This techie quit TCS for the love of social work; has conserved over 250 varieties of native seeds

Rashmi Pratap
23 Dec 2022
This techie quit TCS for the love of social work; has conserved over 250 varieties of native seeds

Sowmya Subramaniam This techie quit TCS for the love of social work; has conserved over 250 varieties of native seeds HOOGA 30stades

When Sowmya Balasubramaniam was just a kid, she would help her father sow seeds and irrigate the plants on her family farm in Erode. Coming from an agricultural background, she was naturally interested in plants and farming. However, her parents wanted her to study and not become a farmer. So she completed her engineering in Information Technology from the Government Engineering College at Erode and got placed with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Chennai in 2013. 

A university rank holder, Sowmya had no idea what life in a metro would be like. 

“It was the first time I was living in a city and I couldn’t relate to it. I wanted to go back home as I never felt that I belonged there,” recollects Sowyma.

Since she had signed a two-year contract with the IT giant, she continued to work at TCS but also began to look for an alternate career. “While in Chennai, I turned to social work and began to volunteer for orphanages and old age homes over the weekends. That’s when I realised that I wanted to work with people,” she says.

Also Read: How Tamil Nadu’s aeronautical engineer-turned-farmer is creating native seed bank to promote organic farming 

Sowmya with a native variety of bottle gourd grown in Uttarakhand. It is over 5.5 feet in length. Pic: Somya Balasubramaniam 30stades
Sowmya with a native variety of bottle gourd grown in Uttarakhand. It is over 5.5 feet in length. Pic: Somya Balasubramaniam

While working at TCS, she learned about the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Asia's oldest institute for professional social work education. Sowmya cleared the entrance test on her second attempt and completed her master's in social work (2015-2017) from TISS Mumbai. 

“I got many awards at TISS, including the award for the best research and best student in social work class,” says Sowmya. At TISS, she did her research on tribal women’s collectives in Maharashtra. 

Sowing seeds of conservation 

Subsequently, she took up a job at the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE) in Uttarakhand. The institution is dedicated to sustainable development in the Himalayan region.

“I chose to work at the grassroots level to understand farmers on the ground. The work at INHERE brought me in touch with rural communities. There, women mostly looked after farms and families as men went to cities for work,” she says.

Also Read: Millet farming brings nutrition, financial security for women farmers in Bihar

Sowmya started travelling to villages even in the remotest part of Uttarakhand and would also work on farms with women. She started learning about native vegetables. 

"I saw a bottle gourd which was over 5.5 feet long. And I also saw 58 types of rajma (kidney beans) in one place. “The women were casually segregating each variety,” she recollects. 

Native chilies and purple winged beans conserved by the HOOGA Seed Keepers Collective. Pic: HOOGA 30STADES
Native chilies and purple winged beans conserved by the HOOGA Seed Keepers Collective. Pic: HOOGA

On a visit back home in 2017, Sowmya sowed some seeds of Pinto Beans and all of them germinated and grew well. The next year, they grew on their own without any effort from her end. “I wondered that when these seeds are so regenerative in nature, why we buy from the market,” she says.

Sowmya was well aware of the harmful effects of genetically modified seeds which were driving farmers to poverty and debt. Her experiences in Uttarkhand around native seeds furthered her interest in the conservation of indigenous varieties and she began collecting them from all possible sources. “I started dwelling deeply into seed conservation and started collecting heirloom seeds.”

Also Read: Debal Deb: Seed warrior who has conserved 1,480 traditional rice varieties & shared them for free with over 7,600 farmers 

In 2017-18, while working with INHERE, Sowmya got a chance to be a speaker at the Organic Seed Growers conference in the USA. She was also involved in setting up a seed bank and a gene bank for seed exchange in Uttarakhand. 

Collecting native seeds from across India

After quitting INHERE, Sowmya went back to Erode and started her social enterprise HOOGA Seed Keepers’ Collective. HOOGA stands for ‘Helping Of Oppressed Generation Of Agriculturists.’ It is working towards the conservation of native seed varieties, most of which are now endangered or lost as farmers have shifted to genetically modified seeds, which cannot be used the next year, require chemical pesticides and guzzle more water.

