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Jugaad Innovation: by 2050 Punjabi farmers will be global leaders in clean, localized fertilizer production

Delivering low-cost and zero-emissions fertilizer to support sustainable farming and global food security

Photo of Mega Kar
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Monash University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (Research Institution), Delhi University (Research Institution)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.monash.edu

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Melbourne

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Australia

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Punjab Province, India

What country is your selected Place located in?

India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

My parents moved from India to Australia with the dream of providing me with all the opportunities that come with living in a country like Australia. Many of my extended family still live in India, and I’ve seen their desire to make improvements, and their frustration when they feel powerless to do anything for the country. Since embarking on my career as a scientist at Monash University, I’ve been determined to help change that. 


In 2016, I became involved in the joint Monash-India Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB)  Academy PhD program by co-supervising IITB PhD students researching energy storage. In 2018, I was awarded the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Fellowship by the Australian Academy of Science. This allowed me to establish a collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science, working on new sustainable materials for energy storage. As part of this fellowship, I also presented a successful workshop on Women in Research at IITB.


I can see that climate change, drought and other economic pressures, including the cost of chemical fertilizer, have placed farming families in India under significant pressure, and farmers suiciding has emerged as a major area of national concern.


My team at Monash University is a global leader in developing clean energy technologies, and we’ve developed a patented, low-cost distributed method of producing ammonia (the key ingredient in most fertilizers) using solar power and new catalytic technologies. Best of all, our method emits zero carbon.


With our Indian partner organisations, including the Indian Institute of Technology and Delhi University, we’d like to take this revolutionary technology and test and scale it in Punjab, where there’s an acute need to overhaul fertilizer practices, before giving the technology to the world.


Thanks to the opportunities my parents opened up for me in Australia, I now have the team and technology to empower people in India to spark change. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Punjab is a state in Northern India, home to over 27 million people and covering 50,362 km^2. Torn apart during the 1947 partition of India, the province was divided between Pakistan and India and suffered a major refugee crisis. Rivers and irrigation systems running East-West across the province were cut by the new North-South border.


Modern technology has since turned Punjab into India’s breadbasket. Intensive farming techniques applied during the intensive-agriculture ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s have increased farm yields, making the province’s agricultural sector essential for the food security of hundreds of millions, and the wellbeing of farming families and villages in Punjab.


Punjabi, the most widely spoken language of the state, is famous for its rich literature of qisse/kissa. A kissa is an oral storytelling tradition where one generation passes on stories to the next of love, betrayal, social values and a common man's revolt against a larger system. 


Stories of common men revolting against a larger system have been a frequent thread throughout the history of the Punjab region, with its tapestry of invasions, divisions and unifications. But recently, one large system has proven too much to overcome for many Punjabi farmers: the adverse consequences of the Green Revolution.


The industrial agriculture systems introduced through the Green Revolution were largely at the expense of land and water resources and biodiversity. As a result, agricultural communities are now facing serious problems. Punjab, which used to be one of the progressive states in India, is suffering from lost natural, social and health capital. These are a people who have lost the tools they need to secure a sustainable and prosperous future for themselves, and we’d like to change that. 


Most of the Punjab lies in a fertile, alluvial plain with many rivers and an extensive irrigation canal system. The region produces 30% of its GDP through agriculture and is ideal for wheat-growing - it currently produces 38% of India's wheat. It should be thriving. However, in recent years productivity has dropped, mainly due to falling soil fertility. This is believed to be due to using fertilizers and pesticides excessively over the years. Most farmers in this area haven’t been educated on the correct quantities and strategies for effectively deploying fertilizer, and many of them approach it in a haphazard way that overuses chemical fertilizers. 


Another worry is the rapidly falling water table. By some estimates, groundwater is falling by a meter or more per year. Unfortunately, a common reaction to poor plant performance is to apply more fertilizer; this doesn’t work, and the excess fertilizer ends up in the atmosphere and pollutes the water supply. Understandably, this pressure on the environment around them is being felt by the farmers. They’re ready to make a change in how they do things, and we’re ready to help empower them to do it. 


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

50361

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

27000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Without fertilizer, we can’t feed our rapidly growing global population. But its main ingredient is ammonia, which is currently produced through a petro-chemical process that relies heavily on fossil fuels.


