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Poverty-fighting 'elephant' boosts farmers in India

Hardy 'elephant' or Napier grass has proved to be a cheap and nutritious fodder for livestock in poor and drought-prone areas of India.

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Napier grass is also being eyed by biofuel producers. Narayana Rao Vanapalli, who owns a biomass-based power plant in West Godavari district, buys 30 tons of the crop daily from local farmers to produce 7 megawatts of electricity.

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“There are thousands of farmers who experience crop failures every year due to drought or flood. Growing Napier grass could give them an excellent alternative livelihood opportunity,” says Vanapalli, citing countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Thailand, which he says have already started to produce energy from Napier grass, or are planning to do so.

“The grass needs no pesticides and can be grown in all kind of soils,” Vanapalli says. “Those who are selling us the grass earn 7,500 to 100,000 rupees [$140 to $1,800] annually.”

Not everyone has had success with the crop, however. Napier grass must be watered at least twice a week, and in districts such as Anantapur and Nalgonda, where the groundwater level has dropped from 100 to 180 feet over the past decade, water is ever more scarce.  

Pasham Anjamma, who lives in Gudimalkapur, near Chirimiyal, grew Napier grass until 2010, but her well dried up and she was unable to afford the cost of digging a new one. After paying 8,000 rupees ($150) for a ton of dry fodder, which lasted only a couple of weeks, she was forced to sell her cattle.

Veldurthi Shyamala of APRLP said the government is implementing a program to provide free water for irrigation to low-caste Dalits and tribal people. She feels that if this could be extended to all drought-prone villages, nobody would abandon growing Napier grass.

“Every village then could become as rich as Chirimiyal and Amidalagunta,” she says.

However, some fear that unregulated production of Napier grass for biofuel may result in less food production. Manju Dungdung, who heads a women farmers’ organization in eastern India’s Jharkhand state, says the country should learn from its past experiences of biofuel production.

“About a decade ago, several states in India actively promoted jatropha cultivation,” said Dungdung. “Many farmers then stopped growing food crops like rice. But it made them totally dependent on the market for food and when food prices started to rise about 3 to 4 years ago, they were spending more than what they earned from selling jatropha.”

The solution could be a balanced approach, argues Deepalayam Dhanapalan, a livestock and sustainability expert. Dhanapalan suggests that farmers with more than 10 acres of land be asked not to grow Napier grass on more than a quarter of their land. Small and marginal farmers, on the other hand, could be trained to use the grass in different ways so as not to be dependent upon a single market for their livelihood.

• Stella Paul is an environment and development journalist based in Hyderabad, India.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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