Within a few days of joining the MBA course at Xavier School of Management (XLRI) in Jamshedpur, Kumar Ankit went to professors Prabal Sen (chairperson of the Entrepreneur Development Cell) and Madhukar Shukla (Organisational Behaviour) to opt out of the campus placement programme. The now 28-year-old already had a business plan for a biofuel company. “As head of the social entrepreneurship department, I was glad he had an idea based around social consciousness,” says Shukla. “But, I felt it was my duty to tell him that a campus placement would assure him of a salary of Rs 1 lakh-plus the moment he got out, while entrepreneurship was a long road with many struggles. I told him to talk to his parents, his friends and his girlfriend, if he had one, before making the decision. But, by the second month of the course, he already had a nursery growing pongamia saplings.”
Pongamia is a tree from whose seeds fuel can be extracted, and Ankit’s company, Green Leaf Energy Pvt Ltd, helps farmers in Bihar (and other areas) grow it, with a buy-back-at-market-rate policy, which gives them a sustained income. Since its inception in 2009, 15 days after Ankit joined XLRI, the company has provided employment to 1.4 lakh families across Bihar, farmed 35,000 acres of wasteland and planted 8 to 9 million pongamia saplings. It is estimated that a farmer will be able to earn roughly Rs 20,000 to 25,000 per acre of pongamia in the next 50 years. The trees take three years to mature and yield seeds. Ankit lives between Gaya and Delhi and travels around the country, holding workshops and giving talks about his sustainable development model.
Ankit’s base strategy was this — to bring about social change using existing policies and systems. “I wanted to work within the system of the government to benefit from it — the policies, network, and so on,” he says. Though Ankit comes from white-collar roots (his father is a professor of chemistry at Gaya University, and his mother is a teacher) he was perturbed by the migration crisis faced by people from his state. “In Gaya and the surrounding areas, the villages are empty because the men go to faraway places like Mumbai and Delhi to find work. Only women, children and the aged stay behind,” says Ankit. “On the other hand, I would read about violence or disgruntlement towards migrant workers from Bihar. So I always had this passion to do something for Bihar, within the system. I used to regularly read government annual reports on natural bio-cell policy and was familiar with pongamia.” Ankit’s aim is to utilise Bihar’s wastelands — roughly 10 lakh acres of it. “Pongamia grows on wastelands, and we lately discovered that it enriches the soil it grows in. So, now, farmers can grow other crops in the same soil.”
“The beauty of Ankit’s model is that it takes into account both supply and demand,” says Sen, one of Ankit’s mentors. “The supply is because of the wastelands already available for cultivation. Since nothing grows on it anyway, the farmer incurs no deferential cost to switch to growing pongamia. The demand comes in the form of governmental policy about alternative oil.” In 2009, according to Ankit, the government policy was 5 per cent blending of domestic fuel in our fuel consumption. It was supposed to reach 10 per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2017. “We are not even at 1 per cent right now,” he adds.
“There is also clarity in Ankit’s plan that Green Leaf is not an NGO,” says Shukla. “It is registered as a private limited company with profit sharing. It offers to buy back the pongamia seeds at market prices and its business is aiding sapling plantations and extraction of the biofuel.”
Shukla, Sen and others connected Ankit to the then chief minister of Bihar and others in the government. Initially, the government released funds to the tune of Rs 26,700 per acre. It also utilised the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) for its plantations, and the company now works across eight districts in Bihar, with talks in progress to implement the module in other states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It is showcased as one of the best sustainable model projects by the rural development department of Bihar.
The ultimate challenge is still the bureaucracy, since Ankit’s work needs inter-departmental cooperation, and regime changes mean virtually beginning from scratch. Then, there is the fact that there is still no clarity from the government about the price to be set for the crude oil bought from farmers. Nevertheless, he is undeterred. “Many people have ideas,” says Shukla, who is now on the board of advisors at Green Leaf. “But, what sets Ankit apart is that he executed them.”