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Introducing wildlife-friendly practices that provide livelihoods for small farmers- In conversation with Kaavya Varma

“Working to improve the conservation of tigers and leopards has been a passion for me, Looking at the inter-dependencies between small farmers and wildlife has been really unique and I think that these landscapes represent the last remaining true wilderness areas of India,” says Kaavya Varma. Her enterprise is an entirely women run enterprise, starting from the founders to  their women farmers to the team. In an exclusive conversation with Business2Business, Kaavya shares her entrepreneurial story, envisioning Jungle Organics:

Please tell us about your background? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Kaavya shares, “I grew up reading the stories of Jim Corbett and imagining him walking through the jungles of Kumaon and running into tigers and leopards in the wild landscapes of India. His experiences sparked an interest in me to work in conservation and address the depleting numbers of our wildlife. My education allowed me to work on global renowned projects like The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study and focus on creating policy level changes through economic assessments.” She adds, “I have lived and worked in the U.S., U.K., Germany and India. I have had the opportunity to develop green economy strategies for several countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, which provided me with a good understanding of the reasons behind the continuing losses in biodiversity and potential best-practice examples that could work in different contexts. Throughout my career it has been my endeavor to create the widespread realisation that preserving forests and endangered species is more than just about tourism and aesthetic benefits. The status of our forests and wild animals is deeply linked to agricultural stability, clean water and air, women’s well-being, rural economic growth and more recently, the availability of organic products.”

What did you study?

Kaavya Varma holds an M.Phil. in Environment, Society and Development from the University of Cambridge and a B.Sc. in Environmental Policy from the London School of Economics. She started her career with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study, a global initiative focused on “making nature’s values visible;” where she was part of the core scientific team.

Can you tell us about your venture?

Kaavya says, “When I moved to India, I noticed that there were possibilities to create social and environmental business models that would be the first of their kind in the country and could make a significant difference on the ground if they were successful. While education, technology and health continue to receive tremendous attention in terms of entrepreneurship, sustainability beyond renewable energy and wildlife conservation do not.” She adds, “The idea of Jungle Organics emerged as a recognition of the need in India to connect our everyday lives with wilderness protection. It is a result of my desire to support small farmers that live with big cats on the peripheries of National Parks and whose lands act as extension habitats for tigers and leopards. These farmers are providing us with a globally important service, which involves providing space for endangered species on their lands, but this is going unrecognised and my aim is to bring stories from these wilderness farms to all of us living in cities.”

What do you do?

“Doing initial research on the farms, I was able to discover that the spices and herbs these farms are producing are of exceptional quality and even better than organic ones available in markets in Delhi, Bombay, etc. Spices like turmeric, red chilli and coriander powders from these farms have stronger smells, their colours are better and they even contain natural oils – all characteristics that used to be present in spices 60 years ago before seeds were tampered with and soils were degraded. Upon trying the spices in my family and among family friends there were clear impacts in terms of reduction of inflammation, for instance, and I became convinced about their superior quality. My aim now is to bring these spices to markets and make them more mainstream,” shares Kaavya.

What Challenges do you faced?

Kaavya shares, “Giving back to ecosystems that nourish our food is a new concept in India. Connecting our consumption choices with wildlife protection is even more unfamiliar. I have found that tremendous awareness generation is required to help create understanding about tigers and leopards as being indicators of the health of farms. This means considerable marketing and advertising is needed to effectively introduce the concept of wildlife friendly farming in India.” She adds, “Moreover, it is necessary to compete with companies that have been purchasing crops from the farmers in bulk quantities for several years. They have better infrastructure, human resources and fiscal capacities that enable them to offer a diverse range of products sourced from different parts of the country, even if they are not concerned with overall impacts on the farms. Thus, is it easier for people to recognise these large brands, which makes it challenging to break into the market.”

“A large part of Jungle Organics is about giving farmers higher compensation so that they continue to have incentives to keep the farms unfenced and to indulge in no hunting or poaching. This means that when we are buying foods we should be willing to pay slightly higher prices not only for better spices, but also for saving tigers, leopards and other threatened animals. Creating this willingness and assessing the potential size of such a committed consumer base has been an exacting task,” shares Kaavya.

What are the support mechanisms required?

More suitable opportunities in India that offer monetary support and which recognise social and environmental returns would be helpful to advance niche businesses that are looking at more than fiscal gains. Incubation programs that understand the nature of sustainable businesses and have the right networks to cultivate green ventures would also be really useful. I have found that these kinds of programs are easily available in countries like the U.S. and that there is a greater amount of interest outside of India to form partnerships and collaborations with an enterprise like Jungle Organics,” shares Kaavya.

She adds, “Working to improve the conservation of tigers and leopards has been a passion for me so Jungle Organics has never seemed like work. Looking at the overlap between small farmers and wildlife has been really unique and I think that these landscapes represent the last remaining true wilderness areas of India. As an entirely women run enterprise, beginning from the founders, to our women farmers and our team, putting the idea of Jungle Organics into practice has been even more compelling. If Jungle Organics and the spices become appealing to people, then there is a real scope to give better livelihoods to women in very remote parts of India. It will be really special if we can develop models that can make these women our champions in saving tigers, leopards and all endangered species.”