India’s quest for unadulterated milk - Akshayakalpa Farms

Last week, I had the opportunity to go on a field trip with three Rang De Social Investors. We were all travelling from Bangalore to our destination, Tiptur which is 140 kilometres away. What started as an early morning journey was a serene, scenic drive taking us through beautiful views. On the way, we made a stop at Kichhana Halli Mane. (Fun fact: the actor from the movie ‘Makkhi’ owns the place). We savoured some great dosa and were all set for the adventure ahead. Tiptur is said to have gotten its name from "tipatala", the word for "copra" in Kannada. The city is known for its coconut plantation and has the largest market in the state. As we took the turn away from the national highway, we were surrounded by beautiful nature.

We were visiting Akshayakalpa Farms - our impact partner with a very interesting story. After we reached the Akshayakalpa plant, Shashi Kumar, CEO at Akshayakalpa briefed us on the organisation’s 12-year-long journey. Shashi comes from an agrarian background - his father toiled hard in the fields and encouraged him to study hard. Shashi did just that. His education helped him overcome many limitations. Before bootstrapping Akshayakalpa, he had an illustrious career spanning 17 years as a software engineer in leading tech firms. He recalls, that since his childhood, engineers were considered role models for a successful life. Shashi wondered why it couldn’t be a farmer. This led him to more questions - Why is farming not a profitable venture? Why do farmers not want their kids to take up farming? The answers to these questions bore fruit as Akshayakalpa farms - a farmer-entrepreneurship initiative that envisions a sustainable agriculture ecosystem. Akshayakalpa is challenging the status quo. It wants to disrupt the way farming is done and make it more scientific and self-sustainable. Akshayakalpa chose dairy as an entry point to kickstart this massive change as it provided ready cash on a daily basis for the farmers. Additionally, manure from dairy farms plays a vital role in building soil health.

 

The real picture

India is ranked first in milk production contributing 23% of the global demand, thanks to operation flood. But look at where India stands at the average milk yield per cow. It is even below the world average of 2200 kg per cow. Despite having the largest bovine population, the milk production per animal is significantly low, only 1664 litres per animal/year. This is due to ineffective cattle breeding programmes, limited extension and management of dairy enterprise development, traditional feeding practices that are not backed by science, and limited availability and affordability of quality feed and fodder. Akshayakalpa has an average yield of 3050 litres per animal/year - nearly twice the national average!

Here’s how they managed to do that - 1. Every dairy farmer has to grow his own fodder - no external dependency.


As farmers scale their modern dairy farming setup, the external dependency on fodder goes up. Usually, these farmers purchase fodder from unknown sources where there can be the usage of chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds. This means a high production cost but an unreliable quality of fodder.


Akshayakalpa farmers grow their own fodder using the dung from the farm. This not only reduces the cost of fodder but also ensures it is organically grown and free from chemicals.

2. Open shed - A well-ventilated and hygienic place for cows


Conventionally cows are tied in inadequate housing, crammed into close spaces that are barely ventilated or hygienic. They are forced to lay on their dung and urine. Just like how our physical environment affects our mental and physical well-being, the same goes for cows. Improper living conditions cause cows a lot of stress, shooting up their stress hormones. This is also reflected in the milk. Akshayakalpa sheds are well-ventilated and hygienically maintained.

3. 24x7 access to fodder & water to cows.


It is a traditional practice that fodder and water are given at specific hours and cows are tied to avoid the extra work of vigilance. This results in undernutrition as cows can’t drink or eat as per their wish.


Whereas, at Akshayakalpa cows are set free. They can roam around, eat and drink at their will. This reflects in the health and happiness of the cow and importantly, the quality of milk.


4. Dedicated extension teams Unavailability of timely veterinary services to remote farms is still a challenge, and treating the animals with high doses of antibiotics is a major concern, as it will directly percolate into the milk we drink. This has ramifications for our immune system.

