“Unwilling farmers result in low productivity,” declares Deep Jyoti Sonu Brahma, founder and director of the Farm2Food Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches agricultural entrepreneurship to students in an innovative project-based school learning program.
“The state of Assam in India struggled against serious social unrest for several decades. When peace finally set in, young people questioned the shape of their futures as unemployment rose, and economic strife surrounded them. Many of them longed for professional business careers, and regarded farming as a last resort,” explains Deep. “It was time to break that mindset, and look at farming through a different lens.” Toward that end, he created Farmpreneurs, an in-school program that elevates the view of agriculture in the eyes of students, their families, and the entire community by promoting organic farming methods and ensuring food availability.
“Farm2Food Foundation has a wonderful program in place which has primarily targeted life skills,” says Leena Gupte, PMP, PMI Educational Foundation (PMIEF) programs manager, India Operations. “However the program was not structured and was not a self-sustainable model. Farm2Food has joined hands with PMIEF and we have been moving in a positive direction ever since. We have helped in enhancing the curriculum and supporting the organization with training programs to scale it up further.”
Deep says the expanding success of the program can best be seen in the students who have become young entrepreneurial farmers. “We have changed the way they see farming by demonstrating its value on many levels,” he adds. “Students are learning that farming can be a profitable business as well as a life-sustaining activity that can provide low-cost organic vegetables necessary to nutrition and good health. We work in communities with some of the worst human development indexes in the region. One survey indicated that at least 95 percent of local girls are suffering from iron deficiency and other malnutrition-related diseases.”
Started in 2011, the program uses the platform of farming—with which rural, underprivileged children are familiar—as a jumping-off point to teach mathematics, science, basic nutrition, project planning, and more. “This is not a narrow endeavor. We present farming in a wider scope, from selection of seeds to soil management, materials management, pest control, agricultural distribution, marketing, and more,” says Deep.
Gardens as Labs of Learning
Students are trained to set up “nutrition gardens” at their schools, and learn about suitable land and crops, seed procurement, planting processes, safe pest management, crop management, and more.
“Participating schools weave mathematics and science studies around the farming curriculum,” explains Deep. “For example, to identify suitable locations for their gardens, students turn to science books to explore what is required for plants—sun, water, soil quality, and so on. They learn to analyze the land itself; they learn about seed germination and photosynthesis, the transfer of water and nutrients inside the plants. When selecting vegetables for crops, they consider nutrition—the proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and so forth—needed for health and growth. They also become familiar with mathematical concepts, such as areas and perimeters, in very practical ways. Gardens become their favorite open laboratories for learning.”
Additionally, because students utilize local resources to drive down farming costs, they learn to run a profitable business. “The students get paid,” says Deep with proud enthusiasm. “They sell their crops to the school authority, which uses the food for nutritious midday meals for the students. Students come to understand this is what a business looks like.” In turn, they teach their families to set up life-sustaining gardens and cottage industries, such as compost-making, and turning crops into pickles, jams, and relishes that can be sold.
“When students eat what they grow, they gain a sense of ownership in the process,” says Deep, “and they influence the next generation toward better nutrition and discover opportunities in entrepreneurship.”
Deep credits PMIEF with embracing the natural alignment of the Farm2Food undertaking with project management skills that underlie it. Leena explains that PMIEF works in cooperation with the Indian government in various social initiatives in education. When a representative from The Society for Promotion of Area Resources (SPARC) asked PMIEF to connect with Farm2Food as part of an effort to implement development projects in education in the Assam state, it was a natural fit.
PMIEF was also invited to present sessions on project management at Farmpreneur Mela (exhibition) held in June at various schools. Though there were challenges to overcome (unavailability of electricity for overhead projectors in some schools, and language barriers in others), Leena was joined by volunteer Navajyoti Bhuyan, director, Adityam Education, a franchisee of Brainobrain Kids Academy that offers skills development for children. Because Navajyoti is fluent in the local Assamese language, they were able to deliver PMIEF’s message of project management as a life skill and a learning skill to an audience including 95 secondary students and 12 teachers from three schools. Additionally, a session on “Managing Life’s Projects” was conducted for 47 higher secondary school students, and a session on “The Need for Project Management in NGOs” was presented to the Farm2Food staff.
“The sessions helped students and teachers better understand the structure and concepts of projects, and demonstrated how using project management skills could improve the farming process, as well as be applied to all other projects. Students used the insights they gained at the sessions to plan a children’s party, among other school projects, reinforcing the project management basics they learned,” says Deep.
He also notes that teachers, as well as his own staff, gained a great deal from the PMIEF sessions. “Teachers are really knowledge experts—in math, science, language, and so on—but they are not project managers. The sessions taught them that they must become project experts to help students along their journey of education and guide them through the sometimes-uncomfortable spaces of learning and growing. PMIEF showed teachers that the knowledge-acquisition process is really a project. This was a revelation, a wonderful new understanding.”
Leena says feedback from the schools has been positive. “A headmaster reported that the students are able to recollect the tools of project management that we discussed with them. And they are now able to relate the importance of planning not just to farming, but to achieving their long-term goals of higher studies. In the future we hope to expand teacher training on the Farmpreneur project, and to expand the program into higher secondary school levels.”
Deep hopes Farm2Food’s collaboration with PMIEF will stretch well into the future. “We continue to have a strong need for the training PMIEF provides. We have reached 400 schools so far, but there are 1.5 million schools in India, with 1.2 million schools in poor rural areas. Clearly, we still have a long way to go.”
Describing his own emotions as school children embrace “farmpreneurship,” Deep says, “when I was in school, we did a seed-germination activity. We kept a seed, wrapped in a soaked cotton cloth, in a dark place for five days. At the end of fifth day, the germination process started. When the first leaf came out, we jumped for joy with a sense of innocent, yet powerful, achievement. That is exactly how I feel when I witness young students giving a shape to their own learning and becoming self-sufficient.”