Mr. Sandeep Saxena – Founder, Aranyaani

Please describe what you do.
We create food forests. Food forest is like an agricultural farm. It is like a forest where we have certain arrangements which can provide food that humans and animals can consume. We go about developing an area like a forest.
The land is not tilled so that it develops just like a forest. Another feature is that there will be no human intervention in the forest – organic, inorganic or chemical intervention. The seeds have to be regenerated. Whatever falls into the area becomes feed.
It is bio diverse – not just in horizontal terms but vertical as well. By horizontal, I mean there will be grasses, turmeric etc. which are diverse horizontally. Vertically there will be different layers – larger trees, smaller trees, grass below them, below that we have the roots, etc.
The forest has to be diverse from top to bottom.

What was the idea behind creating these food forests?
Basically, I started with agriculture based on a typical industrial model where you produce a single product in as much quantity as you can. To do that, you till your land, put chemicals, use seeds that give you results, and you do mono-cropping kind of model. Those days they were also strict on the type of seeds. Hybrid seeds are still allowed.
In a couple of years I realized that not only was this harmful for the land but also the produce wasn’t of much value. The government doesn’t offer good value for it either. They put an MRP, and the produce sells only for a bare minimum price. It is then that we shifted to food forest.
I realised that most of the processes in agriculture are pretty much similar other than intervention in the form of an organic chemical. Hence, neither does restructuring happen in the soil nor does it become bio diverse. We impose what we should grow. The moment you adopt that model, you are limited to wheat, rice, etc. You can’t grow turmeric and many other things on that land.
We quickly stopped it, and started making a bio diverse kind of atmosphere. Then for four years we tried multiple famous models. For example, Miyawaki kind of model, Permaculture etc. I can go into each one of them at length but basically we realised that they have some shortfalls. They are not built according to Indian conditions – the bio diversity and climate diversity out here are not factored into that. The second part is we are not factoring any animals’ cycle into it. These models come from the latitude sections which does not feature any animals on the farm. So, they do not build cows or termites into their structure.
Then I got back to researching on Indian ideologies, and that is how we came upon this food forest model, which is completely bio diverse, self-driven and it factors in all the diversities that are present in this continent.

How much time has it taken for you to come this far and grow a full-fledged food forest?
It takes a long time. There are devil’s advocates who will say you can cut down on the time by doing intense plantation of one kind all over. But I have realized that such things don’t work. Even if it is a rapidly grown forest and it is of a single property then ultimately there will be a cycle of climate where it will break down.
There will either be excess rainfall, drought or winter, etc. Basically it is time consuming but time is just one of the dimensions. If you speed up on one dimension, you end up compromising on others.
If you allow time to move optimally, the ecosystem below the earth also gets built slowly. But yes, that is a slower process. If that is built, the earthworms and microorganisms are there under the earth, and there are plants which don’t come up much on the surface but they go down very deep – all these are there. In this way your system is very resilient. It is regenerated with its resilience to climatic problems. So, if you cut down on time, you end up compromising on many other of these crucial factors.

Do you also have closed ecosystems like greenhouses?
No. We absolutely do not take any human intervention because there is no better green house in this part of the world than a canopy of trees.
They produce soil nutrients because of the falling leaves, which, in a greenhouse, you will need to supply externally. When the leaves fall they contain moisture, and trees automatically control the humidity around us. There is no better greenhouse than this natural greenhouse. So, we don’t create those kinds of systems which are artificial by nature. We have so much of natural technology which leave no space or reason to adopt any other modes. Such things are required in places like North America, perhaps because the atmosphere needs it.

You mentioned that the Indian systems don’t exactly have Permaculture. PermacultureCan you elaborate?
Permaculture, if you look at its genesis, came about in 1970. It actually borrowed a lot from India.
It started off by putting together all elements like water, different kinds of roots, varieties of grass, etc. They put those elements in a particular design. For example, a pond is built, and around that seeds are planted for grasses, and around that trees, etc.
That was the genesis of Permaculture. When we practised it we found it deficit in two ways:
1. It did not incorporate animals into it though animals are a huge part of the Indian subcontinent. If we have lots of termites we can convert soil mass or fertilizers much faster. All those elements are not factored in. What to do with all the poisonous plants that grow in India? Most Permaculture people would go removing them, not realizing that it is natural fauna for us. In India, it is medicine.
2. The change of weather every two months was not factored in. For example, how to answer monsoons is something that is not addressed. The only way a forest survives a heavy rainfall is by absorbing all the water. That has to be incorporated in a design.
The philosophies have not completely absorbed the needs of the subcontinent or the kind of diversity that happens in Africa and Asia.

How do you choose these layers? How does isolated 9th layer and isolated 10th layer work?
Basically, food forest creates a lot of bio mass and there are multiple ways to convert bio mass to soil or to consume it. One of the easiest ways in which humans can benefit from it is animals eating it.
So, that is where all this extra layers come into picture. Once we reach a point where we have a lot of bio mass then we need someone to consume it. It’s like how in forests herbivorous animals eat a lot of grass. Also, we do not have a design or an integration picture dictating which layer will be present where, etc. Plants are just planted at random.

In terms of the land, how do you go about choosing the land for such projects?
To be honest, we started with a very bad piece of land – stony and barren. When we started we couldn’t get into river plains. Working on a river plain on a large track of land is almost impossible in the north. So, we started with places with no water and land pieces which were barren.
Now, we are finding it easy to go to places where it is much easier to work, given that any land is fine. For instance, if you plant a banyan tree on any piece of land it will grow. Even if it is a stony piece of land, it will grow. We have chosen lands that look challenging. In this method, it will ultimately grow and create bio mass. Once the bio mass is created other plants will thrive too.

