Reviving Foods, Preserving Culture: My Journey as an Indigenous Food Entrepreneur

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Aruna Tirkey

Aruna Tirkey is a rural development professional having more than 18 years experience, a passionate advocate of Indigenous food and cuisine, and the founder of Ajam Emba.
A platter of traditional Indigenous dishes of the Jharkhand area. Photo: Aruna Tirkey, 2016

I want to share with you the story of a journey I have begun. I am not on my way to a physical destination; rather, I am moving toward a goal: to revive local and Indigenous food as a means to strengthen my own Indigenous culture. To get there, I’m not counting on donated or voluntary support from an outside source. Instead, I am achieving my goal by building a for-profit business — a catering business with an educational mission. I am an Indigenous food entrepreneur. I would like to talk about the motivations behind my mission as well as the challenges that I face as an Indigenous woman entrepreneur.

I belong to the Oraon Indigenous community, whose members are mostly found in the central states of India. The government of India refuses to acknowledge us as Indigenous to the land. Instead, we are referred to as one of the “Scheduled Tribes”: communities listed under a schedule of the constitution who are provided special protections and benefits, including hiring preference for government jobs. I grew up in a large family of twelve siblings; our food was locally sourced and produced, as it was affordable and provided the right nutrition for us. My village was at the periphery of the city of Ranchi, and the influence of urbanization started to be more visible as I grew up and then completed my undergraduate and graduate studies in the town. I presently live in Ranchi, the capital of the state Jharkhand, which is the center of the Indigenous heartland of India but also (in)famous for left-wing extremism fueled by the utter marginalization of Indigenous and dalit(lowest-caste) communities of the region.

I grew up in a large family of twelve siblings; our food was locally sourced and produced, as it was affordable and provided the right nutrition for us.

I have a strong attachment to traditional Oraon and other local indigenous food, as it continues to be prevalent in my family. My main work as a rural development professional, however, has taken me to several parts of India and exposed me to the growing disintegration of tribal food culture — especially in urban settings and among tribal youths, who are increasingly inclined to eat junk food.

I once had an illuminating experience that I would like to share. More than eight years ago, when I was walking around in a newly opened department store in our small town, a center of attraction at that time, a product caught my attention. It was a packet of ragi (finger millet) flour, locally known as madua, a popular staple among Indigenous communities in the region. It was surprising for me to see the product in the store at a premium price, knowing that at the same time it was fast disappearing from our diets. This was a shocking experience for me.

It was surprising for me to see the product in the store at a premium price, knowing that at the same time it was fast disappearing from our diets.

Over time, my realization that Indigenous food was gradually disappearing and thereby affecting our culture became more pronounced. This was starkly visible among the urban Indigenous populace, who were giving up traditional local food because they felt it wasn’t tasty or exciting and very crude. In the rural hinterlands, traditional diets have been increasingly replaced by those based on commercially produced rice, which is widely supplied through the government’s public distribution system, often free to families that are below the official poverty line. India arguably has one of the largest programs in the world for providing food security to vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, certain kind of crops, such as mass-produced rice and wheat, are being pushed by the system. This has implications for the production choices and consumption patterns of local communities. My own observations in rural areas suggest that the production of local millets that used to be the backbone of Indigenous food is declining at an increasing pace. These millets were locally available, their seeds were locally preserved for re-use, and they were grown without any chemical fertilizers, thus making them low-input-based and affordable crops. They also provided the right kind of nutritional balance.

Visiting an Indigenous market in Mangla Haat (Chaibasa District) to source organic produce. Photo: Aruna Tirkey, 2016

For me, the greatest motivation to work on Indigenous food revival came from a very personal experience I had as a mother. This happened when my younger son was detected with a mild autistic disorder. When he didn’t utter a word until two and half years of age, we consulted a specialist, and our deepest fears were realized when we found out about his condition. One friend who had a similar problem with her daughter suggested that we consult a Mumbai-based homeopath, Dr. Praful Barvalia, and so we did. Apart from the medicines that he gave, a surprising prescription was dietary controls. He suggested a millet- and non-dairy-based diet. Alas, I and many other urban Indigenous people of our generation have been gradually weaned away from all those millets that were very much part of our diets growing up.

Many urban Indigenous people of our generation have been gradually weaned away from all those millets that were very much part of our diets growing up.

