Fondly called as “Bihana Didi” (Seed Lady) by local communities in Odisha, Indian agriculture sci;entist Swati Nayak has perhaps begun to reap the fruits of having lived in tribal villages with farmers and understanding their actual needs.

On Thursday, Nayak became the third Indian agriculture scientist to win the prestigious Norman E Borlaug Award for 2023. The other two Indian recipients are Aditi Mukherji (2012) and Mahalingam Govindaraj (2022).

A farmer in Dumuria in Mayurbhanj district, Odisha still recalls how children from a distance used to recognise her by shouting the “Seed Lady” had arrived. This is how, the World Food Prize (WFP) foundation explains, she is fondly remembered by local communities in Odisha.

Working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), she has won the Borlaug Award for “Field Research and Application”, a unique distinction when usually breeders walk away with such awards.

What probably attracted global attention to her work was that Nayak and her team formulated a strategy for introducing drought-tolerant Shahabhagi Dhan rice variety in Odisha. It brought about a major change in rainfed areas. The variety became an integral element of every farmer family’s diet and crop rotation. Many climate-resilient rice varieties have been successfully deployed in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal through her diligent strategy, partnerships, and unique positioning models.

The WFP, currently headed by former US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, has recognised Nayak’s 13 years of service in agriculture saying, “She is recognised for her innovative approach to engaging smallholder farmers in demand-driven rice seed systems, from testing and deployment to equitable access and adoption of climate-resilient and nutritious rice varieties.”

In conversation with businessline on Friday, Nayak, based in IRRI’s Delhi office since 2013, dedicated the award as a recognition of work done by scientists in the entire extension ecosystem as it connects the lab with farm.

“This is indeed a moment of pride for me, my organisation (IRRI), farming community, my family and friends, young women scientists of the globe. It is an opportunity to put my voice louder and showcase the work which I have been doing on the ground as a field scientist. No bigger platform can be provided than this,” Nayak said.

Starting her journey as a field officer in the tribal development department in Andhra Pradesh after completing her Master’s in Rural Management from the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), quitting the government job after marriage (to be at her husband’s place of work), was not difficult for her. She said: “I knew what I wanted to do. My focus was not M.Sc in agriculture which many agriculture graduates normally do.”

After relocating to Delhi, she worked as a Mission Executive (farm and non-farm Livelihood) with the Government of India’s National Rural Livelihood Mission, a joint venture project with World Bank. After one-and- a-half years, she got the opportunity with IRRI and has been with it since April 2013.

Asked about her interests when she finds time, she was very candid. “Little time do I get. But love to watch movies and cook food of my choice. Cooking is a stress buster for me, it also brings calmness in me as it is creative.” The coastal taste buds always overpower, she said, adding fish and sea foods are her favourites.

In 2021, through Nayak’s efforts, women-led seed enterprises were able to produce, distribute, and sell approximately 8.5 tonnes of quality seeds. More than 40 per cent of the participants in her programmes, whether on-farm testing of varieties, demonstration plots, participatory rice variety evaluation or seed production, have been women farmers. Nayak’s research resulted not only in increase in productivity, but also in income, decision-making authority, and overall empowerment of women.

Resilience to climate change is also a central part of Nayak’s advocacy for sustainable agriculture. Many climate-resilient rice varieties have been successfully deployed in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal through her diligent strategy, partnerships, and unique positioning models. According to projections, by 2022, 1 million hectares will be planted in India with flood-, drought-, and salt-tolerant rice varieties.

Asked if this recognition may widen her scope for better opportunities abroad, she quipped: “I had opportunities earlier also. But I am here to stay and contribute as much as possible.” She has a suggestion on the revamp of the extension system, which has been talked about by every government but finally not anything visible. Reform should start with the curriculum in the agriculture course, to make it more related to the reality and allowing hands on practical experience, she said.

About future plans, she said: “It is a journey, a process. Whatever work I have done with the farming community in the field, by delivering many climate resilient technologies, crop varieties, to develop localised knowledge and build those farm clusters as enterprise hubs are the models that have been working wonders for small holder farmers. I want to position this critical work of scaling up the delivery system.”