You also sell honey from the forests. Do you take the villagers’ help for all these projects?
Honestly, all the work is done by the villagers. Whatever they need from the forest they take it. Ours is perhaps the only village which has wood in winter. Other villages do not have wood. We do not have any dearth of wood, fodder for their cattle and there is no dearth of herbal medicines. So, they have these linkages with the forest.

How difficult was it to get villages involved in this?
Initially when I started I had bought a 20 acre land. At first they thought that it is some kind of a long term experimentation going on the land. They would get curious to see what is happening – are the trees growing etc. In the long term, once the trees had grown, they started using the forest.
Then our forest sprawled into 150 acres because lots of neighbours offered us the adjoining areas as well for use. So, there began a network between the forest and the villagers –health wise, animal wise and wood wise. As an effect of this they started protecting the forest.
In a sense, earlier we would have poaching etc. Now, all that stopped because villagers started taking care recognizing that it is a food reserve for them.
Since last year, we have started selling products from that forest. Once that happened, some new things took place:
1. New villagers started approaching us to get the same thing done in their village.

2. The whole local thought process changed and people started seeing value in it. They never thought that a forest would yield buyers. These people had realized Rs. 150 for honey but had never imagined seeing Rs. 700-1000 for honey. They had never imagined anyone would pay for Moringa leaves or for Peepal leaves etc. Now they could see a financial gain.

3. The last thing that happened was – a lot of biomass got created because the forest produces it. We started having animals in the forest. They are the best at consuming biomass. Suddenly, income has gone up. People can afford to keep an extra goat in the house because there is a feeding ground now. So many things began which did well for their economy. I firmly believe that there was an economic linkage which had got broken by the way the market worked. Now, things are coming back.
Villagers have accepted it. In this case, the problem you deal with is 20 adjoining villages are approaching you to set up something similar for them. We are now facing an overwhelm of demands right now.
This whole idea was not about growing a forest. Trust me forest is just a manifestation of what you are. A forest need not necessarily mean 100 acres of area or large trees. A forest can be a small plot of grass growing with all bio diversity and a lively ecosystem in place. The traditional idea of a forest is that it should be a large plot with lots of trees, but if life cannot thrive there and no animal can feed there, it doesn’t serve the process. If that is the case, it is as good as a concrete jungle where trees thrive instead of human beings.
Forest is a very vibrant ecosystem, which can happen in a plot. Instead of changing big things, cracking mind-sets is a pretty natural method which will let you enjoy the process and the environment. The interconnection that it creates is magnificent. So, anyone who wants to get into this should leave aside all the worldly dimensions, and get absorbed in the project. You can think of big things later.

What are the common errors that one should look out for?
Common errors are the tendency to be fast and expect quick results. That can be disastrous. We want to push things fast always. If a plant doesn’t flower for two years, we try replacing it quickly instead of analysing and giving it time, or exploring alternatives to promote its growth without observing the goodness. That is one thing we have to avoid.
We also fail to observe what is performing and what is not. To quote an example, peepal trees and banyan trees are not grown all over India right now. We feel there is no economic value to it. But, if you look at all the scientific and economic or religious documents, they are considered to be the best trees to have around. Now, why the economy doesn’t link to those trees? It is because humans cannot see their value.
If you observe a peepal tree in a forest in summer, it will be laden with honey bees. It naturally hosts honey bees. In urban areas we don’t see this trend because there are no flowers and fresh water around. If you give the peepal tree all these elements, it starts performing.
Such things need time and analysis. Don’t be judgemental and take time to find its utility.
Being judgemental can be disastrous! If we see honey comb, we immediately get people to remove in the most disastrous ways possible. Termites are often removed as soon as you see it but they are very much required for a forest development. Yes, termites eat wood but that is how it creates more soil. The whole knowledge provided by agricultural universities across India is that termites are bad. We have to kill them. This knowledge is widespread.
We should educate them so that they don’t disturb the environment you are creating.

Is the government involved in any way?
Individual officials in their individual capacity have certainly guided and helped. But, governments cannot really help us if we don’t have a paradigm shift. I mean, for example, selling a 3 lakh tractor at 5 lakh and giving a 2 lakh subsidy doesn’t make sense. The philosophy of agriculture has to be reworked on. If not, how will the mind-set of the government change? Or else, it is too much to ask.

After IIT and IIM, what motivated you to take up this unconventional path?
After Infosys, I was working for a mutual fund investment company. During that point in time, I was analysing India as a standalone entity on my own and I was roaming around the country.
I realised that just like any other developing country, India also has a deficit year on year for the last 70 years. Prior to that it was either under foreign rule and was not doing well economically. And yet, we have people who are cheerful and helpful, which is not a very prevalent attitude in a country that is exploited. You won’t find that level of happiness in poor African countries. If you look at the data, it tells we are supposed to be an unhappy lot, but it is not so. I was curious about why the economic data is not reflecting how the society is!
Now, this was my analysis, and I hit upon a big factor about India that was not accounted for at all. This was our natural surroundings. Our natural surroundings induce happiness in people.
The way water is channelled, it results into more water in dams, thereby facilitating drip irrigation etc. So, we are getting energy and bio diversity from nature. We get climate changes because of our latitudes every 15 days. This leads to lot of bio diversity which we are not considering. So, I decided to input natural resources and increase the happiness value. Looking at the health of it all, I saw the depletion. Out of at least 10,000 to 12,000 rivers across India, small and big, only 5 or 6 flow all through the year. Those big ones need to supply the small ones. Those were drying year on year. This is what prompted me to take up this venture.

Contact :
Mr. Sandeep Saxena
Aranyaani Natural Foods Pvt. Ltd.
# 339, Rachna Nagar,
Bhopal- 462023
Madhya Pradesh
Phone : 9977791778
Email : sandeeps24@gmail.com