Exhausted after a day of sightseeing in Mumbai, India, Kelly McJannett was delighted to get a seat on a train to Rajasthan. As the train pulled out of the station, Kelly settled down to eat the sandwich supper she’d bought along. But she soon lost her appetite. Looking out the window, she was shaken to see the stark images of poverty flashing in front of her as the train skirted a slum.
‘I couldn’t believe the sheer numbers of people who were living in such dire conditions,’ Kelly recalls.
‘I was also deeply shocked by the children, the fleeting glimpses of which revealed the swollen stomachs of malnutrition.’
Although there are now almost 200,000 millionaires in India, a joint UN and Indian Government survey completed last year shows almost one-third of children under the age of five across India are still classified as underweight and nearly 40 per cent are physically underdeveloped.
A large number of children are also at risk of poor cognitive and sensory brain development impacted by a lack of nutrients.
That moving experience in India gave Kelly a different kind of appetite – one for change that she is now driving from more than 10,000km away.
‘I felt I had to do something to help change the lives of the poor,’ says Kelly, who had been working to improve the lives of indigenous communities in Australia’s outback. She touched base with businessman and renowned social entrepreneur Alex Shead, and together they launched Food Ladder – an organisation that uses and promotes commercial hydroponic (a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil) technology to create greenhouse growing systems.
The artificial environment is proven to grow healthy food like spinach, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs up to five times greater than traditional methods Food Ladder’s initiative includes providing training to needy local people around the world to run such farms on their own.
It has a simple but effective, sustainable solution that not only tackles the issue of food security but creates economic development in some of India’s – and indeed the world’s – most deprived communities.
Hydroponics is routinely used by multinational supermarket chains growing produce to keep their shelves routinely stacked with affordable fruit and vegetables.
Food Ladder provides the know-how and support to local women to grow food on a semi-commercial scale. The produce is then sold at an affordable price within their communities year-round, providing income, jobs and a healthy diet.
Food Ladder has devised a scalable project whereby 30mx8m shadehouses are built on site in a chosen community and an appropriate irrigation system set up to grow the chosen foodstuff. Such a system hosts around 4,800 plants at any given time and produces seven yields a year. It costs around £2,000 (about Dh9,770) to set up each project and that provides around 30 permanent jobs and subsidises the diet of around 250 people on an ongoing basis.
Says Kelly: ‘It was my first trip to India in 2010 that made me focus on finding a solution with international relevance to food security and empowering women.
‘I initially thought it was the peripheral poverty you see in most third-world cities… but this stretched on and on for over an hour.
‘Today I work in the same slums that moved me when I was 23. And while it is nice to be a part of a solution, there is so much more to be done.
‘My initial hope was to empower people who have very little to improve their own lives on a very micro, local level – community by community, and simultaneously address the overarching global challenge of food security.
‘With so many challenges facing our collective humanity, I wanted to create a solution that just made really good sense, and I believe Food Ladder is just that – a really good solution to a pervasive and worsening crisis.’
While food security was the overarching concern, the ancillary benefits of their work have surpassed expectation. ‘By empowering women we improve not only their financial security, but also the lives and futures of their children who may now hope for an education and more to eat.
‘We also know that impoverished women who enjoy a job or financial security have, on average, fewer children, which has huge implications for population growth and the burden on the environment.
Kelly is happy that the response and uptake of Food Ladder from the international community ‘has been extraordinary, and I look forward to the next phase of our evolution.’
‘I’m really proud of what we’ve created in India and the legacy. We’ve focused on slum areas and schools so the produce goes straight to the children and we can employ their mothers.
‘It’s about creating food security and generating economic development. After we leave, we know the food will continue to grow and the jobs will remain.
‘Hydroponic technology can be used to grow high-yield produce; so we’ve found a way to use existing technology to address an issue that is a massive drain on society, both economically and socially.
‘To start up a system requires investment, but it’s a sustainable solution. Food security is the root of so many health and well-being issues affecting child mortality, education and so on.
‘The crops grown depend on what the local community want – you can grow almost anything with this system. We want to encourage high-nutrient diets in the communities so tend to grow leafy greens and vibrant-coloured vegetables, which are particularly important.’
The charity also teaches local women the science to grow the produce and operate the system, then basic finances. Kelly herself visits India several times a year to oversee the progress of the project and to answer any queries the women may have. There is also a small team of experts at hand in each of the sites who can help the women in case they face some issues.
Tomatoes, herbs, various leafy greens, eggplants, capsicums and chillies are all grown within the different project communities.
The produce is grown and sold in the community and operating costs remain low as many of the processes are automated.
Climate change is decimating crops the world over and an increasing number of already impoverished communities risk further hardship if sustainable alternatives to traditional farming methods are not forthcoming.
Now women as far afield as Cambodia and Afghanistan are working with Food Ladder to revive their communities and boost the health of their children to give the next generation the best chance possible of pursuing a successful career and generating a sustainable income.
Kelly said: ‘Afghanistan is an extraordinary project we’re developing at the moment. We’re in the fundraising stage and have been working on it for about a year in Kabul.
‘It will be an aid project focused on empowering widows left completely disenfranchised because they have lost that support system. It can be catastrophic for them.’
Located on secured farmland outside Kabul, the project will extend the growing time of produce, which is currently curtailed by freezing winters and barren land.
Recently, Kelly was joined on a trip to the projects near Delhi by Sidiq Rawi, CEO of the partner in Afghanistan planning the roll-out of the programme.
Having explained to him in great detail the ethos of the scheme, its aims, objectives and successes so far, she introduced him to some of the women empowered by the enterprise.
‘When Sidiq arrived at our first Food Ladder site, he promptly started asking the women we were working with a host of questions. I found out later Sidiq asked questions such as, how they liked the work? What their lives had been like before Food Ladder? And, what they hoped for in their futures?
‘I didn’t need to explain the importance of Food Ladder to Sidiq after that!’
At the inauguration of the project, Patrick Suckling, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, said: ‘It’s great to see Australia and India working together to support economic development and sustainable food production in India’s most disadvantaged communities.
‘The Australian High Commission’s Direct Aid Program is proud to support such an innovative and unique project.’
As the number of Food Ladder sites grows, an online virtual platform is being developed for people to share training and experiences.
Now the organisation is seeking sponsorship from companies around the globe willing to partner with them as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitment to enable them to expand their mission to hundreds more deserving communities in all parts of the world.
Kelly says: ‘We’re looking for corporate partnerships with philosophically aligned partners looking for meaningful social change – it’s just right for progressive, innovative organisations. This changes lives in perpetuity.
‘I wish more people would realise that a project like Food Ladder is not merely a virtuous endeavour. Organisations like Food Ladder are created to solve issues that affect us all whether directly or indirectly, and I believe we all share responsibility for the sustainability of our planet and the problems facing humanity. I would like to see our society understand that Food Ladder and organisations like it are solving issues that are real and worsening and have overwhelmed most.
‘I believe that if organisations like Food Ladder can be considered with the same validity, if not greater, than corporations designed only to feed a bottom line, we might have a real shot at changing the landscape of global business. And that is really exciting.’