Ajay Gopi greets you with a shy, heart-warming smile. As is usual, the now twenty-year-old is accompanied by his camera – photography is one of his greatest passions. As he happily chats away, one is hardly likely to suspect that he is quietly working to revolutionise Indian farming systems. In fact, Ajay is the founder of “Hands on Agriculture”, which aims to establish aquaponics as a less water-dependent alternative to conventional farming.
His journey began with countering his parents’ explicit will. Ajay recounts that his father wanted to make him an electrician, but he had other ideas. “My wish was to do something new; I wanted to explore the world.”
From childhood, Ajay has always been creative. “I used to make so many things. I used to paint and make things, and I used to go and present that to an audience. When you go to a normal job, you’ll sit 12 hours in office. The same process every day.”
A vent for creativity
To pursue his passion, Ajay left home and joined Project DEFY, a Makerspace in Bangalore. These spaces allow people to be creative and pursue their own interests. Ajay explains, “DEFY stands for Design Education For Yourself. People can use Makerspace for their work and they also have free education for kids. We have a bunch of laptops with connection to the Internet and various materials. So if children want to learn how to actually make something, they can come to a Makerspace and try their hand.”
Ajay is now the head of Project DEFY in Mangalore, where he works to inspire other young people.
Of farming and aquaponics
Coming from a farming community, Ajay was deeply affected when he became aware of the high suicide rate amongst farmers. “2000 people had died in Karnataka. Farmers are taking loans from rural banks, and they all depend on rain. 90% of farmers in India and all over the world depend on rain. When the rain does not come, the crops fail, it destroys all their harvest. They can’t pay off their loans and take drastic steps.”
This prompted Ajay to take action. “I started searching online, what could I do, how could I solve the water problem? One of my friends is a biologist who had been to visit the US and he saw a new way of farming called aquaponics. He suggested this to me.”
Aquaponic systems grow plants twice as fast and use about 10% of the water that plants would require in normal soil. However, after speaking to several farmers, Ajay realised that they would not accept new methods at face value.
“In agriculture, you need to show results, something that is working well. Otherwise farmers think that you’re telling them stories. But if you show them something which is growing, it makes them think,” he observes.
This realisation led him to consider educating the children of farmers.”If I taught them, they would go and tell their parents about it. So when the kids came to Makerspace in Mangalore, I took their help, and we built a small aquaponics setup. Everything was done using locally available materials, such as bamboo.” The prototype Ajay set up in Mangalore showcases how plants (like lettuce) can be grown in the same space as tilapia fish.
A good start
Ajay’s efforts have begun to bear fruit. “Last month, one of the farmers nearby saw our project. When he saw our system working, he said he would like to set up the same farm, and whether we could help him do that.” Ajay readily agreed.
There is still much convincing left to do, however. Many farmers are still sceptical, and it is a challenge to bring them around and include them in the project.
Ajay now wants to work on eliminating the middleman so that producers can have a direct connection to the consumers of their products, leading to fairer prices. “I want small-scale farmers to connect with a hotel or big management, so that they can directly trade.” He also hopes to help more farmers build their own aquaponics setup.
His work, and the reception of it has boosted Ajay’s confidence. “One journalist wrote about me in a magazine. I sent it immediately to my father and mother, they were so happy about me. And my father showed it to every one of his friends. He is so happy. From childhood I had never been proud of myself but that moment made me proud. I felt I’d done something good.”
Ajay’s passion is evident as he speaks. “I’m very happy that I am doing good for children, people. And myself. I love what I’m doing.” What he has learnt, and continues to pass on to the children he works with at Project DEFY, is that “if you love something, you should just do that.”