‘Worm’ing up for a prosperous life!

The upright gait of this lean-bodied farmer makes him look agile and confident. As he approaches you, it is hard to ignore the smile on his face. Back home from his 4-acre farm, in Chaudayyadanapur village of Rannebennur Taluk of Haveri district in Karnataka, Vishwanath Wodeyar, 47, first glances at his old mother sitting outside their newly constructed home, and upon finding her happily occupied with his two children, he looks up in silent prayer.

He then breathes a sigh of relief and begins folding the sleeves of his light brown shirt. And just when he was about to settle on that chair in his courtyard, after adjusting his bright white dhoti, his wife Geeta, 43, gets him a glass of water and greets him with a smile. Everything looks nice and cheerful and there's prosperity all over in the Wodeyar household, which is 300 kilometres away from Bengaluru.

It is in fact hard to believe that until a few years back, this man was barely able to make the ends meet. Such were the conditions that on a good day, he would earn around Rs 300 from selling flowers and milk. “There have been times when we had nothing to eat. We had to often take advances from relatives and neighbours,” recollects Vishwanath after taking a deep breath.

After hearing him out, it is only natural to wonder what has changed since then. “A lot,” says this enterprising farmer with a beaming smile. He elaborates, “During times when I used to struggle ensuring daily bread for my family, I used to feel helpless. I felt as if I’m some worthless worm that has no value to it and exists only to be squashed under someone’s feet.”

He now pauses for a moment, looks around, points his gaze at that heap of vermicompost covered with a black plastic sheet. His new white car makes for a perfect backdrop against that pile of black gold. A glint emerges in his eyes and he adds, “Today, the same inconsequential worm is known by all in the community and hailed as a hero. People now approach me for help and guidance.”

With a smile of contentment, he now turns his gaze away from that vermicompost heap and explains, “I and family underwent training to learn the art and science of vermicomposting and the rest is history. Though at one point in time I felt as worthless as a worm, today a worm has made my life worthwhile.

Vishwanath is referring to Eudrilus Eugeniae, also known as the ‘African Nightcrawler’. It is an earthworm species native to tropical West Africa, but now, it is widespread in warm regions. It is an excellent source of protein and has great pharmaceutical potential. The species helps in the breaking down of organic wastes into a very valuable (black soil) compost, which can be used as an organic fertilizer.

Using this earthworm species, Vishwanath started with a modest production capacity of vermicompost, which he used to improve his fields and agricultural output. He showcased the improved soil quality of his fields to convince his neighbours to buy vermicompost from him. They, until then, were dependent on chemical fertilizers and were forced to bear the recurring expense of purchasing them. On the other hand, vermicomposting and earthworm breeding was something that involved almost no expense and the effect was magical. Buyers had all the reasons to give him business.

Vishwanath’s business scaled up and in the very first year of learning the skill of earthworm breeding and vermicompost production, the man who was barely able to make ends meet, was able to make a profit of around Rs 4,00,000 by selling this organic gold. In the subsequent years, owing to his enterprise and networking, he managed to find the right partners. Soon, he further scaled up his production by investing around Rs 2,00,000 in a vermi-bed installation system. With this, his production capacity became bigger and profits began soaring.

And today, five years after it all started, he has been contracted to supply vermicompost worth Rs 50 lakh. He will be earning this as part of the year-long contracts, with four firms, to supply 700 tonnes of vermicompost. “I am hopeful of saving half of it as profit,” tells Vishwanath.

Upon this success, he says, “After what all I have achieved, I now try and give back to the community in whatever way I can.” Vishwanath has been training and grooming a dozen-odd people in vermicomposting and earthworm breeding and hopes the numbers would increase in the coming years. He says, “People now find value in what I’ve been doing and promoting.”

But does he think his protégé would also get to experience the kind of life he is now getting to experience? “Well, it all depends on how much effort and dedication one puts in,” tells Vishwanath with a straight face.

According to him, owing to this organic practice, the soil quality in his village in the Ranebennur Taluk of Haveri district of Karnataka, has improved significantly. “Initially, only a few people bought this vermicompost from me. But when they saw the effect on soil and witnessed an increase in productivity, they bought more. Few even bought worms from me and started vermicompost production on their own,” tells Vodeyar.

Today, the soil of this village, which until a few years ago had caked up, is so soft that one can feel one’s feet sinking in it. The entire microenvironment of this village, which is home to around 2500 people, has improved. The reason is simple. When applied to farmlands whose nutrients have been depleted from the overuse of chemical fertilizers, a single tonne of vermicompost can sequester up to 0.24 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This, apart from other organic practices and a generally increased level of awareness of locals, has resulted in a significant improvement of the microenvironment of the village.

Ask Vishwanath how it all started for him and his village, and with folded hands, he tells humbly, “I owe it all to Smita Ji and Jaya Organics. Her team trained me and my family in 2016 and today, I am what I am, because of the guidance, support, and help given to us by them.” He further adds, “Based on that mentoring, my wife even bagged the Best Farm Woman Award for the year 2018. But awards and recognition alone do not work. In our case, the hand-holding support of Smita Ji and Jaya Organics did the trick. They supported us not just with knowledge, but also sustained me financially so that I could find my feet in this business.”

Jaya Organic Yojana (JOY) is an organization dedicated to rejuvenating the soil, recharging groundwater, empowering low-income families, and mitigating climate change, all at scale. Started by Ms Smita Shah in memory of her mother Smt Jayaben Shah; JOY centres on the holistic and sustainable development of rural communities. As an entry point, its unique vermicompost training program serves to improve soil health and mitigate climate change. Their other interventions include organic farming, animal husbandry, and several other income-enhancing and environment healing activities.

Ask Smita Shah to comment on the success of Vishwanath, and she expresses her joy, saying, “There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your seed turn into something that blooms.” She then gracefully appreciates the efforts of Vishwanath and says, “We, as an organization, are merely facilitators. It was ultimately his grit, discipline, and motivation that has made him what he is today.” Smita Shah, and her organization JOY, have been there as a constant source of mentoring and support to trainees like Vishwanath. They initially ensure a market for entrepreneurs like him and then let them fly on their wings of determination.

JOY has been touching countless such lives in the hinterlands of Karnataka and Vishwanath is just one among the many seeds they have sowed and which have bloomed. Now, they have even taken baby steps in other challenging terrains in India, with the same aim and objective of healing the earth and spreading joy.

Meanwhile, ask Vishwanath, the seed that has bloomed, what's the best thing about being successful, and he tells with an endearing smile, “The satisfaction and happiness on my mother's face is the best part of this life. Until this happened, she was always worried over the fate of my family. But now, the times have changed. Now, she takes a lot of pride in being my mother."

Times have certainly changed, and changed for good for Vishwanath Wodeyar and his family!

About the Author Nishant is a Lucknow-based science communications professional active in the domain of Climate Change mitigation. He runs a website www.climatekahani.live where he curates the latest in the domain of climate change and environment in Hindi. His idea is to mainstream the topic in India in the most-spoken language of the country. He has worked with organisations like UNICEF, UNDP, and Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation among others. He is currently associated with the European Climate Foundation. He is also a journalist who writes for the South Asia Bureau of Agence France-Presse. Nishant is a passionate storyteller who has over a million readers on India's largest digital platform for literature in vernacular languages.