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Poverty-fighting 'elephant' boosts farmers in India

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Stella Paul/Thomson Feuters Foundation

(Read caption) Karinga Maraiya, a farmer in Cirimiyal village, in southern India's Andhra Pradesh state, describes Napier or 'elephant' grass as 'magical' in its ability to grow in harsh conditions and provide high-quality fodder for livestock.

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“The elephant saved my life,” says Arutla Narsimha. The 30-year-old, who lives in Chirimiyal village in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, has never seen a real elephant. But for Narsimha, “elephant” refers not to an animal but to long-stalked Miscanthus grass.

The grass has proven a cheap and nutritious fodder for Narsimha’s cattle, dramatically boosting milk production and helping him and other farmers in drought-prone areas of India fight poverty.

But while the advantages of the crop, also known as Napier grass, seem clear, some agricultural experts warn farmers against becoming too dependent on a single, thirsty crop while neglecting to grow food that they can eat themselves.

Persistent poor rainfall in Nalgonda district, where Narsimha lives, had forced him to sell off his cattle, pawn his land, and leave home each summer to work as an itinerant well-digger.

But that changed six years ago, when he first noticed Napier grass while working in a coastal village.

“It was green even in the peak of summer,” recalls Narsimha. “People there said it was very healthy for cattle. So I brought home a few stalks and planted them here in my land. I have never needed to migrate [for work] since then.”

Narsimha grows Napier grass on a quarter of an acre (0.1 hectares) of land, and feeds it to his six buffalos and two bulls. Each day, the buffalos produce 30 liters (8 gallons) of milk that Narsimha sells at 40 rupees (about $0.70) a liter.

Karinga Maraiya, also of Chirimiyal, started growing the plant in 2005, and credits the use of the fodder with doubling his income from his buffalos’ milk production.


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