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Pay Dirt

India, April 10, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Moni Das's village has no name. It's simply referred to as Line 10, Deohall Division, Deohall Tea Estate, Assam. It is a microcosm of life inside Assam's estate fences: anonymous, hidden among acre upon acre of tea bushes and existing solely to serve the needs of the estate.

But steady work plucking tealeaves is hard to secure these days: most of the residents of Line 10 are part-time "casual workers" who are only called into service six or seven months a year. During those months, they make only 55 Indian rupees a day, or about US$1.40 — barely enough to keep a household running and never enough to put away for the long months of unemployment.

Moni, 25, and her husband are casual workers with two young children to support. They live in a small house with Moni's mother-in-law, a retired tea plucker. Every day, Moni said, the family faced uncertainty: What if there are fewer jobs in the upcoming season? What would they do?

Then last March she realized that the answer was all around her. There was money hiding in her household garbage, in the weeds that grew around the tea bushes and even in the manure of the cowherd that roamed the fields near Line 10. It was up to Moni and her friends to go gather it.

The worm turns

That same month, Rekashree — a program officer from Mercy Corps' Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI), funded by Oregon-based Tazo Tea — visited Deohall Tea Estate for a community meeting. She met with Moni and her colleagues, who had organized themselves and given their group a name: Sokhi, which means "friends." Together, they discussed the possibilities of turning organic household waste, weeds and animal droppings into compost. Moni's group committed to the idea right away.

Rekashree, an agricultural specialist, came back soon afterward to help with a market analysis that showed a demand for compost around the area. Next, she gave the group training on how to make vermicompost, a rich organic fertilizer that uses worms to turn the soil. Moni and her friends gathered all the money they could — 1,200 Indian rupees, about US$31 — and took out a loan of 5,000 Indian rupees (US$128) from the CHAI project to begin their composting business.

They bought planks of bamboo and plastic sheeting to build the composting boxes, and donated pots and sifters from their own houses. The last thing they purchased — and the most critical — were the worms themselves: 500 flat, pink earthworms from a local agricultural college, costing two-and-a-half Indian rupees (six U.S. cents) each.

Next came the dirty work: gathering food scraps, weeds, grasses and, yes, cow manure to place in the composting boxes. The worms were then released and set about their task of transforming the mixture into valuable fertilizer.

"When the compost is done, it's totally dry," Moni explained, sifting the black soil through her fingers. "It won't stick to your hand, and it doesn't smell."

Moni's self-help group learned quickly — with critical assistance, of course, from the worms. By June, they sold their first lot of compost — 200 pounds — at a discounted price to another women's self-help group that's growing vegetables in the area. Moni's group took the 250 Indian rupees they made and opened a bank account.

It was the start of bigger things to come.

A big sale

Empowered by the experience of forming a group, starting a business and making their first sale, Moni and her friends decided to set their sights much higher.

"We wanted to further explore the local market, to find more clients and opportunities," Moni said. "We knew, from our work experience, that the tea gardens always needed more. So we went to management and asked them."

The response was overwhelmingly positive: Deohall's management asked for three tons of compost at five Indian rupees a kilogram. That translates into 15,000 Indian rupees, or about US$385 — a windfall for Moni's group and more than enough to pay back the loan from the CHAI project.

The group is currently busy building more compost boxes, gathering more materials and buying even more worms. They hope to deliver the full consignment of compost within the next several months.

These days, Moni and her friends are receiving a lot more visits from tea estate management and other self-help groups eager to learn from their success. As a result, Line 10 in Deohall Tea Estate is no longer anonymous. It's now known as the place where good, rich earth comes from.