Turning Waste to Wealth for Indian Farmers

In the midst of a range of green mountains lies Nilgiris, a small district in Tamil Nadu in Southern India that is home to over 80,000 farming families. Currently the district faces three major sanitation and environmental challenges that affect agriculture: 1) chemical fertilizers have contaminated the plants, soil, and water1; 2) Nilgiris was only declared open defecation free in 2018 when the community gained full access to proper toilets; and 3) fecal sludge from the toilets has been discharged into the forest and river. 23

New innovations for impact and profit

RDO Trust, a nonprofit that has worked in Nilgiris for over 40 years, sees these  challenges as an opportunity to serve the rural community by pioneering a circular economy model that combines sanitation and agriculture by using low-cost technologies. This regenerative approach focuses on increasing the efficient use of natural resources to minimize waste creation and reduce carbon emissions.

Our innovation has been dealing with two waste streams for the production of the product, which is called the co-compost. The two waste streams are the wet waste or the biodegradable waste and the recycled fecal sludge. Put together, we have the co-compost to sell to the farmers as a business.” RDO Trust Executive Director, Rajkumar Sampath explained.

Building smallholder farmer relationships

Initially, RDO faced acceptance barriers from farmers in the district. 

Formation of windrow composting by Women Green Workers Partnership Firm Members (WGWPF)

Nilgiris was not yet on its three-year roadmap to adopting organic farming, so farmers were still using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, farmers had a negative perception of co-compost due to its use of human waste. 

To win their customers’ hearts and share the products’ benefits, RDO spent months building trust and confidence among the farming community.

“We asked the farmers what compost they are using, and…if they knew what is in that compost. The answer was no. Nothing is transparent. [They] only know the name and don’t know much about the composition,” Rajkumar shared. We told the farmers that we want to be transparent with them. So, we said that this compost has wet waste [and] fecal sludge, but both things are treated very well. We also took farmers to the processing unit to see the compost production, and share[d] with them the analysis report. So, the farmers were very happy to see this transparency. [Also] the price  has been very negotiable or very affordable [for] farmers. Eventually, they were convinced that they could use this co-compost.” 

Women farmers who are members of Farmers Producer Companies and Farmers Groups are seen applying co-compost and sowing vegetable seeds.

The exchange of information and willingness to explain the product are not the only ways RDO engages the local community. The innovation is facilitated through a social enterprise that employs a group of women called “women green workers, or sanitary workers.”

A bright future for RDO’s innovation and farmers

After their past success, RDO planned to expand their business and bring their innovation to new town panchayaths and municipalities. Their plans are well underway, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Water for Food and Energy (WE4F) during the South and Southeast Asia Regional Innovation Hub’s first Regional Call for Innovations. 

RDO Trust also receives support that will help them identify suitable households for cooperative expansion and collect information on the impact of co-compost. This support not only helps RDO Trust understand their environmental and livelihood impact, but also communicate it to stakeholders. In the long term, it will help RDO Trust build supportive enabling environments and raise funds.

In the next few years under the WE4F program, we are looking at having six new centers producing co-compost. So, in total we will have eight centers in the district,” Rajkumar said. “We are moving slow, but I think it is still a steady pace at which we are going to help increase the farmers’ income, and protect the environment.”

A farming couple shows off their high quality beetroots that were grown with co-compost.

Established in 1980, Rural Development Organization (RDO) Trust is a non-governmental, non-profit organization, engaged in a broad range of rural and urban development interventions in Tamil Nadu state, Southern India. RDO Trust offers solutions by strengthening the earning capacity for women self-help groups (SHGs), sustainable sanitation solutions, striving for the overall health and wellbeing of the community, providing quality and value education to children, facilitating on-farm and off-farm diversified income generation activities for rural people and influencing policy decisions towards sustainability development goals. RDO Trust won the Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) Grand Challenge in 2021. https://rdotrust.org/

Wanweena Tangsathianraphap is a Communications and Knowledge Management Specialist for the WE4F South and Southeast Asia Regional Innovation Hub. She helps connect people together and bridge the gaps created by time, distance and culture through various communication tools. She believes in the power of knowledge sharing that it helps transform one’s ideas and shape personal views towards the world.