Zero budget natural farming is gaining traction in Andhra Pradesh, but much larger financing is required for this climate-resilient practice to bring about significant change
A few years ago, Jyothi Gari had no idea of zero budget natural farming (ZBNF). Like many other smallholder farmers in her native Solasa village in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, she used to grow a single variety of crop year after year by extensively using chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Things changed two years ago, when she became aware of ZBNF through representatives of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a non-profit company run by the provincial government in southern India. Along with other members of the women’s self-help group (SHG) she was part of, Gari learnt that it is possible to boost her income through farming methods that relied on multi-cropping without depending on chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
Today, standing in her field blooming with reddish-orange firecracker (crossandra) flowers, Gari recounts how ZBNF methods have helped her become a more successful farmer. ZBNF is a farming practice that promotes natural farming without fertilisers and pesticides. It uses a variety of simple homemade bio-inputs instead.
The term zero budget refers to the zero net cost of production of all crops cultivated in a farm, which include inter-crops, border crops and multi-crops. The treatments and inoculations for the crops are formulated locally, with the use of organic materials like cow urine and dung, neem leaves and so on.
Since input costs are reduced dramatically, many thousands of farmers in Andhra Pradesh are taking to ZBNF enthusiastically because it improves incomes and reduces expenditures. ZBNF also helps in retaining soil fertility, making rural communities more resilient to climate change in the long run.
Gari says ZBNF helped her improve both yields and incomes, and has diversified her risk as she doesn’t depend on a single crop any more. In addition to crossandra, she grows red chillies and drumsticks (moringa). She says her crops are healthier now and fetch better prices in the market.
It is now well-established that extreme weather events like erratic rainfall, unseasonal heatwaves and droughts associated with climate change are adversely affecting agriculture in India. Declining groundwater levels, unseasonal floods and other natural disasters are also taking a toll on yields and the quality of crops, adversely impacting farm incomes.
These factors are forcing many farmers into a vicious cycle of indebtedness. This is aggravated by unsustainable farming practices such as extensive use of chemical fertilisers, which over the years has degraded the quality of soil. ZBNF offers a simple yet effective solution.
Several farmers in Solasa village endorsed ZBNF because the practices improve soil quality and help the soil retain more moisture. As a result, they require less irrigation compared to conventional cropping techniques. They also say there are fewer and less severe respiratory and skin-related ailments since they have switched from toxic pesticides to natural products.
Around eight percent farmers in Andhra Pradesh, which translates into half a million farmers spread across 3,000 villages, have adopted ZBNF due to its various benefits, according to RySS. The organisation hopes to scale up its project to cover all six million farmers in the state by 2027. RySS appoints nodal officers in each village cluster and block to train and handhold farmers and monitor and report progress.
Besides bringing local farmers into the ZBNF fold, RySS is also incubating a new breed of organic farmers by recruiting local agri-tech graduates as young fellows. After two to three years of immersive ZBNF learning across functions and districts, RySS plans to establish them as model farmers who can train other farmers in the province.
ZBNF also engages specifically with women, empowering them to work on fields, take farming decisions, and build their social and financial independence. Like Gari, many women farmers form the core of ZBNF in the state. They are able to access loans at nominal rates — sourced through the local women’s SHG — from local banks to cover their low input costs.
Barriers and way forward
Despite the success of ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh, it is early days and the practice of ZBNF still faces a few barriers. It has received significant criticism, particularly from the scientific community, for its so-called lack of technical validation and approach. RySS is in the process of evaluating and documenting its successes in a credible and structured manner to convince scientists as well as institutions and investors to help accelerate its uptake.
Another question facing ZBNF is related to finance for scaling up and bringing about transformational change. Securing finance for adaptation sectors, such as climate-resilient agriculture, has been a global challenge. However, ZBNF seems to have convinced a range of stakeholders about its scalability and potential to address India’s agrarian woes. As a result, money has come from both public and private sources. Despite the change of government in Andhra Pradesh, budgetary allocations to ZBNF have continued.
Last year, the Azim Premji Foundation offered INR 1 billion (USD 13.1 million) for five years to implement ZBNF. Earlier this year, the state government signed a memorandum of understanding with the German Development Bank KfW for INR 7.11 billion (USD 93.2 million) loan facility to scale up ZBNF operations.. ZBNF has also received mention in the annual budget speech by the federal finance minister.
While the money now available may suffice for the next few years, ZBNF requires far more capital to achieve the ambitious target of covering the entire state. With a domestic philanthropic foundation and an international public finance institute already funding the project, concessional financing options are going to be limited in the future.
Eventually, ZBNF will have to prove its credibility to the private sector and capital markets in terms of environmental, social and economic benefits accrued to farmers. There is thus an opportunity for financial innovation through the issuance of resilience bonds or blended financing by tying up both public and private capital.
In 2019, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) launched the world’s first-ever resilient bonds, raising USD 700 million to invest in climate-resilient projects, including agriculture. If ZBNF establishes its climate relevance, it makes a strong case for India’s first resilience bond issuance.
Parvathi Preethan and Shubham Gupta are part of the Climate Resilience Practice team at World Resources Institute India.