Savithri Amma, one of the seed keepers working with HOOGA. She is conserving native tomato variety. Pic: HOOGA 30STADES
Savithri Amma, one of the seed keepers working with HOOGA. She is conserving native tomato variety. Pic: HOOGA

"Seeds and fertilizer industries are now so interconnected that it is difficult to separate them," she says. 

"Some genetically modified seeds don’t even germinate and there is no complaint mechanism for farmers." 

The rising costs of buying seeds and chemicals annually are driving farmers towards debt. "It is critical to protect our traditional heirloom seeds which have higher nutritive value and can contribute to our global food security,” she says.

Also Read: Seed conservation: This Madhya Pradesh farmer grows 115 native varieties of rice over just 2 acres; gives seeds free to other farmers 

Sowmya reached out to elderly people in the remotest parts of the country to learn about indigenous vegetable, paddy and millet varieties which are not grown anymore. After two years of this journey, HOOGA started doing ‘seed yatras’ or travel to culturally important places across India where native seeds were still in use, with yields so high that one plant was enough to feed a family. “We have, so far, collected over 200 varieties of native seeds of vegetables including brinjals, gourds, tomatoes, greens and peppers,” she says.

The HOOGA native seeds collection also includes millets and 42 native varieties of paddy. 

“We conduct seed yatra to a new village and farm once every three months. We meet people, document the local knowledge and create space for the exchange of knowledge,” she says.

During the seed yatra, Sowmya and her team members also learn about the history of seeds, their source and for how long farmers have been growing them. “We bring them back and multiply the seeds at our research plot in Erode,” she says.

Sowmya with native variety of squash. Pic: HOOGA 30STADES
Sowmya with native variety of squash. Pic: HOOGA

Sowmya works with local tribal communities and other seed keepers across India to maintain the purity of seed genes by avoiding cross-pollination. 

Most of the seed keepers are small farmers, women self-help groups (SHGs) and home gardeners who are keen to save the endangered native heirloom seeds. 

"We give them native seeds for cultivation and then buy back the produce from them, providing them with a livelihood option,” she says.

Also Read: Aamon: Tribal women in violence-hit Bengal province triple incomes with organic rice; revive traditional varieties

With this methodology, HOOGA can maintain the purity of seeds and also create an alternate livelihood for marginalised communities. Like the Perandapally Women’s Self-Help Group in Tamil Nadu comprising 20 women who are small farmers. They grow regenerative seeds in their farms on less than one cent of land each. HOOGA has provided them with rare indigenous varieties of seeds after training them in quality seed production and the importance of native seeds.

Sowmya working with students of Sai Kirupa School for Children With Special Needs. HOOGA is setting up seed libraries in government schools to promote native seed conservation. Pic: HOOGA 30STADES
Sowmya working with students of Sai Kirupa School for Children With Special Needs. HOOGA is setting up seed libraries in government schools to promote native seed conservation. Pic: HOOGA

“It allowed them to get involved in conservation work and also provided them with an income-generating opportunity as we buy back from them,” Sowmya says. There are many similar stories from other parts of the country.

Also Read: How tribal women farmers are conserving native seeds & ensuring nutritional security

Apart from bringing awareness about native seed conservation and seed sovereignty, HOOGA is working towards creating seed entrepreneurs who can provide native seeds in their areas, ultimately ending the dependence on modified seeds.

The social enterprise is also working with government schools where it has set up HOOGA Seed Clubs with a seed library. 

Children can take seeds from there, grow at home and bring them back to school. “It also provides them with an opportunity to learn about vegetables not seen in the market,” Sowmya says.

HOOGA sells seeds online and its buyers right now are mostly home gardeners, rooftop gardeners, and organic farmers. “We supply seeds to all parts of India and while we keep getting queries from abroad, we have not yet started selling outside the country,” she says.

Content with her work, Sowmya now wants to grow the number of farmers and seed keepers to conserve the vast food biodiversity of the country.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)

Also Read: V Priya Rajnarayanan: This MBA has saved over 500 varieties of native vegetable seeds; gives them free to farmers & gardeners

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