In this episode of Climate Curious, learn what Sathya Raghu Mokkapati and Indian farmers are doing to protect their crops from heat waves.

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A greenhouse-in-a-box is helping small-scale farmers yield more dependable and successful crops in India, thanks to TED Fellow and green farming innovator, Sathya Raghu Mokkapati. A story of equity and climate justice in action, this week’s uplifting Climate Curious by TEDxLondon is a celebration of how an easy-to-build, low-cost structure is helping farmers earn an extra $100 per month in profits.

Tune in with co-hosts Maryam Pasha and Ben Hurst live from TED Countdown to learn about why farmers in India perceive climate change as an act of God, how practical and simple solutions can sometimes be the best, and how Sathya hopes to reach 100,000 farmers in the next five years. 

The big idea 

When Sathya Raghu Mokkapati was seventeen years old, he saw a farmer from his village in India, eating mud from a stream. Despair and sheer hunger had driven the man to lining his stomach with dirt. 

I was about 17 years old when one day I saw a farmer in my village, eating mud from a stream. I just couldn’t believe what I saw. He looked at me helplessly and said: “I am a farmer and my crop has failed but my stomach doesn’t know that my pocket is empty.”

Sathya Raghu Mokkapati

Sathya was so deeply moved by this man’s plight that he has spent most of his professional life developing a solution to help some of the people feeling the brunt of climate change: India’s farmers.  

The biggest wave of suicides you’ve never heard of 

Smallholder farmers in India (that’s farmers with under 5 hectares of land) often get catapulted in and out of the throes of poverty. Farmers that succeed one season will fail the next. In fact, if you take the average income earned by a smallholder farmer in India over 5 years, that number is negative.

If you take the average income earned by a smallholder farmer in India over 5 years, that number is negative. They are losing money from farming, not making it.

Sathya Raghu Mokkapati

Most of them farm for self-consumption and when that’s your only source of food and income, your farm cannot fail. But they do, and that’s how that man found himself desperate enough to eat mud. 

Unable to eke out a living, many farmers in India feel there is no way out. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide—the largest wave of recorded suicides in human history. 

Behind the magnitude of this number, an intensely individual tragedy lies behind each and every death. Sathya reveals, “one farmer dies by suicide every 51 minutes”. 

What’s this got to do with climate change?

For thousands of years, Indian farmers followed a calendar of the land passed down the generations that told them what and when to sow. 

Except in 2021, that knowledge has become worthless because climate change is disrupting the weather patterns that stayed the same for millennia. Farmers who make reasonable money one season fail the next. Farmers who used to grow crops in the summer no longer can because of harsh temperatures and droughts. 

June 2019, Charam, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: New York Times.

These farmers are feeling the worst brunt of climate change, right now. Sathya explains:

“If temperatures increase by about 1.5 to 2°C, crop productivity goes down by 20%. That is a dangerous number. When the temperatures go up, the rainfall becomes more unpredictable. There will be more rain in fewer days which is going to ruin the crop. When the heat increases, the pests multiply so it becomes a better breeding ground for disaster.”

Sathya Raghu Mokkapati

God is to blame.

Sathya and his co-founders spent six months travelling across the country talking to hundreds of farmers. Each time, he’d ask them what they thought was the reason for the problems befalling them and their crops. Each time, the answer was the same: God. 

These are people who had done nothing to cause climate change and by the same token, could do nothing to solve it. Lacking the very vocabulary to name the misfortune that befell them, was for Sathya, a sign of helplessness. 

“They blamed it on God. God was not a sign of hope, it was a sign of helplessness.”

How big is the problem?

Farming is big business in India. So big, in fact, it’s the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of the population. There are over 100 million smallholder farming families. Each family has around 4 to 5 members which means roughly 400 to 500 million people live on agriculture.

That’s the entire population of the EU, at the mercy of climate risk. This is not a small problem.

Ever the optimist, Sathya reframes the scale of the issue: “On one hand it is scary. On the other hand, it’s also the opportunity to make a difference, right?” You’ve got to admire the man’s ability to look on the bright side. 

The solution: a greenhouse-in-a-box

He and his team spent six months working with farmers to co-create a solution that could help the farmers generate more reliable income. 

They developed the ‘greenhouse-in-a-box’ – an affordable, modular greenhouse bundled with full stack services that uses 90% less water, grows 7 times more food and gives farmers a steady dependable income. This micro-greenhouse, Sathya explains, “adds on average $100/month profit.”

We can’t cool the entire planet in one day but we definitely can create a climate for a small portion of farmers’ land to be suitable for growing crops.

Sathya Raghu Mokkapati

A blueprint for success: shut up and listen

To get to the design of the greenhouse, from its height to its material, the team spent months speaking to and listening to the farmers.

None of these insights would have been possible without including the farmers in the conversations from the beginning. This is a part of the process that Sathya thinks isn’t highlighted enough. According to him, people make two mistakes:

1. We don’t listen to the people we’re trying to help.

2. We design solutions based on what we think is cool. 

Instead of parachuting in solutions, we need to take the time to understand the local context. Sathya describes the greenhouse as like a software that was made to fit into the hardware of a system that was already there. He advises: “we have to listen to them with a lot of curiosity, compassion and empathy, to get those quality insights, to build solutions which make sense. Because, ultimately, who gives a damn about what’s cool? If the farmer is the one who is going to use it, they should enjoy the experience of using it.”

Sathya and his team inspect and evaluate plant health. Photo: Venu Gopal Goundla.

The impact

The results were astonishing.

“We saw an increase of about $80 – $100 per month in their current income which is twice their current income. There are some cases where the farmers got, over the course of a year, close to $3,000 – $3,500 of extra income.”

Sathya Raghu Mokkapati
A man stands in front of his lush greenhouse. Photo: Kheyti.

So far, they’ve reached 2,000 farmers and the aim is to reach 100,000 farmers over the next five years. 

Now that’s what we call climate justice.

Until next time – stay curious!

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