How Can We Combat Rural Poverty? Train ‘Agricultural Social Entrepreneurs’

This social entrepreneur proves that farming is entrepreneurial and a direct way out of poverty.

by Dana Mekler

Rishi Kesh Tiwari, founder of the Parbat Community Development Society (PCDS)

Rishi Kesh Tiwari founded the Parbat Community Development Society (PCDS) in 1994 in Nepal because he believes that the way to combat the devastating poverty of Nepal’s rural areas is to train “agricultural social entrepreneurs.” By teaching rural populations new ways of utilizing their land and available natural resources, he is helping to break the mold of deeply-entrenched and antiquated agricultural practices that contribute to larger problems of massive emigration and atrophying education.

Close to 75% of the population in Nepal lives in villages or rural areas. As a result, the development of the agriculture industry and the reduction of rural poverty has become a priority for development for the Nepalese government. But those efforts were falling short.

Rishi Kesh began working closely with farmers and landowners to identify the best methods being used as well as to develop new ones. Then, he organized community groups to spread alternative “agro-forestry” practices and provide technical support to landlords and the landless alike.

The different phases of economic prosperity taught at PCDS’s education centers allow agricultural workers to overcome the cycle of poverty and engage productively in sustainable practices:

The vision of PCDS is to create a society without poverty — where every person can exercise their rights in achieving a dignified and prosperous life. Their key belief is that conflict and corruption happen in contexts of poverty, and to overcome this, communities can start from where they are, with whatever they have and without needing a big initial investment.

Whether by teaching Nepalis how to develop organic manure and pesticides out of discarded ‘waste’ or by providing marketing consulting to the agro-forestry industry, Rishi Kesh is creating new wealth and new opportunities in rural Nepal.

Recently, Rishi Kesh, who has been an Ashoka Fellow since 2005, visited the Ashoka headquarters in DC for a Brownbag lunch with staff and gave us a great overview of the key ingredients to his success, particularly in his hometown of Parbat District.

With this, we opened the floor for a round of questions:

Q: What inspired you to start PCDS?

After being a teacher for some time, I went back to my home village. Many of my closest friends had been compelled to leave the village, poverty was the root cause. Soon after moving, the village elected me chairman. I saw this as an opportunity to do something for my community — and that was the beginning of PCDS.

Q: How do you start even thinking about the communities you work with?

A: I ask four key questions: 1. How to make money and have that income stay in the village; 2. How to make farmers think of themselves as entrepreneurs; 3. How to create a situation that makes people want to stay in their villages; 4. How to interest young generations in becoming social entrepreneurs.

Q: Why do you think so many young people want to leave their villages?

Most young people go to Gulf countries for very precarious jobs that are difficult and dirty, and where they don’t earn much. To respond to this growing trend that doesn’t bring higher prosperity to the communities and their families, we focus on agro-tourism and organic farming, infrastructure development (drip irrigation, irrigation canals) and farmer resource development centers. With time, different types of income-generating activities are developed in the villages through the promotion of social entrepreneurship, like the production of compost, bio-pesticides, organic farming (vegetable production, coffee), lapsi nurseries, nurseries for medicinal plants, food processing plants, etc. These new opportunities are beginning to change the motivation of young people in wanting to leave.

Q: Why is the development of social entrepreneurship so important?

A: By promoting agro-biodiversity and conservation, we are safeguarding the biodiversity of traditional seeds that are in decline, as well as raising local poultry. At the core of these opportunities is an emphasis on social entrepreneurship as a trigger for shifting mindsets and allowing rural farmers to perceive themselves as entrepreneurs and sources of innovation. This new approach has attracted people from other districts who want to learn about social entrepreneurship.

PCDS gives training in new technologies to make agricultural products organic, sustainable and competitive in international markets. Ultimately, with economic prosperity, people’s mindsets are slowly changing to reduce crime and corruption, even among political leaders.

Q: How do you find sustainable markets for your products?

A: China and India are big markets for our products. We also train our agriculture workers to reduce waste and diversify the uses of each of their crops and products. For example, with oranges, they make and distribute orange juice, but also use the seeds, the peelings, etc. And that helps to open up even more markets.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

Political instability.

Q: What’s next?

A: We would love to develop agro-tourism opportunities to foster community development, but still don’t know how to attract international visitors to come to our villages and learn from our organic farming and ecological practices. Our website is www.pcdsnepal.org.np and we would love any suggestions to broaden our reach and deepen our impact.

Rishi Kesh and me (Dana) at the end of the Brownbag lunch.

Thanks for your visit, Rishi Kesh!

Dana Mekler is the Global Project Manager for the Empathy Initiative at Ashoka.