Fertilizer is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and India is a major source of fertilizer-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Punjabi farmers are amongst the most intensive users of chemical fertilizers in India - their consumption of fertilizer per hectare is 223 kg compared with 160 kg nationally and <100kg in USA and Europe. The excess fertilizer-producing emissions form a field of ammonia and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. Satellite imagery shows Northern India is a massively intensive emitter of these two gases - far higher than almost anywhere else in the world, creating an urgent challenge for the whole world to address. 


Fertilizer is also a significant cost to farming families, particularly in developing countries such as India where rural incomes remain very low and wastage is high due to the lack of best practice use of technologies and processes.


The Green Revolution made Punjab an agricultural powerhouse, but intensive farming has caused major problems both locally, such as soil degradation, collapsed insect populations, water pollution and high suicide rates in farming families, and globally as a major contributing factor to global warming.


Using fertilizers and pesticides excessively and inappropriately has polluted waterways, killed insects and wildlife, and depleted  soil of its nutrients. The rampant irrigation practices have degraded soil and dramatically lowered groundwater levels. These problems were made worse by a lack of training on how to use modern technology and vast illiteracy, leading to the overuse of chemicals. 


Applying expensive chemicals (like fertilizers, pesticides etc.), over-mechanisation, labour and irrigation have greatly increased the input cost of cultivation. Due to the high input costs of cultivation, farmers resorted to various formal and informal (like local moneylenders) credit institutions for borrowing money. But due to repeated stagnation, the net output and subsequent profit margin have reduced drastically. As a result, farmers can’t repay loans and are getting trapped in the vicious cycle of debt. To escape their debt, many farmers across the state tragically turn to suicide. Across 2017 and 2018, over 900 farmers and agricultural labourers completed suicide in Punjab. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision will address the aforementioned challenges primarily through delivering a revolutionary yet simple technology, our Clean Fertilizer Kit, which enables families and communities to produce their own fertilizer solution using renewable energy. By employing Jugaad Innovation (a Hindi word meaning “an innovative fix” and also used to describe “frugal innovation”) we can build the technology with the most cost-effective materials, to ensure cost is low for farmers - certainly much lower than their current fertilizer costs. 


This will address the significant costs associated with purchasing chemical fertilizer from major suppliers, while also providing an environmentally-friendly alternative for a key component in producing enough food to sustainably feed our planet and putting the power back into farmers’ hands. 


The roll-out of this technology will be co-designed with local communities, with support and training in using the fertilizer solution to ensure farmers are using it effectively. This should considerably reduce the impact on soil, waterways and wildlife. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In our Vision for 2050, we imagine a world where farmers in Punjab are thriving despite the potential external environmental pressures they may face as a result of climate change. They will be creating their own fertilizer with just water, air, sunshine and the innovative technology our Clean Fertilizer Kits have provided them with. Global warming may have reduced the quantity of water they have access to, but thanks to this novel technology, they will be able to make the most efficient use of the water they do have, and their fertilization will have zero impact on emissions.


Improved technology and education will mean Punjabi farmers no longer over-fertilize their land in desperate attempts to generate a higher crop yield. Instead, they will be educated in the optimum quantities for best-practice management of their crops. Not only will this reduce the pollution in soil and waterways, it will also help reduce the significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions that northern India is responsible for in 2020. 


Farmer suicide rates will have dropped significantly, as they will be less likely to get trapped in debt-cycles initiated by over-consuming chemical fertilizers purchased from expensive international retailers. Despite the challenges of climate change, farmers will feel more optimistic and positive about their futures and will only embrace the modern farming methods that work for them and their community. Freed from the constant worry of meeting their day-to-day expenses, they feel empowered to explore their own technological innovations and the region is a flourishing microcosm of entrepreneurship. 



Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The adoption of our clean fertilizer kits will transform the lives of farmers in Punjab for the better – and when further distributed, it will make agriculture significantly more sustainable globally.