Akshayakalpa has a dedicated team of veterinarians who provide a door-step service to the farms and who also follow ethnoveterinary practices (herb-based medicines) to cure diseases. In addition to this, Aksahyakalpa provides mechanical services for the farm machinery and chilling infrastructure.


5. Farmer Training

Barely a few dairy companies work closely with farmers. Akshayakalpa regularly provides free hands-on training and field-level training to adopt organic protocols and manage the farms in an efficient way.

6. Farmers are not allowed to sell cow dung.

Many farmers sell cow dung without understanding its value of it in enriching soil health.

An Akshayakalpa farmer is not allowed to sell cow dung. Instead, the dung is fed to a bio-digester to generate biogas and slurry. This slurry produced is pumped to fodder plots, and with no additional cost, a farmer can enrich his soil fertility. Biogas is used for household purposes - cooking and heating water. A farmer with five cows can save 2 LPG cylinders per month.


7. Machine milking and clean milk production


Conventionally, the milking is done through bare hands and an open tumbler. It is an unhygienic way of milking as flies, dust, hair and dung may fall into the milk. Moreover, it is a painful process for the animal.

At Akshayakalpa, milk production does not come in contact with the human hand - milking is done using a milking machine, which puts uniform pressure on the udder. This ensures no foreign objects get into the milk. 9. Sustainability Akshayakalpa is not only focusing the sustainability at the farms but also at the consumer level, it has started recycling the used milk pouches and launched the gable top packaging, which is 100% recyclable and 92% biodegradable.


The Rang De Intervention

Rang De Social Investors enabled cattle loans at an interest rate of 8%. Traditional lending in the region is done at an interest rate of 15-20%. Banks are willing to lend but it takes close to three months for the farmer to acquire the credit. Rang De loans have a really short turnaround time - this enables the farmer to take a loan for a cow whenever needed and start repaying. The sustainability of the farmer depends on the number of cows being added to the herd. It is very crucial for them to get started on the virtuous cycle - where the calves of the previously bought cow will become a milking cows within two years. Rang De credit fits as a perfect option for the Akshayakalpa farmers to grow at scale.

We met two Rang De borrowers - Basavaraj Ananthi and Nagaraj Ammanathalli to see how the Akshayakalpa model is really playing out on the ground. When we met the farmers it was clear both of them had a desire to acquire more cows, lease more land and grow their farms. Basavaraju wants to set up the Silage bunker in the next financing from Rang De which will ensure fodder security throughout the year. Nagaraju wants to scale up the farm with another five cows in the next Rang De financing opportunity.

An Akshayakalpa farmer earns up to 3-4 lacs per month when a farmer has scaled up the farm. But the journey to becoming one begins with meticulous hand holding and slowly building on the foundation which takes them up to 6-8 years to become the role model farmers in their village.

The conclusion

Milk in India comes across as the most adulterated food. At Least 70 per cent of milk samples collected across the country by the food safety authority did not conform to standards. Laced with antibiotics that are given to cows to treat diseases that are borne out of inefficient practices. Shashi mentioned mastitis which is a common disease found in cows is due to a simple management problem. The cow sits on dung and urine over & over developing an infection in the teats. Dairy farmers lack awareness when it comes to using scientific and healthy animal husbandry practices. Small and marginal farmers indulge in malpractices such as feeding low-quality fodder, hand milking, unhygienic condition of cows, failure to provide timely veterinary services, etc. There is a need for imparting knowledge and training to the dairy farmers for this purpose.

The cooperative model of milk production is no longer deemed fit to match the international level standards and a more detailed and scientific intervention like Akshayakapa farms are needed. This change would only be possible when farmers get financial assistance to scale up the farms and implement the modern infrastructure, equipment and methods. Banks do not see the bigger picture and are short-sighted, that is where social Investors like you come into the picture.

Invest in Akshayakalpa farmers and make them the role model for India’s new-age farmers.


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