Bhagya Uppala Wijayawardane: Tackling Food Insecurity through Home Gardening
Hi friends, it’s Spiffy, back again on Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making the world a more equitable place! Today I’m in Colombo, Sri Lanka to learn about how one organization is working on UN SDG 2: Zero Hunger. Bhagya Uppala Wijayawardane is the founder and managing director of Eshkol Agro Solutions. Let's see how she's tackling hunger!
Spiffy: Welcome, Bhagya! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Can you start by telling me what challenge you’re addressing?
Bhagya: It’s wonderful to be here, Spiffy. The big challenge we are addressing is food insecurity.
Spiffy: That seems like an enormous task! What motivated you to address food insecurity?
Bhagya: Well, Spiffy, in my journey, I have witnessed and heard stories of families adversely affected by climate change. I have seen people affected by malnutrition, stunted growth in children, and an increase in school dropouts due to hunger and lack of a free morning meal. I’ve seen farmers attempt suicide to escape debt traps. I’ve seen escalating food costs and nutritional deficiencies. I started gathering information so I could better understand how people can live peacefully without relying on government agencies and institutions for support all the time. At the same time, I started gardening in the backyard of my kitchen. All this while, there was a constant inkling pushing me to help others start their home garden to fight food insecurity.
Spiffy: Wow, Bhagya, those are a lot of transformative experiences colliding at once. Can you tell me more about how you—and Eshkol Agro Solutions—are working to create a more equitable world?
Bhagya: Certainly, Spiffy! We work with young women and communities in the transition to ecovillages and those facing climate change. We help people create home gardens by using cost-effective modular greenhouses and other innovative products that use less space and water for crop production, with a particular focus on ecological regeneration. We then sell the local produce from farms and strive to be a model in the community demonstrating how to balance business, social, and ecological sustainability. We aim to scale this solution by building ethical businesses and fair trade networks. We’ve also been discovering more innovative ways to celebrate cultural heritage work for healing and reconciliation, growing abundant gardens for food sovereignty, and working with natural resources to restore ecosystems.
Spiffy: It sounds like you’re helping people get back to their roots. Can you tell me about some of the initiatives and milestones you’ve reached and the kind of impact you anticipate?
Bhagya: We host “free-seed give-aways” to encourage people to grow their food and cut down on their monthly bills. We feature online and offline content that raises awareness about the emerging industries, green businesses, green-collar job training opportunities, and job placement opportunities to generate a wider interest in the community. We have impacted the lives of over 100 families who started their home gardens and a home-based livelihood. Some of them even sell their produce at farmer’s markets, through us. We have established community gardens near housing schemes and launched an online guide for urban agriculture in local languages, which gives out information about a variety of topics, from setting up a home garden to running a backyard chicken coop.
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a time when you experienced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from failure?
Bhagya: The most recent experience was when we were impacted by the ongoing pandemic. The situation worsened as the disease progressed, making movement restrictions more and more stringent, causing labor shortages for harvests, and making it difficult for farmers to bring their products to market. We started launching a door-to-door delivery initiative with an online shopping platform to deliver produce to homes during the COVID-19 lockdown. Consumers can shop on the website and have fruits and vegetables delivered to their doorstep. It allows farmers in need of a stable income—and families in need of fresh weekly groceries —to come together over fresh local food. We are glad that we didn't give up and instead made these challenges into opportunities.
(Photo courtesy of Bhagya Uppala Wijayawardane)
Spiffy: What is something unexpected you’ve learned from someone recently?
Bhagya: When I worked very closely with a farmer in his field, I learned that growth happens outside of your comfort zone. I was humbled by his experience and the work he carried out on his farm by himself. It wasn’t an easy job managing one acre of land with less than five people working on it. He wasn't wearing the best outfit, he didn’t have a modern house to live in, but I saw how happy and rich his thoughts and lifestyle were as he was enjoying a harvest of organic food right from his garden. What I learned at that moment is that all those miserable times where I was frustrated, I was growing. Also, how we define wealth is not only through materialistic things but through things that are often unseen such as fresh air, food, and happiness.
Spiffy: Those are gifts all on their own. Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Bhagya: Yes, Spiffy, I want to invite all young people to be part of an initiative that encourages young people to take action to protect their environment and to be the change for sustainability. This allows one to give an account of oneself, one’s experiences, one’s perspectives, to change the hearts and minds of others
Spiffy: I imagine your work, and this interview, will do just that. Thank you so much for telling me about the inspiration behind your work and mission, Bhagya, it’s been an honor.
Bhagya Uppala Wijayawardane was given a Queen's Young Leaders Award in 2018 for her work to improve food security in Sri Lanka. She co-founded ESHKOL Garden Works, now Eshkol Agro Solutions, which supports low-income families to be able to grow their own food. Bhagya has lived in traditional villages and intentional communities in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. These experiences have informed her work with young women and communities facing climate change and transitioning to ecovillages by focusing on creating home gardens as a tool for ecological regeneration. (Nominated by One Young World. First published on the Ladderworks website on July 28, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.