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A farmer inspects his GEWP drip-irrigated crops

Reigniting the fire for social change

A farmer inspects his GEWP drip-irrigated crops

From the untapped potential of soybeans as a protein source in India, to Gandhi-inspired hunger strikes for higher sugar prices for farmers, I religiously took notes on all agricultural matters in my green notebook during my travels as a summer associate for the Acumen Fund in India.  I reserved the last page of my notebook for wisdom and inspiration, and despite the importance of the rest of my notes, this last page reflects what has been most important for me this summer – a rediscovery of the balance between passion and capability.

One particular interview provided more wisdom than others. As I walked into his office, he complimented me for having chosen a green notebook: “everyone researching agriculture should focus on green.”  He proudly showed me his business card that had his name printed in green ink. Changing business card ink from black to green had been his first successful policy change.

I was interviewing Ashok Gulati, Director of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices and one of India’s most renowned, vocal and eccentric agricultural experts (who clearly also had a sense of humor).  We discussed the recent export ban on cotton and the adversity he encountered as an ardent proponent of increasing the minimum support prices of essential commodities. The twinkling in his eyes and his good-humored personality, however, revealed that he was not the least discouraged or frustrated by the battles he was fighting. Upon asking him what kept him going, he said: “Remember: fire in the belly is what makes the difference. It’s what differentiates those who become real leaders from the rest.” This is the first sentence on the last page of my notebook.

As our conversation continued, Gulati was quick to remark that fire, or passion alone is not enough. “Having a heart, but not a brain, is like having a brain without a heart. It’s useless.” I wrote this down too. Growing up in a small tent with his many siblings as a Pakistani refugee in India, compassion for the poor came naturally to him.  He recalled how he and his wife would celebrate their wedding anniversaries with the sick and the dying at one of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity houses. As he grew older, he realized that charity alone wouldn’t suffice to alleviate poverty. He shifted gears and became an agricultural expert, reasoning that this way, his impact would be much greater. More than half of India’s population is smallholder farmers, yet agriculture constitutes only 17 percent of India’s GDP. The right policies can help India reach its untapped agricultural potential, and can positively impact the lives of 600 million farmers.

Take, for example, the cotton export ban. While basic economic theory predicts that market prices go down upon imposing an export ban, the minimum support price (MSP) also decreases. If the market price is below the MSP, cotton mills are supposed to purchase the produce at 100 percent of the MSP, after which they sell it to the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Limited warehousing capacity, however, which is further aggravated by export bans, limits the FCI’s purchasing ability. The FCI is no longer able to purchase at full capacity from the rice mills, so farmers get a lower price.  Clearly, getting the policy right on export bans could improve smallholder farmers’ economic situation.

Gulati’s story resonated with me greatly. When I was a child, my aunt showed me pictures of her volunteering with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. Ever since then I started fundraising and couldn’t wait to be old enough to help in one of the houses of the Missionaries of Charity. As I grew older, however, I became more critical. Analyzing the Missionaries of Charity model, I realized it wasn’t the most sustainable. They take care of the sick but there are no doctors; they rely on goodwill instead of fundraising; they don’t provide services to reintegrate a patient into society once he is discharged, resulting in the return of many discharged patients. And so I gradually found myself losing interest in that model. I realized I needed to think strategically about impact, and that I could personally maximize this impact if I got myself the best education possible. When I was accepted to Harvard Law School, I thought I was one step closer to making a difference.

I spent most of the last two years at Harvard in the library, preoccupied with the theoretical, rational and prestigious.  While I hadn’t forgotten the poor, they had gradually turned into a colorless abstraction; a dire, but lifeless concept. This summer I realized how my focus on macro-impact had come at the expense of my “fire.” The many individuals I met through my work with Acumen, including my colleagues, helped me regain a true sense of duty and urgency.

That’s why, when a Member of Parliament (MP) and dedicated farmers’ supporter, who I had met in the course of my research, invited me to visit the farmers in Kolhapur I decided to go. While I didn’t think the visit would be substantively useful for my project, I knew I would not be able to truly understand the importance of agricultural policy without talking to the farmers. Riding bicycles with the farmers’ children, eating the produce of their field, helping milk their cows and visiting an agricultural produce market committee helped me understand how much is at stake if we don’t get agricultural policy right.

Farmers using GEWP drip-irrigation

To my surprise, the impact of that visit was more direct than I had dared to imagine. After learning about Global Easy Water Products (GEWP), one of Acumen’s portfolio companies, the MP became very interested in supplying the farmers in his district with drip-irrigation products from GEWP. He followed up with Acumen Fund expressing this interest and suggested a dairy producers’ cooperative that could benefit from Acumen funding.

“While small acts of compassion don’t take away the world’s problems, their tangible impact is often larger than macro-level policy changes.” I wrote this down on the last page of my notebook in the overnight train from Kolhapur to Mumbai.

I spent my final week in India in Kolkata at one of Mother Teresa’s charity houses, washing and feeding the sick and abandoned. I felt like I had come full circle. I saw the beauty of the model and, after years of searching, I had finally found a proper destination for the money I had raised as a child.


Colette van der Ven is a Summer Associate at the Acumen Fund India office. She is pursuing a joint JD/MPP degree with Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, respectively.


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