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A design to Co-Design; Project APNA


Us (very excitedly): "Would you like to grow a Food Forest on a tiny piece of your land?!" Farmer 1: "What?! A forest is a jungle... not a farm!" Farmer 2: "No way! I need this field to grow rice!" Farmer 3: "I need to ask my son." And then, suddenly, curiosity strikes... Farmer 4: Will we plant fruit trees? Us: Yes! Yes! Plus vegetables! Same Farmer: ok, Let's do it! Us: Don't you need to ask anyone? Farmer: "What's to ask? I want to do it, so we'll do it!"


And that's how we met the fearless and vocal Ranjana Tai, a tribal farmer who runs a household of five and leads a team of labourers to grow rice and onions as a cash crop to be sold at the wholesale market. Farming is the main source of income for her family, yet despite farming 3.5 acres of land, they have to take up manual labour jobs to sustain themselves. Ranjana Tai has worked hard all her life, and still does. "Rice farming is hopeless these days... we need to try something else. Our parents had a lot of trees!" they concurred.

setting up micro permaculture food forests with tribal women farmers of maharashtra

Thanks to Regenerosity and Vanarai, we commenced our Micro Permaculture Food Forest project - Project APNA ("Aapan Pan Nisarg Aahot - I too am nature") in September 2020. We began with the clear understanding that we needed to build and learn from the very best - the forest, along with the indigenous tribal communities that still understood, however tenuously, the wisdom of the Forest. It was an idyllic view that has been deeply distorted as the practices of growing food have changed over the years. “Can we grow trees and vegetables and grains, together, successfully?” was still what most of them questioned.

work with nature, not against it

Our partner organisation, Sukhbhumi India, has been working with indigenous communities in the Wada, Maharashtra region for more than a decade. Thanks to their team’s belief in the project, and some intensive orientation sessions we held with their network of farmers, we managed to get a few adventurous farmers (mostly women) on board with our Micro Food Forest plan. Just 2,000 sq. ft. of their land is all we were asking, for them to try this model out.

However, over the years, through our teams collective experience we had come to realise, that farming, for most farmers is a lifestyle, not a planned profession. And when working with a person's lifestyle, the "one-model-fits-all" approach would not work, especially on a project like this. We would instead have to create a shift in mindset. Find a way to re-kindle the native knowledge buried within the farmers and coax it out. Again, a "show-and-tell" teaching model would not help us achieve this, either.

What we needed, was a truly participative process.

A process, where we could work WITH the farmers, WITH their lifestyles, WITH their beliefs. A process, that would not only allow, but encourage every team member - the farmer, their family members, as well as our own team - to be curious, to voice ideas and to get involved. A process, where we would not be the provider of solutions, but rather, creators of a platform - for knowledge and experience exchange - from which solutions could emerge.

We knew this would be a gradual process for us, where the journey would be as important as the final destination.

And so we began.

With a walk in the forest.

Participative Planting Strategy workshop - observe & interact; permaculture

observe & interact:

Indigenous communities that reside in and near forests know that they are provided for by the forest, but rarely does one stop to observe the patterns of the forest anymore. So that's what we did. The whole lot of us trouped out into the forest for a silent walk, and then each one shared their observations. Our team did not take the know-it-all approach, but instead stuck to facilitating the discussions. It was an unconventional approach to a "training workshop", even for us. But what unfurled, was magical!

At first, everyone was a bit timid, but as we probed and posed questions, the conversation turned to a free flow. The community members started sharing their thoughts, their experiences and their doubts. They began exchanging notes on their planting strategies – while Sandeep bhau & Rohini tai had briefly experimented with relay cropping and intercropping, we discovered that Jayanti tai was unknowingly practicing the same in her backyard! Before we knew it, we were all having a full-fledged discussion and debate on the merits and challenges of a biodiverse, multi-layered food forest!

Together the community came up with strategies on how to grow vegetables and trees together – choosing the right vegetables, growing plants of different heights together, and regular pruning of trees. That's it. They had hit the nail on the head! They already knew the answers, they had simply not come together as a community to discuss them. Our role was becoming more and more clear :-)

workshop conducted with maharashtra farmers on planting strategy; permaculture design; multi-layered bio-diverse planting
Participative workshop on Planting Strategy Design

designing from patterns to details

As a team, we strongly believe in the merits of a Food Forest system, but how could we get the few farmers who had placed their trust in us, to also believe in it? We needed to ensure that we were designing for the different needs of every individual farmer, so they would see results and gain confidence in the system. Not feel that we are simply imposing our ideas on to them. We started with the first step of the permaculture design process.

Step 1: Need Analysis

Based on an extensive questionnaire that we had intricately developed, we set out to talk to each of the farmers and their families.

The objective was to understand their lifestyle and eating habits, family hierarchy and history, cultural traditions,inhibitions, financial situation, and most importantly, their most pressing needs and their vision for the future.

Team Earth4ever conducting Need analysis Interviews. This is an important first step in any permaculture design process; designing micro food forests with women farmers of Wada, Maharashtra;
Need Analysis Interview with Jayanti Tai and her daughter-in-law Samta (Sukhbhumi member)

Surprisingly, it was a struggle to get precise information. Most families didn't seem to have a habit of tracking expenses or income, while several other aspects were so innate for them, that they didn’t see the need to mention it! A typical conversation went like this:


"Do you save any seeds?" "No." "None at all?" "No." "Your rice seeds, or the onions you grow?" (Dismissively) "No." (Bhagyashree, our team member points at a half-eaten plate of cucumbers that lay before us) "What about that kakri you served us? Did you buy those seeds?" (Matter of fact) "No. Those seeds are ours only... from the last yield." "Oh! So you DO save seeds?" "Not really, we keep only the seeds of vegetables for ourselves to eat." "hmmmm.... obviously."


