Meet the SHEROES - Suchita Bhandari
Dr. Suchita Bhandari the CEO of BTTL, talks to us about her profession and experience in the field of sustainable forestry. What has her journey been thus far and what inspired her to enter this line of work, let’s find out!
Tell us a little about yourself
I have a doctorate in Agri science (Plant Pathology) and Post Doctorate from Plant Breeding Institute and School of Botany, Cambridge University , England. During my tenure in England I shifted to basic research in molecular Biology
After my return from England, I briefly joined JNU, New Delhi as Research Associate but in six months shifted to Agri Business as I always wanted to bring The lab to the land, take research benefits to the users. With a career spanning about twenty five years, I am currently CEO of Bilt Tree Tech Ltd,(BTTL), the farm forestry division of the New Delhi headquartered Avantha Group led by Mr. Gautam Thapar.
What field of work are you presently in?
Currently I work in BTTL, a company engaged in promoting technology based Short rotation tree plantations as livelihood on low productive farmlands of small and marginal farmers, mostly tribal. The company has operations across seven states of India.
BTTL works with small and marginal farmers to plant pulpwood trees in their degraded non irrigated farmlands. Through extension services BTTL engages with farmers to generate awareness and impart education and training. BTTL also facilitates loans to poor eligible farmers from local banks for plantation. BTTL manages its own Nurseries to grow quality planting stock of pulpwood species; Eucalyptus, Acacia, Subabul and Casuarina (.20 million \ annum)and provide the saplings to farmers in remote areas. Once the trees are ready for harvesting, BTTL ensures the market linkages for the harvested wood through wood based industry. BTTL equips the farmers with latest plantation techniques so as to ensure family level food security along with ensured bulk income.
BTTL since 2005, has planted close to 42000 HA of Plantations on private lands involving approx. 35000 farmers. BTTL Farm Forestry model is self-sustainable as it transfers technology to the farmers. For the first plantation most farmers need loans/subsistence but with nearly 10 times return on their investment in 4 to 5years, farmers are able to repay the loans (>90% repayment) and bear the costs of subsequent plantations. Sustainability is also ensured as farmers are not offered free plants, rather they are expected to invest, even if it is through loans. Assured market linkages ensure that farmers are not dependent on BTTL .
BTTL itself is also a self-sustained model as it generates its revenue through sale of plants.
The model also enriches the environment by planting approximately 20 million trees annually on farmland, reduces degradation of natural forests for fuel wood, increases productivity of degraded lands and stops soil erosion. The model is sustainable as the wood harvest from the first cycle of Plantation yields incomes that enable farmers to raise crops in new areas.
Many farmers have invested their income on other sustainable livelihood by turning entrepreneurs, starting small enterprise of repair shop or purchasing land for increasing their land holding and plantation. Some farmers have become wood suppliers to the industry and have set up infrastructure for harvesting ad transporting wood. Many farmers have been able to repay their old debts.
The tribal women also share the benefit of economic stability with their families. They are able to fulfill their food and other daily household requirements. They also report to buying new cloths and also gold jewellery, which is considered as sound investment.
We were awarded with “ India Development market place,2013” award by World Bank to promote our project in Bastar and Kanker districts of Chhattisgarh.
How and why did you decide to pursue this as a career?
During my education, I became interested in the science of Plant disease resistance and did my post-graduation and doctorate in this field. During the course of studies, I was introduced to the function of Extension Services, wherein the farmers were given the solutions to their problems and also awareness on new varieties to be released. Punjab has very progressive farmers and the interaction between farmers and Universities are common. This however was not possible in all states due to various reasons; poor farmers, remote areas etc.
BTTL today collaborates with premier Indian Forest research Institutes to work as a conduit to take their research to farmer fields.
At the workplace and especially in your field, what are the constant challenges you face?
On the personal front, I work in a male dominant area of Forest Science wherein very few women reach to this level. It is mostly the difficult field work, working in adverse climate conditions, and travel to remote locations which offer very few facilities. Generally women in this field are designated to R&D areas in labs. I also started in the same way.
What is an average work-day like for you?
I am based out of BILT office in Gurgaon with skeleton staff. BTTL, has its main office in Ballarshah, Maharashtra and small offices in the zones where our program is being promoted.
Most days I get in early so I can get emails done and be ready to talk to the function heads regarding progress towards specific Business Goals. I write projects for funding from various agencies to scale our projects. I also spend lot of my time in the day to think through how to build the business and also new product development. Some time is also kept for reading related research papers or about related businesses.
I travel almost a week to 10 days in a month to cover work locations. There is business review with team each month and also visit to concerned Govt. and other offices \ institutes for discussions.
Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 years?
I hope to have opportunities to further develop my skills, take on interesting projects, and work with people I can really learn from. I look forward to working with great teams and businesses working in the areas of social impact.