I’m pretty sure Bill Gates hasn’t met Janaki Bhatta. But I’m just as sure he’d see in her a kindred spirit — a feisty entrepreneur who’s taking some smart steps to increase her yields of aloo (potato) and audha (ginger) — and the income she earns from them.
We talked with Janaki outside her home in Samaijee village, near the high mountain town of Dadeldhura. She’s a 38-year-old married mother of three sons. Janaki has the barest education: she can read and write a little, sign her name and read prices in shops. But she wants more for her boys.
“I am doing hard labor,” she says. “I don’t want the same for them. So I have sacrificed, putting everything I have to their education, so they can have a better life.”
All three are in private schools, for which Janaki pays 40,000 rupees (US$563) per year. This includes tuition, room and board, uniforms and books. It’s a huge expense in a country where farmers are not able to grow enough to feed their families.
With support from a Mercy Corps program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Global Food Crisis Response, Janaki is working hard to make her farm more productive.
She grew up in a farming family and has worked the land all her life. Like most farmers in her area, she mainly grows rice, maize, soy and millet for her family to eat. She also grows a few vegetables, which are more lucrative than grain. So while Janaki’s family could use the nutritional boost vegetables offer, she takes them to market to sell.
They’ve never had sufficient food. “From July to September is the hunger season,” says Janaki. “We run out of grain, so we have to buy more. Sometimes I have to sell my goat to buy food.”
Now, thanks to Mercy Corps and the Gates Foundation, Janaki has a few new tricks up her sleeve. She has learned how to age the manure she uses as fertilizer, sow her potatoes at the proper distance for highest yield, grade them after harvest to earn more for the best-quality roots, and store them so they don’t spoil. She now grows enough potatoes for her family to eat and has some extra to sell.
But her biggest success story is the ginger, which Janaki is growing for the first time. She learned how to interplant maize and ginger for shade and cross-nutrition, and how to properly care for and store the ginger seed. She now has her own “mother” seed, so she doesn’t have to spend her hard-earned money to get the beginnings of next year’s crop. Janaki harvests her ginger twice a year, taking first the rhizome and then the plant.
Mercy Corps also showed her how to build a special pit with an aeration pipe to store the perishable ginger. Once her crop is harvested, she buries it there to remain fresh until it’s time to sell.
And here’s the part Bill Gates would love: Janaki has become a savvy marketer. Mercy Corps taught her to hold back her ginger crop after the harvest.
“Before, I sold it right away,” she says. “I only got 25 rupees (US$.35) per kilogram, because all the farmers were selling at the same time. Now I wait and sell it later, and I get 60 rupees (US$.85) per kilogram.” With the new storage technique, her ginger remains valuable for weeks – and her profit is nearly tripled.
Janaki has plenty of good uses for her new earnings. “I have experiened a lot of challenges in my life,” she says. “But through your training and activities, I can earn money. We are healthier. And I want to help my children move ahead.”
She’s already doing that. Her eldest, 16-year-old Rajendra, is a bright and curious lad who followed us around as we toured the family’s farm. In his quite good English, Rajendra explained that he’s awaiting the results of his exams.
“What will happen when you find out?” I asked. “That when I know if I can continue into the upper grades,” he said. He had a quiet confidence that impressed me. “I’m confident,” I told him, “that you will.” Rajendra smiled and nodded: “Yes, I know.”