“Hu chu (I am) community resource person” is how Laxmiben Ajitsinh Dabhi introduces herself as she stands next to a heap of nimboli (neem fruit) unloaded from a five-tonne Eicher truck at the Kapadwanj APMC (agricultural produce market committee) yard in Gujarat’s Kheda district. This 48-year-old Class VIII pass and mother of three from Chhipiyal village in Kheda’s Kathlal taluka has no land. Her primary income is from three buffaloes — only one of which gives 5-10 litres milk daily at any given point — and a sewing machine that brings in about Rs 100 daily. But with nimboli, Laxmiben has turned into a mini-rural entrepreneur — “community resource person”, in her words.
Laxmiben aggregates the nimboli that women in her village collect from neem trees, which flower towards April-end and start bearing fruits around mid-May. The shedding of the ripened fruits happens through June until mid-July, when the monsoon rains wash these away and also makes collection difficult. For the women, though, nimboli is a most useful supplementary source of income during this roughly 45-day period, just before kharif agricultural operations get underway. There are about a 100 women in Chhipiyal supplying nimboli to a village-level collection centre (VLCC). Laxmiben is the one who aggregates and organises the transport of their produce to the Kapadwanj APMC. “Our sisters collect a total of 30 tonnes (30,000 kg) during the season. This year, we are being paid an average of Rs 7.5 per kg,” explains Laxmiben, who earns a Rs 0.50 commission on every kg supplied by the VLCC, adding up to Rs 15,000 on 30 tonnes.
At the Kapadwanj APMC, the man taking delivery of Laxmiben’s nimboli consignment is Pankaj Patel. A local fertiliser dealer, he is a service provider partner (SPP) of Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilizers & Chemicals Ltd (GNFC), the company that processes the nimboli sourced through 3,000-odd VLCCs such as Laxmiben’s. Patel handles nearly 1,200 tonnes of material every season that he screens, weighs, bags, and transports to GNFC’s godowns in return for a Rs 0.25/kg commission. GNFC makes payments to Patel through RTGS bank transfer, while he disburses money in cash to the VLCCs.
“The nimboli is weighed in front of us at the VLCC and we get cash in hand immediately. This money comes at a time when there is no work in the fields. And unlike for other crops, the only investment required here is our labour,” notes Janakben Rathod, 32, whose family farms bajra (pearl millet) and guar (cluster bean) on two acres of un-irrigated land at Umedpura village in Dehgam taluka of Gandhinagar district. Janakben supplied about 1,800 kg of nimboli worth Rs 10,000 last season, which she used to part-finance the purchase of a four-year-old buffalo for Rs 21,000. “Normally, it would have cost over Rs 50,000. But since the owner had given this animal to me for rearing right from the time it was a calf, I could buy for Rs 21,000. With the Rs 10,000 from nimboli, I had to only raise the balance Rs 11,000,” she adds.
GNFC procured 10,000 tonnes of nimboli in 2015, the year its Neem Project was launched. In 2016, the collection through its VLCC-SPP network touched 12,200 tonnes. “This year, I expect it to cross 20,000 tonnes. We are now collecting from some 2 lakh women, for whom this is a new employment avenue during these 30-45 days when not much work is available,” says Rajiv Kumar Gupta, managing director of the Rs 5,170-crore Gujarat government-promoted listed company.
“We used to previously also sell to private traders. But we were paid only Rs 2-3 per kg and even their weighing wasn’t proper,” points out 35-year-old Bhartiben. A landless agricultural labourer from Vasna Rathod village in Dehgam, she has already supplied 15 man (300 kg) nimboli at an average rate of Rs 6.5 per kg this season. GNFC has a fairly transparent system of graded pricing linked to moisture content. The rates, displayed at the VLCCs, range from Rs 6.5 for fruit brought with moisture content above 50 per cent to Rs 10 for below 20 per cent.
During the season, women like Bhartiben leave at around 6:30 am and return only by 8-8:30 at night. They usually go out in groups of 15-20 hiring a mini-truck, with each woman carrying a broom, basket and gunny bag to collect the nimboli fallen from the trees. The women individually collect 100-150 kg over a full day, while covering a distance of 50 km or more. A recent United Nations Development Programme study found 82.8 per cent of those involved in this work to be landless. Also, 43.8 per cent belonged to the Other Backward Classes, 18.3 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and 14.9 per cent to the Scheduled Tribes categories.
GNFC initiated the Neem Project primarily to meet the neem oil coating requirement for its urea production. This followed the Narendra Modi government’s decision in 2015 to make neem-coating mandatory for the entire urea sold to farmers in India. The resultant neem oil requirement, at 0.08 per cent, worked out to over 600 tonnes for GNFC’s annual production of 7.7 lakh tonnes (lt) and 25,000-26,000 tonnes for the country’s consumption of 310-320 lt.
The fresh neem fruits procured have to be stored for 2-3 months to bring down the moisture content from an average of 25-30 per cent to 10-12 per cent. This dried material — reduced to 70-75 per cent of its original weight after moisture loss and removal of twigs, stones and other foreign matter — is then ready for processing. The dried fruits will have 13-14 per cent oil content. Of this, 3 per cent or so is extracted using cold press expeller machine. Another 8-9 per cent is recovered from the expeller cake through solvent extraction. The expeller neem oil has around 400 parts per million (ppm) of azadirachtin, while being only 100 ppm for the solvent-extracted oil. The azadirachtin requirement for neem oil to be used in urea coating is 150 ppm. That is met through appropriate blending of the two oils.
This neem oil is simply sprayed on the urea just after prilling (conversion from molten form to small spherical pellets) and on the way to the bagging section of the plant. The 20,000 tonnes of nimboli procurement by GNFC, after deducting for weight loss, can produce 1,600 tonnes-plus of oil. This is much more than its requirement for urea coating. Besides, there is the de-oiled cake remaining after the neem oil has been extracted. The surplus oil the company is now trying to use for production of neem soap, natural pesticide, hand-wash, shampoo and other personal care products. The cake is similarly being sought to be marketed as an organic fertiliser. Whether or not these products sell, neem-coated urea and the likes of Laxmiben, Janakben and Bhartiben have certainly opened up a hitherto unexplored business opportunity.