From Environmental Activist to Social Entrepreneur
Ruchi Jain, founder of TARU Naturals, charts her journey leading her to a powerful motivation to make a difference to the food systems of India
I grew up in Mumbai, with a forest behind my backyard. My mother grew all her own organic vegetables and fruits, and we had a simple childhood playing in the mud. Growing our own food, building bonfires with burnt potatoes, playing with clay, sun-toasting bread with jam, pickling, mixing plant medicine, and fermenting foods were an intrinsic part of our lifestyle. We actively participated in social and community-centric activities. Visiting my grandmother’s farmhouse in Punjab and frequent trips to the Himalayas were hallmark summer holidays every year. My grandmother could make any raw food come alive.
I went on to study in alternative J. Krishnamurti schools, based in a forest again, where we had our classes under the trees. We celebrated nature in our learning, while painting bamboos under the whispering leaves, building economic castles, and bottling honey with Kaigal forest tribes in our environmental science classes. Somewhere within me, the values of social change, volunteering, and a deep connection to nature were sown while I was extremely young. Straight out of school, I was an idealist wanting to change the world, motivated to work on empowering lives in rural India.
These impressions stayed with me while wading through college in the big bad world of Mumbai. For pocket money, I started a waste-to-jewellery enterprise and tried my hand at photography and theatre. However, I remember being extremely restless and appalled at the injustice of coming face-to-face with heaps of plastic garbage and beggars, smoky halos of trees, and a race of insensitive human beings.
Just when I was completely fed up, I had the chance to expand my horizons and spent one year as a Rotary International Exchange student in France. I lived in the picturesque mountains of Jura and was back again to the forest. I experienced an economy and a culture heavily entrenched in food in every nuance. It was a revelation to mellow my spicy tastes to enjoy cheese and wine, while having conversations over coffee and long meals. Therein began my tryst with food and farming. And I started reading and gaining knowledge about food systems, cruelty to animals, and factory farming.
Back in Mumbai, I started connecting the dots back to the climate change crisis. I channelled my anger into becoming an environmental activist and spent my time trying to fight the economic system that had created it. I found myself as one of the co-leaders of the Indian Youth Climate Network, which spread like wildfire. I travelled to several universities and taught leadership courses on environmental issues. I then went on to join the international campaign, 350.org. We implemented the Global Climate Day of Action on 24th October 2010 and as an individual I felt incredibly powerful. We motivated and inspired 400 grassroots climate actions to be implemented on one single day across India and were in sync with many such global teams across the world working in the same space, time, and energy. A sense of purpose came over me as an individual, as a vision built up to create large-scale change in my lifetime. At that point nothing was impossible!
But these hopes and aspirations didn’t last long as United Nations Climate Change meetings tried to reach agreement without success. I became seriously disillusioned with my life choices. Was being an activist the way to create change? How about implementing concrete solutions on a local level and scaling them up? This marked the start of a cycle of confusion that took me many years to come out of.
I decided to study at Oxford University, where a strong intellectual storm gave me an insight into how the world works. It shaped my ideas on climate change, food systems, fossil fuel companies, and global economic systems, while building on my vision for social change. I spent the next three years on an Access to Energy World Bank Project with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. It was a life-changing experience but, by now, restlessness was welling up inside me like a flash flood.
One government field trip left me completely bereft. We were visiting Nandurbar, north of Maharashtra, and I bought some large delicious custard apples at the roadside from severely malnourished children. The apples were desperately under-priced given that the villagers had walked for 25 km to sell them. Though we were a delegation from central government ushering in a future dream of electricity to their villages, I realised that water and agriculture were the bigger problems here. They were the backbone of the economy and a way for the villages to become self-reliant.
Following this incident, a period of ill health gave me the time for self-contemplation. How could I touch the lives of millions? How could I ensure that the basic needs of every single person were met? How could I reach out to 50% of India as an agrarian economy? How could farmers adapt to climate change? Equipped with silence, a milder and calmer mind brought a lot of clarity to me. I realised the need for inner change as more powerful than anything else. My work at the government could have been more significant all these years had we worked on changing minds and instilling value systems.
With this in mind, I was very motivated to follow my vision and began travelling to make my start-up dreams come alive. I had to deal with some disappointments before finding the best way to proceed, but eventually I decided to put together an end-to-end value chain-based fair trade marketing platform. During the trial and testing phase, I was put in touch with Desaiji who grew and processed turmeric and jaggery powder (a healthy alternative to sugar). By May 2016, I had established a supply chain for jaggery, turmeric, and a few other products. TARU Naturals was finally registered as a sole proprietorship. Soon, I was selling a range of products from small-scale farmers across India.
However, TARU’s growth and a move into a more professional setting came with a lot of challenges. By October, I was fully drained and wanted to shut TARU. Not knowing what to do, I sought help from Art of Living International. Silence and meditation healed a lot of pent up stress. I took a job at the Sri Sri Agriculture Institute and was mentored by Dr Prabahakar Rao. He helped me channel my passion and ideas to build a business model for TARU. In January 2017, I made a presentation to humanitarian leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and received blessings to scale my pilot. I came back to Mumbai with the attitude of a lion.
In a small amount of time, we have been able to do our bit for the agrarian communities, now a network of 10,000 small-scale farmers. I feel the food revolution in India has just started, and somewhere I have a lot of work to do, beyond just myself. TARU Naturals has been more of a spiritual journey for me. I am not sure how I have overcome so many challenges and sometimes I just sit and wonder who operates on my energy, at what level. It is definitely not me but some higher power for sure, which humbles me every singe day and increases my commitment when my spirit breaks sometimes. There are so many times I have quit and burnt out, but then miracles pick me up again. It is challenging but an immensely gratifying experience to feel and live a movement which is silently creating ripples through a society which is ravaged by the effects of climate change. There are days when farmers call me and tell me their entire crop has been destroyed due to unexpected weather. Such challenges have become a part of my life now and I have evolved to take them in my stride as we slowly go through finding solutions.
I fondly remember one interaction with Tushar Dada, who gave me a papaya and said:
“Madam, this papaya is the first fruit of our tree after twelve years. And I wanted to give it to you, since you are so special to all of us.”
Immediately, I burst into tears as such was the bond we had developed in a few months. I have had many touching experiences with farmers like Tushar Dada. Their success and happiness give me the motivation to continue working with our agrarian communities and be a small part in their story of change.
Ruchi Jain has an MSc in Environment Change & Management from Oxford University. In the past, she has worked with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, European Academies Sciences Council, and as a campaigner with 350.org and the Indian Youth Climate Network. She has travelled extensively as a grassroots worker. Ruchi has been a recipient of several awards including the Women’s Economic Forum Award for outstanding work uplifting small farmers. TARU Naturals is a recipient of the Unlimited India Fellowship and has been incubated with Powered Accelerator, SPJMIR & Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences & Technology.