Our "intricately developed questionnaire" took a back seat as we weaved our way through it, asking the same question in different ways, piecing together the scenarios at each home. Sapna, Samta and Rekha - our on-ground Sukhbhumi partners - helped to bridge the gap. Answers evolved from being vague to a little more specific along the conversation. Over cups of chai and camaraderie, stories of their life slowly began to emerge, and with it, design ideas for their Food Forests, in our minds.

Step 2: Participative Site Analysis

The next step was to analyse the sites, and mark out all parameters that affected the design - land boundary, slope, flow of water, rainfall data, sun, wind and fire sectors, soil structure, amongst other elements.

Site analysis for Micro Permaculture Food Forest with farmers in Wada, Maharashtra; Co-design participative process facilitated by Earth4ever
Sandeep Bhau on site with Team APNA (Bhagyashree, Priti & Rekha)

We presumed that this would be an easier process as it required the farmers to be on-field, in their comfort zone. While some team members wanted to get down to site map designs on a laptop and refer to data from the cloud, we quickly pivoted from this approach, and instead decided on a no-laptop-no-phone-no-daunting-technology when interacting with the farmers. We would use a more hands-on, visual and visceral approach – to facilitate a completely participative co-design process where the farmers could truly claim ownership of the process.

We asked each farmer to draw out a Site Analysis map and make note of the elements on it. "You want us to draw?!" came the shocked response! This was obviously not going to be as easy as we thought. However, this detailing is critical to develop a good functional design, and we had to resist the temptation of simply doing it for them. We needed for them to mindfully observe and recall and provide information on all parameters, themselves. For some, it was an eye opening process. Rohini Tai told Priti (our team member) how she had never thought that farming would involve so much thinking before doing, like a proper office job! Whereas Sandeep Bhau & Vanita Tai, both highly proactive and enterprising farmers, quickly aligned with the intention and started measuring the site, checking gradients, and sharing information on water sources, etc. We were getting somewhere!

Earth4ever co-designing micro permaculture food forests with farmers of Wada, maharashtra. The process is participative so farmers can claim ownership of their designs.
Manda Tai & her son Manoj drawing a Permaculture Site Analysis Map
obtain a yield

In our experiments with the participative process so far, one of our prized moments (besides the training workshop!), was when after just a brief discussion with one of the farmers, she was able to confidently relate her understanding of the observations of the jar test! She completely got the concept of soil structure and how it influenced the soil rejuvenation process! Go, Vanita tai… future trainer?!!

And then there was the much-debated Pictorial Planting List, suggested by one of our team members. After much internal discussion (on whether having the farmers fill out a form - more specifically a color printout of pictures indicating the different layers of the food forest), would be of any value or not, we decided to go ahead with the team's conviction on it.

Team Earth4ever - 4ever discussing & 4ever debating

And we couldn't have made a better choice. The Pictorial Planting List, for many farmers, and us, became the gateway to the co-design process. A way for us to all get our hands dirty and get into the details, together. A way for the farmers to clearly express their needs, as well as begin to visualise their upcoming Food Forest. What started with "we don't know anything about this" and "we will do whatever you instruct us to do", gave way to questions like "So, which layer would a lemon tree be put in - medium or low?", "Maybe we should grow more fruiting vegetables for market instead of greens? They will take less time to tend to, and have a longer shelf life."

Now, we were talking... literally! The farmers were unknowingly, organically "designing" their biodiverse and multi-layered Micro Permaculture Food Forests! All because of one, much-debated, Pictorial Planting List.

use small and slow solutions

Three months into the project, we were ready to begin our first setup on-site. We chose to start with Vinayak Vad, a farmer whom we have known for a long time and who has already had some exposure to permaculture thinking in the past (though never in such a structured manner!). Vinayak's site is a tough one, with severe water logging issues and extremely clayey soil. We felt this would be the perfect trial ground for us to test out the practicality of the execution process. Had we accounted for enough materials, enough time, enough labour? What design elements needed more fine tuning? Had we forgotten anything? The questions were endless, but one thing we were sure of... the first setup would surely throw up a lot more questions and highlight that which we had either overlooked, or simply not expected. Of course, that's exactly what happened. And it couldn't have been more glorious!

Working on the ground, marking beds and then re-marking them with pathways; building boundaries and then deciding that the tiles should be vertically placed, not horizontally, then quickly re-doing them; deciding at the last minute to rip the ground before making the raised beds; adjusting the distance between the plants; innovating ways to build the trellis; discussing, debating, measuring, building. It was a flurry of fine-tuning, and a big fat load of fun. After 5 solid days on ground (as planned!) our first co-designed Micro Permaculture Food Forest is now up and ready :-)

The biodiversity we were looking to build in the food forest had begun with us, all working together as a team - Earth4ever, Regenerosity, Vanarai and Sukhbhumi, plus the adventurous farmers and their families. Each brought a perspective, an insight and a unique dimension to the design. Interestingly enough, this was exactly how Team Regenerosity initiated the project with us - with a provoking process of co-design! And now, that's the very fibre of our project. With every process, our understanding is getting deeper and the communication networks between us are opening up further.

This, is only the beginning.

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