Believe it or not, the doctor’s diet regime worked wonderfully in terms of improving our son’s condition and modulating his behavior. After strictly following the diet regimen for a couple of years, he was finally able to overcome the condition and is leading a normal life now. The doctor also suggested that people with autistic conditions also have a higher level of toxic substances in their bodies and following the diet regimen helps in chelation of toxins. During our son’s treatment, the Indigenous food basket also got fully integrated into our home, which was a change for my husband, who is a non-Indigenous person.

Innovating with Indigenous ingredients: The dumplings in the basket at left have dough made of finger millet flour, replacing unhealthy refined white flour. Photo: Aruna Tirkey, 2015

Based on these experiences, I realized that for Indigenous foods and cuisine to revive and survive, they need to evolve based on innovation and experimentation. Doing this — without causing them to lose their key properties — is crucial for their wider uptake in our changing society. I decided to become an entrepreneur focusing on mainstreaming Indigenous food as a healthy alternative for a cross-section of society. This led to birth of my mission, which I have named Ajam Emba. In our Kudukh language spoken by Oraon communities, Ajam Emba means “great tasting and healthy food.” Ajam Emba is an enterprise that combines awareness-raising with actual catering of Indigenous foods. For the last couple of years, I have participated in food competitions, exhibitions, and fairs, and have provided Indigenous food to events and meetings organized by governmental and nongovernmental agencies. Since the start of Ajam Emba, it has gradually gained popularity, and there has been a growing demand for Indigenous food. In the past two years, I have catered to more than five thousand persons.

The former deputy chief minister of Jharkhand, Mr. Sudesh Mahto, serves guests at a public function for which Ajam Emba catered Indigenous food. Photo: Aruna Tirkey, 2017
I decided to become an entrepreneur focusing on mainstreaming Indigenous food as a healthy alternative for a cross-section of society.

To increase the capacity of Ajam Emba to reach further into our communities and become a permanent sustainable resource for Indigenous food, presently I am in the process of setting up an Indigenous eatery and training center in Ranchi. The key aims of my for-profit social enterprise model are to:

· revive and popularize local Indigenous food of Jharkhand as a means of healthy living among a cross-section of society while preserving Indigenous culture;
· introduce innovations in Indigenous food and cuisine to encourage wider societal adoption;
· create a pool of Indigenous food entrepreneurs to sustain the mission; and
· ensure fair returns to Indigenous farmers (as well as collectors of non-timber forest products.

The author giving a demonstration at a school on the importance of Indigenous foods at a school. Photo: Surabhi Sharma, 2017

While I continue to strive to strengthen and sustain my mission, the process is not without challenges, especially from the perspective of an Indigenous woman social entrepreneur. They include:

· I lack access to adequate financial resources to sustain the initiative. As an Indigenous person, governmental agencies and banks refuse to recognize me as an “entrepreneur” having “enterprising” skills, and I am thus considered “non-fundable.”
· Although the government does have support programs for Indigenous people, there has been little or no effort to see them as entrepreneurs.
· My efforts to seek resources and technical help from agencies have been caught in bureaucratic red tape for the last several years.
· My access to global initiatives or platforms on the Indigenous/slow food movement has been severely hampered due to their limited adoption in India, and that being mostly controlled by non-Indigenous entities.

I understand that this is only beginning of a difficult journey and that there is a long way to go. I emphasize the need to have proper policy and structures in place that supports Indigenous leadership and entrepreneurship. I believe Indigenous vision is the need of the hour to help get us through the crisis we have created through our unsustainable ways of living, and food is an important entry point, as it is a common need for all elements of life on Earth.

I believe Indigenous vision is the need of the hour to help get us through the crisis we have created through our unsustainable ways of living, and food is an important entry point.
The author receiving First Prize from Ms. Louis Marandi, Welfare Minister, Government of Jharkhand, in a cooking competition organized on World Indigenous Day. Photo: Surabhi Sharma, 2017

Acknowledgment. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Rana Roy, a PhD candidate with the Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, Canada, for his help in conceiving and shaping this article.


“This article originally appeared as a Web Extra in Langscape Magazine Vol. 7:2, Winter 2018. The original article is available online at http://bit.ly/2rAG9LVLangscape Magazine is a publication of Terralingua, www.terralingua.org, a nonprofit organization devoted since 1996 to sustaining the biocultural diversity of life.” 

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Aruna Tirkey

Aruna Tirkey is a rural development professional having more than 18 years experience, a passionate advocate of Indigenous food and cuisine, and the founder of Ajam Emba.

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