I have been told not to reveal that I am a journalist as the client is someone who likes his privacy. But this is no sting operation. Rather, the "covert" mission is to observe a wild forest that has recently been planted in a Bengaluru backyard. And which is supposed to have grown into a forest too dense to walk through in just three years. That might sound incredible but planting native wild forests that grow ridiculously fast in backyards and company campuses is what Shubhendu Sharma has been doing through his startup, Afforestt, for the past four years.
A TED Fellow, Sharma made the switch from production engineer at Toyota to eco entrepreneur after seeing the work of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who has planted over 40 million trees using his unique method at the Toyoto campus that allows trees to grow ten times faster than usual. "I was fascinated by his methodology, so I volunteered with the afforestation team," says the 28-year-old. His fascination increased as he saw the 300 trees on his mound grow just as Miyawaki said it would. "That's when I began thinking that this methodology needed to be taken out of the factory premises."
Sharma took a week's leave and returned to his parent's home in Nainital to plant a forest on their 900-square foot backyard. His engineering skills and experience at Toyota helped him standardise the procedure and he could finish the planting in just a week. In nine months, he says, the number of bird species went up from 7 to 17, afternoon temperatures dropped by five degrees celsius and the air quality improved. Emboldened by the experience, he quit his job and launched Afforestt in January 2011, getting the first client in a month.
The Miyawaki method that Afforestt uses consists of first analysing soil samples in a laboratory to see which nutrients it lacks, and then identifying the biomass available in that area, such as rice husk powder. The soil is then enriched with the biomass, which makes it more porous and enhances its water retention capacity, among others. Then, the native species of that region is identified and at least three to five saplings of 30-odd species are planted per square metre. Afforestt has developed a software that suggests which species should be planted in what ratio, and it simulates a multi-layered forest (with a shrub layer, sub-tree layer, tree layer and canopy layer, rather than a single layer). "We alternate trees of different heights and we plant 30 times more trees in an area than in monoculture." he says.
The roots of the saplings form a mesh and get entangled since they are close to each other. So the only way a tree can grow is for the roots to grow very deep and for the shoots to grow tall enough to reach the sunlight, rather than spread out. "This is how it grows ten times faster than normal trees," he explains. On average, the trees grow a metre a year, and after two years, you can stop watering and weeding. Afforestt charges Rs 225 per square foot, and clients include companies like Polaris, GMR and Cisco in India, individuals and educational institutions.
Though Afforestt is a for-profit venture, Sharma is equally clear that he wants more people to plant forests on their own. So, rather than patenting anything, he is working on an Internet-based open source platform where the method will be shared, as a result anybody who wants to can create a forest.
At the house in Bengaluru, the saplings, planted close together, are already sprouting new leaves. The biomass-infused soil is covered by rice straw and is being watered, while the owner discusses planting another patch of forest a little further on. As Sharma asks in one of his talks, why not plant a wild forest instead of the same old lawn or landscaped garden?