Until just a couple of years ago, Vandana Krishnamurthy could never have imagined going down the entrepreneurial path. However, even when she was unsure about how to put her PhD in botany to good use, one thing she was clear about was that life in a cubicle could never work for her.
The seed of an idea
I had just moved into a new house where the previous tenants had left behind a few old pots in the balcony. One day after eating my salad, I happened to plant a tomato seed in one of the pots. A few days later, I was elated to see a little seedling. The sight of that new life which had just germinated inspired me immensely. In fact, I owe my entrepreneurial idea to that plant sapling, says 33-year-old Vandana, who in 2015 founded Urban Mali, a home gardening service that uses only native plants and ensures zero use of chemical pesticides.
Vandana then teamed up with Radha Eswar, an architect-turned-social-entrepreneur who helped the enterprise find its feet. Radha and her husband Krish Murali Eswar run ArtyPlantz, an organisation that has incubated many eco-friendly ventures like Urban Mali.
The financial fabric in India is not well-suited to support budding social enterprises, and that’s why we are trying to help enterprises like Urban Mali become sustainable. We want them to continue doing what they love, fearlessly, explains Radha.
Vandana works with a two-tier team of literate, qualified staff (telecallers, project managers, etc.) who work side by side with a team of skilled gardeners. “This fractal is built to multiply and can be easily expanded and replicated to ensure that an enterprise runs sustainably,” adds Radha, whose mentoring has helped Urban Mali in client-finding, fund-raising, innovation, and strategising.
In addition to helping people set up low-cost gardens, our efforts are also about adding self-esteem to the lives of migrant gardeners, shares Murali, who has been instrumental in helping Urban Mali function as a sustainable enterprise.
Popularising native plants
Vandana believes that there is humongous potential for native Indian plants to beautify people’s homes in urban cities. “We have seen the upsetting trend of how medicinal plants (often used for pickles and kashayams) have vanished from our gardens. A wide range of foreign plants and flowers like petunias, germaniums, and palms have replaced our indigenous species. Our idea is to bring back best-suited, easy-to-maintain native plants to the mainstream. We would love to see people grow plants they can use in their grandmoms’ recipes and provide flowers for their morning poojas," shares Vandana
Urban Mali presently has a team of eight migrant gardeners who are helping people set up and maintain their gardens. Presently, they depend on social media, word of mouth, and offline marketing in the form of flyers to attract interested customers. Each request is first addressed by a telecaller who then connects the client to a project manager and arranges for a site visit.
Post the site inspection by a gardener, customer demands are taken into consideration before arriving at an appropriate proposal and quotation. A balcony garden can cost anything from Rs 5,000–15,000, while terrace gardens usually cost around Rs 30,000. All the efforts culminate with an ‘urban mali’ setting up an organic, affordable, and sustainable garden.
Empowering migrants to take charge of their lives
Sudhakar, one of Uraban Mali’s chief gardeners, now joins the conversation. Originally from Nelvagale village in Hoskote taluk, Sudhakar migrated to Bengaluru in search of better job prospects after borewells failed to yield water on his ancestral farm land.
For over five years, Sudhakar worked as a gardener in a local park for a meagre salary of Rs 4,000. The job also involved extensive use of chemical pesticides which rendered Sudhakar vulnerable to a range of skin diseases. “The pungent smell was unbearable. Frequent contact with chemicals left me with abrasions and rashes,” he recalls.
Sudhakar considers himself fortunate for having found work with a team like Urban Mali, who vouch for native plants that can be nurtured without the use of any chemical pesticides.
I love the fact that everything here is done in an organic way. Though it’s a slow process of nurturing native plants, the end results where you get to relish tasty organic vegetables is worth it, explains Sudhakar.
“Our constantly evolving urban landscapes are not well-equipped to provide migrants with regular jobs that help them sustain their families. Hence, they end up taking up odd labour jobs with low payments. Through Urban Mali, we are trying to ensure that at least some of them have stable jobs that promise better pay, savings, and improved livelihoods,” says Vandana who takes pride in having many efficient migrant gardeners in her team.
Ask her about the best part of working with them and Vandana says, “Since most migrants in Bengaluru come from an agricultural background, they have a better understanding and knowledge of working with native species of plants. So, their prior experience is an added advantage, since we just have to train them in certain communication skills and professional etiquette.”
However, working with migrants is not devoid of challenges.
“Some migrants take to habitual drinking and smoking, which interferes with their work. And sometimes we have customers who try to lobby our gardeners to work for them directly,” shares Vandana.
Gardens are the simplest way of caring for our environment
Speaking of the rapidly changing urban farming scenario, Vandana reiterates the importance of having patches of small green ecosystems in every household.
Gardens are the simplest way of caring for our environment. You can reduce your medical bills by 40 percent if you can maintain a green pharmacy of medicinal plants in your garden. In urban high rises, we also have people complaining about ‘sick building syndrome’ that reduces one’s problem-solving capacity. So, having a customised garden solves many contemporary problems.
Wrapping up our conversation, I ask Vandana how she keeps at her entrepreneurial efforts.
“The joy of planting, seeing butterflies in the garden, and ensuring curious kids and grumpy adults have access to nature in their own way — that’s what keeps me going,” she concludes rather gleefully.