TIPPING POINT - ARCHITECTS OF THE FUTURE
10. Mathew John
It pays to be exotic
Organic and fair trade may be just fashionable words to urbanites, but to those living in far-flung villages, they are a route to success and scalability. Last Forest, an offshoot of the Keystone Foundation, has achieved this by working in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve for more than 15 years on eco-development initiatives.
Photos: Anshika Varma
MATHEW JOHN, 47, may have studied at IRMA, Anand, but it wasn’t until he and his two friends spent a year backpacking through Tamil Nadu that their love for finding and scaling up wonderful local products became a career choice. The three set up Keystone Foundation and started with their first — and ambitious — project, to hunt for the best wild honey in the region’s forests. “It’s funny,” laughs John, “around the world, the word ‘wild’ commands a premium for a product, it signifies exclusivity and purity, while in India, it seems to devalue the product.”
THE CONCEPT OF organic or fair trade is neither new, nor alien to India. Yet for most farmers in the godforsaken parts of the country, receiving certification for their produce is a distant dream. With neither the know-how nor the financial means to apply for certification, they continue to receive lower prices than they could for produce and products created with the same quality-consciousness. Last Forest was set up to promote products and practices that met four key criteria: they needed to be organic or fair trade; they needed to support indigenous craft; they needed to support or improve local biodiversity and they needed to increase local employment and build local markets.
LAST FOREST’S INTERVENTION to help local farmers and craftspeople has taken multiple forms. An aggregator that sources and markets the finest local products from farmers across India on different platforms, Last Forest has created a network of brick-and-mortar retail stores in Mysore, Ooty, Coonoor and Kotagiri to retail these products. It also supplies to 50 retail stores nationwide, besides an online platform to reach the rest of the country.
Last Forest brainstormed and decided to create their own unofficial ‘certification’ process for organic and fair trade practices — bringing together like-minded organisations to extend reach and offer a wider platform to villagers. Two different processes are followed to grant fair trade and organic ‘status’ to farmers. For fair trade, it’s an informal exercise of visiting each and every farmer who follows fair trade practices and verifying their methods, then including them under a loose collective of similar farmers.
In the case of organic practices, Last Forest joined hands with 6-7 other organisations and they have worked with farmers to develop the Participatory Guarantee System, which ensures that the products certified by the system have been developed organically. Today, with over 5,000 farmers onboard, they have extended the benefits of the organic platform to grassroots farmers without them having to pay heavily for the privilege.
THE BIGGEST VALIDATION of Last Forest’s indigenous Participatory Guarantee System came last year when the Government of India adopted the system through the Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, a move likely to impact scale tremendously.
The Way Forward
JOHN IS EXCITED about the possibilities for Last Forest. “We already represent products from more than 60 collectives,” he says. “We want to remove middlemen, and make farmers more competitive, as well as give them the benefits of getting their products to the urban, better-paying market.
“We have started to offer packaging services — smaller farmers or collectives can bring us their produce and we will package it for consistency as well as appeal. We are also investing in training — recently, for example, we brought together 15 store managers from the retail stores that have fair trade certification to interact with each other, understand the products better and engage on a common platform. We thought it far more worthwhile than bringing together 15 CEOs.”
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