Aamir Khan as Phunsukh Wangdu in the final moments of the 2009 Hindi film 3 Idiots springs a surprise and turns out to be a brilliant innovator with numerous patents to his credit and not the happy-go-lucky guy he was all through the movie. He also brings international repute to Ladakh by drawing attention to the region’s natural beauty. The number of tourists to this Himalayan region, in the northernmost part of India, may have jumped several times thanks to that scene. Far removed from the public glare, a major initiative is underway in Ladakh to foster entrepreneurship and get youngsters to innovate on projects that may be specific to Ladakh or the entire Himalayan region.

Driving this change is the Naropa Fellowship, started in September 2018 by Pramath Raj Sinha and Thuksey Rinpoche, to retain local talent and develop entrepreneurial skills that can help foster a robust socio-economic environment in Ladakh and the larger Himalayan region. They felt there was a need to educate the younger generation on the importance of maintaining Ladakh’s distinctive culture and heritage.

The fellowship has been designed to address the challenges of unemployment, lack of training and professional skills, and inculcate a strong sense of purpose in the Himalayan youth. The postgraduate fellowship is a one-year residential programme at Hemis, Ladakh, for those with a strong academic record and extra-curricular activities, and who have to demonstrate a commitment to working for Ladakh and the Himalayan region. The fellowship has four tracks – entrepreneurship, society and culture, communication, and personal development.

Agrow, a start-up that is developing a greenhouse using discarded plastic bottles to help Ladakhis grow vegetables in the bitingly cold winter months; Himalayan Yeti Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that is working on clearing the large number of plastic bottles discarded by tourists; and, Lugu Ladakh, a venture that aims to find a national and international market for the unique hand-woven carpets of Ladakh, are just a handful of start-ups that have come up in Ladakh, and whose founders have gone through the Naropa Fellowship.

A green initiative

Nischita Bysani, the 26-year-old Co-founder of Agrow, is an architect from Bengaluru, who worked for over a year in companies that specialised in green buildings and commercial architecture and was an interior designer, before applying for and getting selected for the first batch of the Naropa Fellowship. “It is a one-year high impact fellowship for social entrepreneurs,” says Nischita.

In the fellowship, she says, you are asked to work on a live project, which is when she and her co-founders – Jigmet Singge from Ladakh and Akshata Pradhan from Shillong – came up with the idea of Agrow, to build greenhouses using plastic bottles. The plastic bottles are filled to provide the insulation. There is no fresh produce in sub-zero temperatures during winter and Ladakhis change to a dry diet, including dried cheese and dried vegetables. While the older generation is acclimatised to the harsh winter, the younger generation is not. They need nutrition to survive the winter. Askshata, 26, has a Master’s in Biotechnology and Jigmet, 24, is a chemistry graduate and is pursuing a Master’s in tourism.

Jigmet is from the village of Chemday, where agriculture is one of the main vocations. He wanted to do something in sustainable agriculture and the three of them came up with the idea of greenhouses as a solution for the winter problem, says Nischita. There are greenhouses in Ladakh, but they have been built using mud bricks, unlike Agrow’s, which uses plastic bottles. The trio came up with the design themselves. They will use 750 ml and one litre PET bottles that are discarded by tourists. Agrow, says Nischita, will train the locals on using the greenhouse and will even consider giving them high-yielding seeds if they need them.

A typical greenhouse is 18 feet by 36 feet, whereas Agrow’s will be 9 feet by 18 feet, because the smaller it is, the easier it will be to control the temperature. “We are building this greenhouse purely as a winter greenhouse, where you can grow leafy vegetables and tomatoes. The size of the greenhouse Agrow is developing will be enough to grow vegetables to feed a family of five,” she says.

The waste management

Nischita says plastic waste is a major hazard in Ladakh, especially the multi-layered plastic used to wrap noodles, not to mention plastic drinking water and beverages bottles. This is the area that Himalayan Yeti Foundation is working on. Rohit Joshi, Co-founder, is from Uttarakhand and after completing a bachelor’s in business administration from Indraprastha University in New Delhi, he worked in Himachal Pradesh to develop a community-based model to help youngsters in livelihood issues. He adopted a village and made the community understand the concept of waste management and how to manage wet waste. He says he then collaborated with Healing Himalayas, an organisation that is involved in cleaning the Himalayan region of waste, especially on trekking trails.

The Naropa Fellowship followed, when Rohit teamed up with Nagendar Pratap Singh to start the Himalayan Yeti Foundation as a not-for-profit organisation to remove plastic waste, particularly water and beverage bottles, in Ladakh and the Himalayan region. Plastic waste, says Rohit, is a huge problem in Ladakh.

“There are multiple illegal dumping yards that are coming up. Last year, in a period of six months, 3.15 lakh tourists visited Ladakh. And, the population of Leh city is just 20,000. Imagine the amount of waste that is being generated,” says Rohit. A study in 2015 revealed that nearly 30,000 plastic bottles are being dumped in Ladakh every day, just drinking water bottles. The Himalayan Yeti Foundation came into being in January 2019 to sensitise people and make them realise the magnitude of the problem. It is meant to be grant based. Rohit, 25, will not be associated with the not-for-profit organisation, but will head a for-profit company that will set up a plastic recycling plant in Himachal Pradesh. The idea is to transport plastic bottles from Ladakh to Himachal Pradesh. Initially, the for-profit company will segregate the waste and give it to recyclers, but once the recycling plant is set up, it will do the recycling itself. Rohit hopes to find a market for the recycled plastic in 3D printing filaments.

Designed carpets

Juhi Lakhwani, a 25-year-old textile design graduate from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, is yet another Naropa Fellow. She was part of the first batch and co-founded a venture called Lugu Ladakh that aims to find a market both within the country and outside for beautiful, hand-woven Ladakh carpets called Tsukdan in Ladakhi. This carpet, says Juhi, is used by a nomadic tribe in a place called Changthang to insulate their homes for winter. The carpets are fully hand spun and use natural wool. “We have sold 10-12 carpets. We have bought from three artisans so far,” says Juhi. Once she gets the orders, she calls up the artisans, who ship it once the carpets are ready.

With her textile design qualification, Juhi says she hopes to intervene in the design of the carpets, once she and her co-founder Nishit Sangomla have established a market for them. She is convinced that there is a global market for these carpets and it is a matter of time before they begin tapping it.