Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Earthworms turn forex earners

It has always been something slimy that grovels in waste. But now earthworms could emerge as a significant foreign exchange earner for the country. For the first time in India, the MR Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation has managed to export 140 kilograms of the Eseinia Foetida species to Thailand, intended for developing an organic farm there.

“People at the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, at the customs and even at the airlines were stunned by the idea of exporting earthworms. It was completely out of the blue,” said Mukesh Gupta, the Executive Director of the foundation. And because export of any soil or excreta is banned from the country, the foundation had to research on an alternative habitat for the earthworms in transit.

After about six months, the team settled for a polymer-enhanced packaging with a mixture of Ayurvedic products – they did not want to specify which ones – to seal the worms. The packaging is also designed to maintain the optimum moisture level. Normally, exporters elsewhere feed cellulose but the worms can survive for only about 30 hours on that. “With our feed, which we call Rishi Krishi Mixture, they can live for as long as 15 days. Also, not a single worm died during the journey to Thailand,” said Gupta. Given that each weighs about a gram, there must have been 140,000 earthworms in the consignment that cost Rs 36,357.

Encouraged by the success, Chin Han Hoew, the Thai entrepreneur, placed a second order for 5,000 kilograms of these earthworms on Wednesday. Besides from being not easily available in Thailand, the Eseinia Foetida was demanded for being particularly suitable to generating vermicompost. It is tolerant to disturbances, has a voracious appetite and procreates fast. India, with a temperate climate condition, has a large reserve of these worms.

The foundation is also busy meeting demands from other countries such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and even the US, where a kilogram of these earthworms costs around Rs 2,000. “In fact, someone from Benin asked us for 35,000 kgs,” said Gupta. Instead of sending such a large amount, the foundation has offered to help in setting up a facility to rear the earthworms there.

As organic farming grows in popularity worldwide, the market for these worms can only expand. According to an estimate, Gupta said 10 per cent of the world’s cultivable land would be under organic management in 10 years from now. That is why, he stressed, it is important to set up an Export Promotion Council for vermicompost and related items to consolidate India’s strength in the international earthworm market. “If we manage to streamline the trade policy with other countries, annual exports could touch Rs 1,000 crore,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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