Advancing farmer’s soil, health and incomes: interview with Ekta Jaju 

What if someone proposed farmers use pesticides on crops as a new idea today? Hmm…. the harmful yet cheap method might be rejected with what we know of its damage to the health of soils and people. Though today’s reality is that this practice is widely used. But the Indian social enterprise, ONganic Foods in West Bengal is working with rural Indian smallholder farmers to manage plant growth that improves incomes and avoids negative impacts on climate, soil microorganisms, nutrient content, future yields as well as the health of the farmers, their communities and consumers.*

ONganic Foods founder Ekta Jaju, the subject of a recent documentary commissioned by Mastercard, has been running ONganic Foods since 2015. Like many of Women on Wings agri-tech social enterprise partners, she desires change that is four-fold: a more climate-resilient planet, healthy farmers and consumers, more women rural Indian farmers and increased farmer incomes by processing and selling premium organic produce to new markets to break a cycle of debt and poverty.

Rural Indian woman farmer working in field that uses the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) water management technique

Capacity building for regenerative farming

Ekta is passionate about stopping environmental degradation and creating sustainable organic communities. ONganic works with farmers to build soil capacity, yield farmer health and chemical-free crops and promote growing management to weather pests, disease, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall.

Ekta and her team work with 5,000 smallholder farmers, including 1,700 women so they can convert to and grow indigenous organic produce such as black rice, Govindbhog, turmeric and ginger in the rural areas of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur and Assam.


“That whole process of finding a sustainable model that works for everyone and that could help scale the organic sector is something that excites me.”

She says when they work with a farmer, they work with a family, where both husband and wife play an equally significant role in cultivation. They aim to impact 25,000 farmers by 2025.

Driving farming change and health

Scaling the organic sector inspires Ekta: “Organic farming just makes perfect sense for everyone. It’s great for environment and soils. Great for the smallholders and growers. Great for the people who eat the produce.”

Ekta sees the challenge of chemicals in food that destroy the earth’s ecosystems and soils. More than 80% of India’s farmers are smallholder farmers** who need credit for cultivation activities. Using chemicals is a cheaper alternative.

Though Ekta often hears from smallholder farmers that once going chemical-free, they see their soils produce more, and are relieved to avoid harmful pesticide exposure. They also have told her they feel proud to share healthy produce with their communities and the end consumers. And crucially, the markets ONganic finds for the selling of organic produce yields a premium price which boosts their income.   

Rural Indian woman farmer working in field that uses the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) water management technique

Climate-resilient water management techniques

In the photo above you can see the Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) water management technique that’s been recently implemented on 150 acres of ONganic farmer’s rice paddy fields in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa. This technique helps farmers adapt to water scarcity conditions, significantly reduce water usage, control methane emissions and increase fertility and productivity. Farmers can also gain access to carbon credits by adopting this technique thereby improving their income.

An eye on others and the earth

Ekta was inspired to impact other’s lives from seeing the dedicated social work of her grandfather who devoted his time to organizing subsidized health camps, clinics and hospitals. “I didn’t know how, but I knew when I grew up, I would contribute to society.”

Initially studying filmmaking was Ekta’s path. She made many documentaries for a global youth journalism group called Project Survival Media which brought environmental stories to conferences.

Around the same time, and before she founded ONganic, Ekta and Vinay Jaju, who is now her husband, started the SwitchON Foundation which focuses on creating environmental and climate change awareness through clean energy access, sustainable agriculture, education and well-being.

Vinay cycled from Kolkata to New Delhi meeting with communities impacted by coal mining. From this experience, they along with Vinay’s brother Piyush, created a social enterprise called ONergy Solar with the idea to supply clean energy solutions to the “bottom of the pyramid” in rural India by developing training programs for solar technicians.

Focused on organics and fair incomes for Indian smallholder farmers

During that time, Ekta began learning about and growing her own food. She followed a permaculture course and met people creating better food systems such as food forests. She began to focus on how solar could impact other areas including agriculture.

“We began training a lot of farmers who were using chemicals intensively. They understood the challenges of chemicals in their soil and on their health but when they started to grow food there were only markets for non-organic conventional produce. If they tried to sell it there was no premium.”

She then joined a voluntary group trying to connect smallholder farmers with consumers via melas, fairs, commercial exhibitions. Ekta said it was important that they find a committed market for what they were growing and that they build organic value chains. From this activity, she founded the social enterprise ONganic Foods.

Three people discussing logistics of moving and handling farmer's products in a processing plant

The power of co-creating impact

The Indian agri-food social enterprises that Women on Wings consults and mentors such as ONganic Foods, work toward a new reality that avoids harmful farming practices while creating more jobs for rural Indian women.

ONganic Foods, headquartered in Kolkata, first met with Women on Wings in 2022. So far Women on Wings expert consultants have run custom-made business workshops with the social enterprise on business strategy, HR and supply chain management with more to come so that they may scale.

Time is of the essence when a business gets an order. “You want to service it quickly because when clients place an order they are out of a particular commodity, or they have an external order that they are procuring from us,” says Ekta.

“In both cases, time is very essential to service a good quality product. The recent supply chain management workshop (see picture above with Ekta, ONganics operations manager and Women on Wings supply chain and logistics expert Hilke Tol) can be very critical to bringing down our times by a few percentages. It makes us conscious of efficiency that we can use in multiple places. So that is great.”

Insights for an aspiring social entrepreneur

When asked, Ekta shared some advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs on sustaining one’s entrepreneurial journey:

Be extremely passionate. Being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult because it is challenging to take on competitive markets. Ekta was emphatic that passion fuels you to persevere through difficult times, opens doors, inspires your team, and she says, “If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, your WHY… you will have reason to wake up in the morning and continue to do what you are doing.”  

Failure. Ekta says to embrace it. There are always failures that you learn from because you’re constantly experimenting as you try to scale. At every level of your business, you encounter different problems such as HR retention issues, policies and attracting talent. There can be societal barriers, financial constraints, and operational hurdles. She says there are always so many ways of doing things. So you’re constantly trying a few until you find your way of doing things that you think are the best.

Activities that bring her life balance. A social entrepreneur’s life is busy and has odd hours. It is important to her to find an outlet to keep the right brain active in times of stress.  Outlets she says that help her: she finds joy in singing, painting or playing piano.

* Pahalvi, H.N., Rafiya, L., Rashid, S., Nisar, B., Kamili, A.N. (2021). Chemical Fertilizers and Their Impact on Soil Health. In: Dar, G.H., Bhat, R.A., Mehmood, M.A., Hakeem, K.R. (eds) Microbiota and Biofertilizers, Vol 2. Springer, Cham.

** Government of India Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Improving Condition of Small and Marginal Farmers