Yadav Bhavanth grows vegetables on family land in the south-central Indian state of Telangana. On this small farm in a drought-prone region, his crop production—and income—depend heavily on seasonal rainfall.
In 2015 and 2016, water shortages threatened his crops. And when the rains came, they were often so heavy that they damaged even the hardier plants, causing disease or infestation.
Some of the extreme weather patterns can be attributed to climate change. As global temperatures increase, extended periods of drought, heat waves, and unpredictable rainfall have intensified. The crop losses and mounting debt carry a human toll: More than 3,000 farmers committed suicide in Telangana during a three-year drought. (Learn more about this problem across India.)
But 2017 was different for Yadav. The 37-year-old farmer began using a greenhouse to conserve water and protect crops from harsh downpours. Instead of trapping heat, these greenhouses are made with breathable, aluminum-coated cloth netting that reflects some of the sunlight, reducing inside temperatures. The greenhouses are also fitted with drip-irrigation systems that allow farmers to use an average of 90 percent less water than their neighbors.
“Outside, we are not as sure whether the crops will dry up—there is no guarantee,” Yadav says. “Inside [the greenhouse], the plants grow very fast,” he adds. “The [produce] quantity and quality is also the best.”
Yadav purchased his greenhouse for $2,500 from Kheyti, an Indian non-profit that is developing the structures and facilitating loans to buy them—through a program aimed at helping small farms adapt to climate change.
Greenhouses have long been used in India for commercial flower and vegetable production, but standard designs are too large and expensive for farmers like Yadav. Kheyti has created several scaled-down versions that range from 258 to 553 square yards, an area that takes up just two to five percent of a typical small farm there. The size reduces the investment risk—farmers are still able to grow other crops on the rest of their land.
Kheyti’s greenhouse costs a fraction of the $30,000-plus for a conventional half-acre greenhouse. Yet because many farmers still wouldn’t be able to afford $2,500, Kheyti works with banks to get loans on the farmers' behalf, says cofounder Saumya (she doesn’t use a surname). She started the project with support from the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University.
Kheyti recently partnered with the Bank of Baroda, India's second largest bank, to broaden the reach of the program. Participating farmers make a down payment of 30,000 rupees [$471 dollars] and then installments of 15,000 rupees [$233 dollars] after each growing season, typically every three months, until the greenhouse is paid off.
The 15 farmers who piloted the Kheyti greenhouse program have just finished their first year, growing cucumbers for three and a half months and bell peppers for eight months. Most were able to produce between five and eight times more within the greenhouse. Some used the income to advance their children’s education.
“We are able to produce inside the greenhouse [258 square yards] what we are producing outside in an acre [4,840 square yards],” said Narayana Yellabonia, one of Kheyti’s first farmers. “School has started, so the money has helped out with that.”
Inspired by the success, there are now 50 farmers growing with Kheyti in Yadav's village, Laxmapur, and in nearby Narayanpur, and the initiative has expanded into a neighboring state. Working with the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), Kheyti will reach 1,000 low-income female farmers in Andhra Pradesh. SERP, a joint venture between the World Bank and the state government, will help Kheyti identify participants, provide loans, and fund training programs. These participants would make a down-payment of only 10,000 rupees [$154 dollars] to qualify for the loan. Kheyti launched the program with the first 50 farmers earlier this year.
Kheyti’s leaders hope to expand throughout India, but they’re taking it slow. “We are very proud of the culture we have built, but we don’t want to have that lost when we scale,” says cofounder Sathya Raghu Mokkapati.
Roots of Inspiration
Sathya had longed to find a way to help India’s farms since he was 17, after he encountered a destitute farmer eating mud out of desperation. The experience stayed with him, and in 2009, Sathya left his corporate job in accounting to start a project that would boost agricultural production. Over a year and a half, he visited dozens of farming villages to understand the challenges they face. He saw inequity—annual family incomes ranged wildly, from 10,000 rupees [$157 dollars] to 10 million rupees [$157,107 dollars].
The disparity was rooted in resources, including whether a farmer had access to a reliable source of water and to technologies like drip irrigation that improve growing conditions. Being able to secure the finances to invest in a farm and having the ability to transport and sell crops at a market also played a role.
But across the board, Sathya saw the impacts of climate change making problems worse. Farmers faced intensifying droughts that often hit back to back, and the higher average temperatures caused an increase in pests and diseases.
To learn more, Sathya and another Kheyti cofounder, Ayush Sharma, spent the next three and a half years farming on a hundred-acre plot in Depalle, another village in Telangana. They worked with nearly 8,000 farmers to test out different farming methods and crops to determine what worked best for the region.
But some factors were out of their hands. “When we made an honest assessment of the impact of our work, we realized that while we were trying to do a lot of stuff, ultimately the impact on the farmers was limited because of climate change,” Sathya says.
Confronting Climate Change
Farms had to be outfitted to face the increasing weather extremes; greenhouses could regulate the environment. “The solution has to be climate-smart farming,” Sathya says. “And it has to be full-circle, with end-to-end services to connect farmers to banks and to markets.”
In 2015 the four Kheyti cofounders (including Kaushik Kappagantula) worked with engineers and agronomists to create an affordable, water-conserving greenhouse that reduces the interior temperature by reflecting sunlight.
They tested out several designs—first, a bamboo structure, but it couldn’t withstand heavy winds. They collaborated with engineering students at Northwestern University and as part of Stanford University’s Design for Extreme Affordability course on the design and to reduce costs and make them easier to install. After multiple iterations, they settled on a metal-frame structure with an overlay of shade netting and insect-proof netting on the sides.
Kheyti’s services go beyond simply supplying the greenhouses, including training and daily check-ins with farmers, plus help with transportation to market, loan servicing, fertilizers, and connections to vendors. The farmers also become part of a collective and gather weekly to share knowledge and discuss challenges, creating a sense of collaboration—and healthy competition.
“We discuss how to solve problems, how much each farmer produced that week, and how much money they earned,” said Katikala Shyamala, the Laxmapur village sarpanch, or headwoman.
Shyamala, a widowed mother of two, was the first woman to sign up for a Kheyti greenhouse. Even though she had little farming experience, the intensive training and support network helped her success.
“From seed to plant, from harvest to the market, they are with us and looking after everything,” Shyamala said.
Kheyti helps transport her vegetables to market, checks on her plants, and advises on fertilizers to use. As a result, Shyamala is able to manage her farm, put her two children through school, and stay on top of her responsibilities as the village sarpanch (she’s a liaison between government officials and the community). Other women have since followed her example.
Promoting opportunities for women and marginalized groups is a goal of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, where Pramod Aggarwal is a program leader for the region. He points out that sustainable agriculture must build capacity to adapt to climate variability, so that farmers can conserve resources during years of good rainfall and harvests to adjust for years with poor production. A good project also involves partnering with local governments, he said, to ensure stability.
“In developing countries, climate variability has always been a challenge and will continue to be,” Aggarwal says. “Climate change has brought more focus to this issue, which is intricately linked to poverty, social tensions, and migration.”
Larger-scale innovation to make staple crops like rice, which is labor- and resource-intensive, and maize more climate-resilient is essential for the future because “not everyone can be growing vegetables—it’s not taking care of food security,” he says.
But for now, vegetables provide a simple solution.
Janice Cantieri is a Seattle-based environmental journalist who focuses on adaption to climate change. She spent a year on the Pacific island-nation of Kiribati as a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow (2015-16), covering how its communities are responding to sea-level rise and decades of strip-mining.
This article originated as part of a sponsored Future of Food series.