Mechai in mission to battle poverty with farming initiative
With start-up funding, schools can embark on projects and turn into social enterprises to support themselves financially. From school-based integrated rural development (School-BIRD), this social enterprise model could also involve people associated with temples, community hospitals or even jails.A temple-BIRD project is now being experimented with in Wat Banyao, Buri Ram. With some seed money, visitors to the temple - mostly old people - are paid to grow seedlings. The seedlings are then sold, with all benefits going to the temple.
"They have nothing to do in the village. These old folks are glad to have something to do again, particularly for the benefit of the temple. Other than mingling with old friends who also have no jobs, they also have extra money for their grandchildren. In a way, this will enliven the temple atmosphere. It's time to revive temples' status as a community centre," said Mechai Viravaidya, chairman of Mechai Viravaidya Foundation.
Mechai now envisions bringing community hospitals and jails into the programme, whose key principle is to eradicate poverty and has been the heart of his community development campaign. They will be encouraged to embark on their own farming projects. While hospitals can earn extra money from annual budget for extra activities, prisoners will learn how to support themselves financially when leaving jails.
In this regard, much of the expertise to share comes from Mechai Pattana School in Buri Ram, where students and teachers are involved in a farm project that generated a net profit of more than Bt200,000 in the first year.
At this organic farm, covering only one rai, students and teachers have learnt that they can grow any crop regardless of the level of land fertility. Vegetables are grown in sandbags, stacked up to save space. The sandbags could also be placed under lemon trees, which help save water consumption. Cantaloupe is grown and fed with leftover intravenous catheters (IV lines) from hospitals. The used IV tubes and plastic lines are used for storing water and drip irrigation. In two-metre-wide plastic-covered shelters, mushrooms are grown. Scientific knowledge is applied to ensure that lemon yields in the dry season fetch high prices. With a one-time investment, crickets are raised to fetch nearly Bt200 per kg.
According to Mechai, against expenses of Bt320,000, the school received a total income of Bt560,000 in the first year, resulting in net profit of Bt240,000 or Bt20,000 a month. Lemon yields in the second year boosted income and spurred net profit to Bt360,000 or Bt30,000 a month.
"If other schools are doing the same thing, imagine what they can do with the money. They could lend to students' parents, say 100 families for a small school. Once the fund is big enough, they could even cover others in the communities," he said.
At Mechai Pattana School, the knowledge of farming and other professions are another focus, aside from academic excellence, to prepare them for the real world. If possible, the concept should be expanded to cover 8,000 tambons across the country. Through this, Mechai aims to set clear examples to villagers on how to stand on their own feet. Empowering them would help eradicate poverty and strengthen their communities and society as a whole, he believed.
The farming lessons at Mechai Pattana School will be shared with prisoners' relatives under the jail-BIRD concept. As most prisoners are men, their wives are left in poverty without work and income. They would be first trained how to start a small farm. Meanwhile, prisoners themselves will also be involved in a farming project while serving their time. Upon their release, they could start a small farm on their own or rent land, which could be anywhere as land fertility is not the issue.
Instead of growing flowers, community hospitals could also be encouraged to grow edible crops.
"This is my new idea for sustainable CSR. We just can't expect the government to do everything for us," he concluded.