The story of K.V. Leelasekara
A simple, low-tech solar oven for drying herbs provided by FAO's TeleFood programme has helped K.V. Leelasekara, a rice farmer in Sri Lanka, build a better life for his family.
My name is K.V. Leelasekara. I'm a farmer in Sri Lanka. Mostly I grow rice, depending on the weather, but I also have a few cows.I live in Village 6 in Anamaduwa, in the Northwest Province, with my wife Nalani Chandra and my sons Prabath and Samith. [All Photos: ©Geert van Kesteren/Magnum Photos for FAO]
I get up early and when I get to my fields the fog is still thick. Right now I'm preparing the soil for a new rice crop by mixing hay in with the soil. The National Irrigation Authority has extra water in its reservoirs and soon will be releasing some, so all the farmers hereabouts are getting ready to put a crop in. If I'm lucky, I can raise two crops of rice per year, which will bring in around 120 000 rupees (US$1 175) after expenses.But unlike other areas of Sri Lanka, in Anamaduwa water isn't always plentiful. Some years it doesn't rain, so we can't plant rice. In 2004 it was like that.
I also own a few cows. Every morning I take a break from working the fields to go home and eat breakfast, but before going I milk my cows so I can drop off milk at the farmer's cooperative on my way back.
Everybody here gets around by bike. The milk urn is a bit heavy and hard to balance, but I am used to it.
Many of the farmers here in Village 6 belong to the milk cooperative. Our president, Indrani Kanthi, keeps track of how much milk each of us contributes and we split up the profits accordingly.Doing this helps us get by in years when there's not enough rain to grow rice. We've learned that if we work together, we can achieve more than we would working by ourselves.Now, thanks to help from FAO and TeleFood, some of us are working together on a new project...
Our TeleFood project
Our new project has to do with medicinal herbs. Some we pick growing wild on the edges of our fields or in the woods nearby. Others we cultivate ourselves. Then we dry them and sell them.Demand for the herbs is high - they are important ingredients used in traditional Sri Lanka ayurvedic medicine. We also sell them to a company that makes natural beauty products. They used to import a lot of their herbs from India, but now we are their only suppliers.Here I'm picking a herb called dummella, which you can find right along the side of the road this time of year.
This is our solar herb dryer, the key to our project's success.The herbs go inside, on drying racks. The sun warms the air trapped inside the plastic tent, while the solar panel on the top of the pole powers two small fans which blow the warmed air out from inside, keeping the humidity down. It works even on cloudy days like today.Our Medicinal Herb Collectors' Society has 75 members. It has 10 driers like this spread out throughout the Anamaduwa area. A Sri Lankan NGO, the Intermediate Technology Development Group, designed them and FAO's TeleFood programme paid for them to be built.
... high rewards
In a few days our society has to fill an order for 100 kilograms of dried dummella - this batch is almost ready.The solar dryer does a much better job drying herbs than traditional sun drying, giving them a consistent colour. Buyers will pay a lot more for this quality of herb - as much as 25 rupees (25 US cents) per kilogram, instead of the usual 5 rupees (5 US cents).Last year, I earned 45 000 rupees (US$438) during the May to October monsoon season and 39 000 (US$380) during the December to March season by selling herbs. That's as much as I would make growing rice in a good year with two good monsoons.
My family and I are sitting in the main room of our house, which I built in 1985 when we first moved here. It has two rooms, and is made of clay packed on top of timber and wattle. We have no electricity.
Now, with the money I make selling herbs I am building us a new house that will have brick walls. Two years ago I laid the foundation, and this year I bought the bricks, sand and tiles for the walls and roof.
A more stable existence
I am also using the extra income from selling herbs to buy different kinds of seeds and grow a wider variety of plants. Now when there isn't enough water to grow rice, I can plant a crop of something that doesn't need so much water.
Here are some new herb seedlings I am propagating - rathnethul, used to treat rheumatism, digestion problems and other illnesses.
Nalani is cooking lunch. Sometimes she brings it to me in the field and then stays to help me work, but today I will eat at home.
Our two daughters used to help her around the house, but now they are away at university. One is studying business management, the other commerce. The government helps pay for some of that, but not all. We wouldn't be able to send them if it weren't for our TeleFood project.
What we eat
Lunch today is green gram with coconut sambol and rice. Much of what we eat we grow ourselves. Sometimes we buy veggies from the shop up the street, and about once a month we send our son Prabith to Anamaduwa to shop for things like salt, kerosene, dried fish, spices and clothes.
We spend about 4 000 rupees (US$40) a month on food and these kinds of items. The money from the herbs helps cover our bills.
A better life
After lunch, my sons will help me sort the dummella I picked on the way home and prepare it for drying. Then I will return to my fields. There is always plenty of work to do.
Today, our life is easier because of our TeleFood project.Soon we will have a new house. Our daughters will graduate. Then maybe our sons will go off to study, too.