In 2020, WRI India and Sangam Ventures launched the Land Accelerator South Asia, the region’s first accelerator program targeted at businesses that restore forests and farmland to economic and ecological productivity. The program provides South Asian entrepreneurs with mentorship, training and networking opportunities to help them restore farms and forests and solve a complex array of challenges faced by millions of farmers and forest dwellers.

For the program’s second cohort, the team is working with 58 entrepreneurs from 20 Indian states and Sri Lanka. They show that it makes sense to invest in land restoration, which can create $7-$30 in economic benefits for every $1 invested.

So, what do these entrepreneurs do? Here, we take a closer look at the six key sectors where these entrepreneurs are developing innovative solutions.

A map that shows the location of 2021's Land Accelerator South Asia Cohort.

1. Helping Tree Saplings Survive to Adulthood

Successful forest and farm restoration projects need healthy trees, but many projects struggle with low survival rates. One study found that only three out of 23 mangrove restoration projects in Sri Lanka boasted a survival rate of over 50%. Many small businesses are tackling this challenge.

Aspalli Greens developed Seed Wombs, a patent-pending shell that provides seeds with nutrients while protecting them from heat, wind and pests until they are mature enough to survive. Seed Wombs eliminate the need for farmers to dig holes to plant saplings and are also lightweight, saving money that can be redirected into growing more trees. For its part, SASA Enviro Agro’s Tree Ambulance and Tree Spade initiatives treat trees affected by diseases or damaged after being uprooted by development projects or environmental calamity. Similarly, St. Jude’s Herbals has developed a unique natural solution called “plantopathy” that could heal plant diseases without using pesticides or chemicals, improving soil health and reducing costs to farmers.

2. Boosting Agricultural Productivity

To feed 10 billion people by 2050, the world will have to increase food production by 56%. India is no exception to this trend. To close this gap while preserving natural ecosystems, we need to improve the productivity of existing farmland.

Nibiaa Devices created software that uses both artificial intelligence and human consultation to provide farmers with personalized recommendations to optimize crop yields. Similarly, Brook N Bees provides a range of services for 200 of India’s farmers, including farm design, training on sustainable agriculture and organizing weekly markets.

3. Developing Sustainable and Efficient Value Chains

By converting pine needles into biochar (a product that improves soil fertility) and wood vinegar (a pesticide and fertilizer), Eco Char is reducing the risk of forest fires in Himalayan region while helping farmers restore the fertility of their land without relying on chemicals. Vise Organics’s portable bio-fermenter lowers the cost of organic inputs and empowers farmers to produce their own bio-fertilizers. Other champions of agricultural productivity include Suryanirbhar Agritech, whose farm equipment and small machinery can run directly on solar power and can increase smallholder farmers’ efficiency by 80%, and Patalkot Tribe Solutions, whose technology speeds up the process of extracting oil from the seeds of the mahua tree, a native species that Madhya Pradesh’s forest dwellers collect, and thus makes the value chain more efficient and provides sustainable livelihoods to tribal people. The processed oil is used in skin care products and for treating headaches and joint pain.

Other companies are working with farmers in new places. Urban Agri’s high-tech indoor vertical farms grow food within urban centers while limiting the use of land and chemicals. SNRAS Systems’s technology can increase the productivity of traditional aquaculture by 30 times, while shifting diets away from more land-intensive protein sources like poultry.

GreenPod Labs makes sachets from natural plant enzymes that farmers, distributors and retail outlets can place in baskets of fruits and vegetables to extend shelf-life by up to 20 days. This is crucial in India, where a lack of cold storage and an efficient rural transport system has led to one of the world’s highest rates of food spoilage.

4. Reducing Crop Destruction by Animals and Pests

Pests destroy up to 40% of agricultural crops every year and are a massive threat to the world’s biodiversity. Various companies in this year’s cohort are creating solutions to manage these pests, increasing yields and indirectly preventing agricultural expansion into critical natural ecosystems. Insects aren’t the only challenge. Every year, 500,000 Indian families clash with elephants, mostly when they destroy their crops, resulting in 80 to 100 elephant deaths. BEE City India places beehives around fields, creating a “fence” that acts as a natural elephant deterrent. Harvesting the honey provides another source of income for farmers, and biodiversity and agriculture benefit as the bees pollinate plants of all sorts.