An example of “Jugaad” or frugal innovation, the technology provides a clean, low-cost alternative to the current centralised and commercialised process to manufacture fertilizer from fossil fuels, which contributes large amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. This is exacerbated in developing countries such as India where best-practice farming techniques are not always deployed and chemical fertilizer is often overused. Instead, farmers will make a small capital investment, either individually or with partners in their local communities, into new equipment powered by solar that creates a zero-emissions green fertilizer from air and water. Because the fertilizer solution is made continuously and locally, it can be applied in a continuous or frequent basis to maximise its effect and minimise the amount needed for optimal yield. This will eliminate the massive amounts of ammonia and nitrous oxide that are emitted by farms in this region.


Our community engagement process in the Punjab roll-out seeks to include:

- Agile collaboration sessions with villages and communities in the Punjab to ensure the solution is co-designed, community-led and locally appropriate. This may include leveraging current or installed solar power to provide lighting, refrigeration and other benefits

- Technology adoption utilising social-enterprise support for distribution across Punjab, based on proven micro-financing principles

- Education in technology and farming best practice with a view to improving crop yields and reducing externalities from intensive farming practices 

- Use of social media to develop local online communities of practice for farmers and farming communities to collaborate and support each other with the technology transition and optimising farming practices for a changing climate

- In-field research programs with Indian partner research organisations to measure environmental, economic, cultural and other outcomes of the new technology to inform best-practice into the future


We will work with the community to achieve improved outcomes in the following areas:


Environment - The technological process we’ve developed will replace high emissions fossil fuel fertilizer with a clean zero-emission alternative.


Diets - Fertilizer will continue to be important to ensure high crop yields and food security on the Indian subcontinent where the population is growing and global warming will have a significant impact on agriculture. 


Economics - This low-cost technology will help ensure the livelihoods of farming communities through ensuring crop yields and removing a major cost of production, relieving farmers of the ongoing need to purchase chemical fertilizer with a distributed technology that creates clean fertilizer from air and water using solar power.


Culture - Using agile collaboration methodologies, our community consultation process will ensure the application of the technology will be optimised at a local level and include a program to educate farmers on best-practice fertilization practice. In many villages and communities investing in these technologies communally will provide a point of interdependence helping them further collaborate to adapt to changing environmental conditions.


Technology - The device we’ve created offers access to innovative and novel technology that is a low cost, scalable and sustainable means for farmers to creates clean fertilizer from air and water using solar power.


Policy - This technology will reduce the need for policy interventions from the Indian and other governments to support farmers to obtain chemical fertilizers and potentially adapt to a more severe version of climate change (if emissions are not reduced).


Using clean and sustainable fertilizer to boost crop yields will help ensure the ongoing food security of Punjab, India and the world. Let’s take a look at how lives will be transformed in the Punjab by 2050:


Amdeep took over her father’s small family holding 5 years ago when his health declined. Her father was an early adopter of fertilization technology and installed the solar-powered, clean fertilizer kit on his farm 25 years ago. The farm was thriving when he handed it over, after 20 years of good yields and no debt. Amdeep is grateful to have such an exciting career ahead of her, and she continues to embrace her father’s early adoption mindset, with IoT sensors and drone monitoring installed throughout her farm. The farm is making enough money to cover her father’s health expenses and to send her daughter to university in Delhi. She’s studying to be a doctor.


Sumir loves his job. He spends his days visiting farms around Punjab installing and maintaining the clean fertilizer technology that was introduced in 2022. Sumir is proud of the business model he helped develop and the affordable, low-interest loan options they offer to help farmers afford the initial capital investment so they can reap the benefits over time. 


Gurkeerat was one of many farmers who purchased the clean fertilizer kit and then wondered if he could leverage this technology to do more. He decided to purchase a larger solar panel so he could use it to power his home, as well as the technology. His wife suggested that they take it further and turn their home into an eco-lodge offering tourists accommodation in a home powered by renewable energy, serving food that has been grown on their farm with cleanly-produced fertilizer. They are one of many farms in the area who have ventured into eco-tourism.


In 2050, when the elders in Punjab gather the children around to pass on kissa, they tell stories of how farmers rallied together, embraced a revolutionary technology and revolted against the system that was harming their environment and forcing them into debt. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Team

Hi Mega Kar 

Welcome to the Food Vision Prize community!

For the last hours before the deadline, make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.
Here is the link to the pocket guide: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1o8WGMus6-V8GywWdlNwmCpk7I1fMVzcQ/view

Look forward to seeing your submission finalised by 31st January, 5:00 pm EST :)

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