This is the story of an elderly woman suspicious of innovation. She felt her three acres of land in India was destined to be flooded and water-logged, and it was impossible to have even a subsistence living from crops. The future was bleak for this family of five in the western state of Gujarat. One member of the family, the woman’s husband, was in a wheelchair. To find any work for a meager salary they had to go into cities.
The entire family survived the whole year on $150.
Enter into this picture an economist on water resources, Biplab Ketan Paul, and his wife, Trupti Jain. She heads Naireeta Services, an organization aimed at helping poor farmers as well as elevating the status of women in India. Biplab had invented a new use for an ancient tool, the bhungroo, which is basically a hollow tube to blow air on open ovens so fires will stay lit. It has been around for generations.
However, Biplab discovered that the bhungroo could be used to capture water in rainy seasons and store it for irrigation. Naireeta sold this innovation to farmers, but on the basis of their ability to pay.
In fact, they surveyed the region to determine the poorest of the poor, and to those, they would provide the bhungroo and training without cost. The older woman was grateful but didn’t think she could be helped. “She simply didn’t believe or trust us,” said Biplab. “She was told by a women’s organization that she had nothing to lose by trying, and she responded, ‘Try if you want, but I don’t believe you.’”
So, Naireeta tried—and succeeded. It was incremental; they first had to show that the innovation could alleviate the problem of waterlogged land, which prevented planting seeds and tilling the soil. After the first year, the water problem was solved. She was happy but had been reluctant to plant anything but cereal.
We reinvest all profits back into the program. We go by Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of serving the last person in the queue in the best possible way.
Biplab, quoting the woman, said, “We asked her why she didn’t plant a more substantial crop. ‘You told me you could take away the excess water, but I really didn’t know if I could grow anything.’
In the second year, she was able to grow millet. “She was crying from happiness,” said Biplab. “She said she had been borrowing millet from everyone to feed her family.” The woman explained this way: “It wasn’t just a grain, the millet, it got me back my dignity in the village.” After that, the woman irrigated and was ready for a winter crop.
In a dozen years, the bhungroo system and Naireeta have been good for the family. Though the woman’s head of household eventually died, the family now has five acres and the family members have progressed.
“Now they have their own house and animals, and they are cultivating two crops in a season,” said Biplab. “They have gone from a yearly family income of $150 to $3,000. Currently, they have two bhungroo installations and are helping neighboring farmers by giving them irrigation water.”
As significant as the economic progress of the family, who are from a lower caste system in India, is their standing in the community. For the last 10 years, they have helped support 11 farm families on 18 acres of land. “All the associated families have increased their family incomes ten-fold,” said Biplab. “Where before, they were discriminated against. Now others in the village are asking for their help.”
This is the philosophy followed by Biplab and his wife Trupti and their company. The bhungroo is typically an instrument used by women. Trupti is especially active in training women in its use, empowering them.
The principle behind the bhungroo was discovered one day by Biplab when he observed a little girl standing four feet deep in a hole located in a dry pond bed. She was gathering up dark salty water that had seeped to the surface, providing her family with drinking water. There was water available four feet below the dry pond bed, and that water was dark and salty. Thus there was a difference in water density between rainwater and the water below the pond bed.
So, Biplab figured, one needed only to allow the low-density surface level rainwater to reach salty subsoil water following the monsoon periods and store it for the dry season. Then, it could be lifted and pumped out for irrigation. “After the monsoons, everywhere is waterlogged,” said Biplab. “If we could store this excess rainwater underground, then we can save standing monsoon crops, and we can pump it out in the dry season for irrigation. Thus two problems can be solved.”
Naireeta Services has an open-sourced bhungroo technology. It is being utilized currently in 10 regions of India, as well as in Vietnam, Ghana and Bangladesh reaching an estimated 100,000 farmers. The cost of the system depends on a farmer’s ability to pay—whether it is being provided to a rich or a poor farmer, said Biplab. “It’s not about making money,” said Biplab. “We reinvest all profits back into the program. We go by Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of serving the last person in the queue in the best possible way.”
Naireeta Services’ innovation has received numerous awards, including funding from the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program which is backed by USAID and the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa. The SWFF funds and the strategic technical assistance that went along with it came after Naireeta entered a rigorous competition with several thousand competitors and was one of several dozen chosen.
The goal of Biplab and Trupti is to increase India’s annual agriculture income by $1.5 billion annually. In the next five years, the organization will equip 1,000 women to become agriculture and irrigation consultants to small farmers.
The plan is to install 10,000 bhungroo units, which will enable 50,000 families to triple their income.
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.