A group of beekeepers holding a makeshift hive.
BEE City India places beehives around fields, creating a “fence” that acts as a natural elephant deterrent. Photo by BEE City India

Mivipro Products keeps pests of all sizes away from crops using their natural wildlife repellent made out of herbal and fermented fruit extracts and cow waste, an approach that also reduces farmer-animal  conflict. GR Agritek uses drones, artificial intelligence and nanosensors to tackle pest infestations. By allowing farmers to precisely target infestations, GR Agritek’s products help farmers track the pest infestations and adopt timely remedies.

5. De-risking Investment in Sustainable Agriculture

Many Land Accelerator businesses are making investments in Indian agriculture less risky. They are developing new value chains that provide smallholders with a reliable financial incentive to restore land and are creating new technologies that help farmers make sound decisions and investors understand the market.

Earth Analytics India and Technology for Wildlife use technologies ranging from satellites equipped with radar to submersible drones that provide insights to farmers, government and businesses that can help them to better manage agricultural risks and conserve ecosystems. Urvara Krsi offers technical support and inputs to farmers working on agroforestry systems and offers them buyback agreements, which guarantee farmers a competitive market prices for their crops.

InDev Solutions and SP Foods are developing the value chain for bamboo, which is often an ideal crop for land restoration thanks to its ability to rapidly mature, extensive root systems that lock soil in place and long lifespan. Sonanchal Aroma uses native vetiver grass, which helps restore the land, to produce essential oils that can be used to relieve stress and burns, as well as repel insects. Rayush Natural Fibers, working with women farmers and tribal peoples, is makes eco-friendly curtains printed with tribal art from Central India, from Vetiver, whose deep root systems guard against soil erosion and make the plant resistant to wildfires, frost and droughts. Suraitech Innovations is working with local farmers to manufacture herbal products, mainly shilajit, from the latex of the Euphorbia royleana, a plant that is said to have health benefits.

6. Turning Crop Waste Into Economic Opportunity

After harvesting crops in the summer and the winter, many farmers in India burn the leftover stalks, stubble, leaves and other organic materials left on their land. Indian farms produce about five million metric tons of these crop residues every year and burn 18% of them, emitting greenhouse gases and smog.

Numerous companies are converting crop residues from a bane to a boon. Fermentech Labs is decomposing agro-industrial waste and making bio-enzymes like cellulase used in the paper and pulp, textile, detergent and food processing industries. Takachar Himalayan Sustainable Energy Solutions converts crop residues into biochar or bio-fertilizers.

A group of people collecting crop residue in an open field.
Takachar Himalayan Sustainable Energy Solutions converts crop residues into biochar-based fertilizers. Photo by Takachar Himalayan Sustainable Energy Solutions

ZeroPlast and Orgro Fibre use biomass waste to replace plastic products. ZeroPlast converts biomass into bioplastics and biocomposite pellets (the raw material of wood-plastic hybrids), whereas Orgro transforms agricultural waste into biodegradable bags that can replace the plastic tree-protecting bags that nurseries use. Vasshin Composites converts Himalayan pine needles, which can help spread forest fires if left under trees, into consumer goods like bio-degradable coffee mugs and toothbrushes. Green Karma composts food waste and dry leaves in both commercial and residential settings to create organic fertilizers.

Two people dumping compost into a large bin.
Green Karma composts food waste and dry leaves in both commercial and residential settings to create organic fertilizers. Photo by Green Karma

Building Restoration Business Models For India

Land restoration is a complex task, and no technique or business model will be a silver-bullet solution. Empowering local entrepreneurs throughout South Asia can help create local solutions to these large challenges in an ethical, community-led way. They can chart a path forward that other entrepreneurs can follow to replicate and scale up impact. This year, the Land Accelerator South Asia is ready to work with these innovators to discover new paths to prosperity for India’s rural communities.