the quality of the meal for 6000 students. 

Skills and knowledge in agriculture are linked to the larger environment. The garden activities are also linked to the mainstream curriculum such as charting the growth of plants in graphs and calculating how much produce can be grown on a given area of land to practice mathematics. Produce of the ‘School Nutrition Garden’ is sold to the school authority and the income is distributed among the club members. To inculcate healthy financial attitudes and skills from an early age, a bank account for each of the club members is opened in a nearby bank and enables them to create small. 

In addition to learning technical skills, children develop problem-solving skills by designing creative solutions in low resource settings. For example, instead of using harmful pesticides, students now paint a plastic bottle yellow to mimic the colour of marigolds and line its exterior with grease to trap insects. They also prepare vermicompost (a practice that converts chemical-free waste into beneficial bio-fertilizers) in the thermocol boxes that are used to import fish into Assam and which have become an environmental hazard. 

To orient and inspire children to explore opportunities in the agricultural sector, Farm2Food Foundation also conducts exposure visits to the agricultural university and food processing units. This changes the perception of farming amongst children from an occupation to an opportunity to practise entrepreneurship and engage with an industry. Children enjoy the opportunity to exchange knowledge with experts in the field and this also allows them to position themselves as knowledge leaders in their communities. In addition, the club members are connected with aspirational role models- progressive farmers who have adopted sustainable farming practices that are innovative and environment friendly. Farm2Food Foundation not only engages these model farmers to not only recognize them and build their entrepreneurial skills but also share their learning’s with the next generation. Today, the field of 14 model farmers have become farm-learning centres for Farmpreneur clubs as well as other farmers in the community. 

Deep’s strategies are designed to leverage children as agents of change in their communities. By encouraging children to discuss and try techniques they learn at home, Deep creates an indirect channel of communication with the elders in the village. Each farmpreneur prepares a vermicompost box at home and their enthusiastic supervision of it piques their parent’s curiosity and interest. The vermicompost produced also earns the children an income, as Farm2Food collects it from them through schools and sells it at their store. This vermicompost is sold under the “Earth Care” brand at the Farm2Food store and the proceeds from its sale are transferred to the farmpreneurs bank accounts to build their saving habit. Further, the children also conduct workshops in the community to educate other households about vermicomposting and mobilize women self-help groups for other training programs run by Farm2Food such as on food processing. This has helped Farm2Food Foundation establish 75 self-help groups. One group of students from the Mising tribe are working on setting up a knowledge information centre for their community to take this forward.

To ensure proper implementation, Farm2Food’s staff conducts monthly monitoring visits to schools. They evaluate the club’s progress and review the documentation of the club activities maintained by the girl captain and boy captain of the club. They also visit club members’ parents to discuss their experience in adopting the practices recommended to them by their children. In case of any issues, they advise them on potential solutions and offer to follow-up on their next visit. For instance, if a parent complains that ants have been entering the vermicompost box, they suggest placing jaggery in a bowl of water near the box to trap the ants. Parents are invited to supply vermicompost for the “Earth Care” brand as well, providing them with a monetary incentive to adopt chemical-free farming. 

Parents and teachers in schools participating in the Farmpreneur programme report a noticeable increase in discipline and academic performance of the children. Parents’ engagement with schools and their children’s education has increased, as they can relate to what is being taught and offer their inputs.

To encourage the clubs to exchange their learnings, Deep brings together farmers clubs from across different schools to participate in an annual exhibition  that showcase their vermicompost and produce to government officials and agricultural organizations. Prizes amounting to Rs. 1 lakh are awarded by the government to the top three schools that have the most active clubs. 

To make this Farmpreneur programme sustainable, Deep is working with schools to integrate them with the Central Board of Secondary Education’s Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system - a newly introduced system of school based assessment for broad-based learning amongst students of sixth to tenth grades. By supporting teachers in their implementation of CCE based on students’ participation in the Farmpreneur clubs, Deep strengthens the link between the Farmpreneur programme and the schools. By 2015-16, Farm2Food aims to expand to 150 schools in 4 districts.




THE PERSON

Deep was put in a boarding school early in life as his father was frequently transferred across different remote hospitals. Being from the northeast part of India, he was easily identified as some who looked different and was discriminated against, at times. He remembers this being a very difficult time for him and his family. 

So, when the students’ movement that centered on bringing back respect for the local people of Assam began, he deeply identified with the cause. He dropped out of school at the age of 16  and worked at mobilizing youth and communities.  However, as the movement grew Deep recognized that the movement was becoming more political than social.  While the issue still resonated with him, he went back to school. 

For his graduation, Deep went to Aurobindo College in Delhi. At this time, Deep joined the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the movement against the Narmada dam). For Deep this was a transformative experience. In contrast to the student movement, he saw the power of a movement that stayed centered around an issue and an idea. Engaging with leaders of the movement also made him recognize that changemaking was much an internal process as it is external. It also helped him move from a place of anger to one that was more reflective. His commitment and credibility helped him win the students’ elections in a college that was otherwise very political. 

Upon graduation, Deep joined Pravah- an organization started by Ashoka Fellow, Ashraf Patel. Over the next nine years, he worked extensively with children and youth. He led the school intervention program that focused on life skills education and the rural immersion program for school children. As he facilitated journey of others, he reflected deeply on opportunities and the role he sought to play. He sought to go back to where his journey started- in Assam and hear the thoughts of the community there. Interactions with the community made him realize that at the root of the problems affecting the region was skills and positive work culture among the youth. Intensive discussions with his friend and colleague Gaurav Gogoi, helped him refine the idea. They combined Gaurav’s interest in influencing agriculture and Deep’s interest in impacting children and education, to launch Farm2Food Foundation in 2011.