According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming is a system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, feed, etc.) and to the maximum extent feasible relies upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, off-farm organic waste, mineral grade rock additives and biological system of nutrient mobilization and plant protection.
Meet Bhagya Wijayawardane, an urban gardener who is working to improve food security, Queens Young Leader 2018, Global Schools Ambassador UNESCO MGEIP and Sustainability Educator. She is the co-founder of Eshkol Garden Works, which encourages people to grow their own food in their garden or home.
Bhagya you come from the cinnamon land, Sri Lanka. Tell us about your background – education, family, upbringing….
Bhagya: I am from Colombo. I have spent a significant amount of my childhood in the hill country, home to thousands of lush green tea plantations. My family is very encouraging and supportive of what I do. I am a Marketing major, but besides that I am also trained in sustainable agriculture, organic farming in India and Thailand. After having worked as a banker, a university lecturer as well as a development practitioner in INGO, a self-realization dawned on me. I decided to focus on my passion and be the change I wanted to see in my community. I started social activism at the age of 9, first as a writer who enjoyed sharing critical perspectives on women’s rights, gender, feminism and then, as an active volunteer with community organizations.
You have nine years of experience as a social activist, you have worked on climate change, taken youth initiatives and participated in community programs. At what point did you feel the need to conceptualize Eshkol and why?
After being subjected to harassment, corporate miseries, pressure and gender inequality at my workplace, I realized that some people or organizations that I worked for didn’t reflect the values they spoke of publicly. Owning relentless attitude and unbending ethics, I stood up for what I believed in and decided to walk out into a journey that opened me to soul searching. I went travelling around Sri Lanka exploring nature, self- reliance and confidence. In my journey, I heard stories of families adversely affected by climate change, I saw malnutrition, suicide attempts by farmers to escape debt traps, stunted growth in children, increase in school drop outs due to hunger and lack of the free morning meal, escalating food costs, nutritional deficiencies etc.
To deep dive into the ‘why’ of poverty, inequality and to understand how people can live peacefully without having to rely on governmental agencies and institutions for support all the time, I started gathering information. At the same time, I started gardening in the back yard of my kitchen and grew leafy greens, enjoyed eating fresh and organic produce. All this while, there was a constant inkling pushing me to help others start their own home garden to fight food insecurity.
- I wanted to make it easy for everyone to grow food themselves and connect directly with farmers in their communities.
- I wanted to help people ask the right questions. Only when we ask the right questions, we create space for ourselves to make informed choices and spend our money to secure a better food system.
- Having worked with other farmers through groups and networks in Sri Lanka on organic agriculture and supporting transitions to organic, I knew the only way to create a movement to tackle food insecurity challenges as an individual was to create a model in which everyone could see how it’s done.
What does Eshkol reflect? How do you use it as a model for peace-building?
I founded Eshkol as a response to food insecurity, discrimination and poverty. My organization helps gain independence from a dilapidated agricultural and a failing economic system in Sri Lanka that relies heavily on imported food produce and monoculture crop system with low resistance to climate change. The aim of our ‘Feed Ten Million People Food Campaign’ is to bring a paradigm shift in the way we approach food and financial security. Our urban vertical gardening planters expose urban gardeners to a very easy method of growing organic food in small spaces with very little work.
We educate people on topics like organic farming, healthy eating, how global economy and emerging industries affect our daily lives and also tell them about online and offline interactive educational forums that raise awareness on these topics. Our products are created and offered for free in community school initiatives using salvaged resources that are otherwise used for landfill.
Tell us about your journey to the Queen’s Young Leaders Program and how did it help your initiative?
It was a remarkable program. I got the opportunity to meet great personalities like Jamie Oliver, I also met many social entrepreneurs, businessmen, political leaders at the Dawning Street who have brought change through their business, advocacy, governance in their community. The one-year online training program ‘Leading Change’ by the University of Cambridge, UK helped me with the knowledge and tools I required to become a promising young leader. Most importantly, the award shared my story with the world and made my voice heard loud and clear. Meeting Her Majesty was an incredible experience. It was like a dream come true, I always look up to strong female leaders, and meeting her made me see the strength of a woman and how far she can go with her influence for the betterment of the community.
In between speculations whether fad or future-proof, do you think ‘Urban Farming’ can really change how we feed the planet?
Yes, urban gardening can truly help feed the planet. We cannot stop development, technology, advancing communities, what we can surely do is to ensure that we do not compromise on our culture, traditions and the capacity for future generations to live in them. By growing our own food, we develop self- reliance, create livelihoods and encourage people to eat fresh organic food. I strongly believe, successful home garden programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits. By knowing what really works, the more realistic its theories of change will be, the more effective its programs, this is why we believe in our process. We use evidence of impact, at the same time we value qualitative evaluations and informed judgments of the work we do.
How do you see Eshkol growing 5 years from now?
I would like to see Eshkol as a sustainability space that gives people required knowledge and tools they need to think liberally and come together to make informed choices, collective decisions that is good for them and their communities, while preserving their traditions, culture and practicing self-reliance in its fullest form and building a community that is peaceful, sustainable and healthy to live and flourish.
A message to all the people who are reading you at the moment…
We believe that poverty can be conquered by empowering women, so we strongly encourage everyone to respect the status of women, appreciate them, and invest in them for a better future. We also believe in wild, natural, sustainable production. The plants, grains we harvest, process and convert into value-added products, which we prepare and market ourselves has nurtured and helped hundreds of women in the hill country to make a living out of poverty. It has helped restore forests and allowed us to live close to mother nature. We encourage everyone to bring a change in oneself. Instead of lamenting over what didn’t work, or hasn’t worked, ask what I have done for my community to make it a better place to live in?