Padanna, Kerala: He took a fancy to shrimps, watching them swirl through water on a moonlit night.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, at 60, G.S. Gul Mohammed is a pioneer in mussel farming and his work here has helped offer livelihood?to?3,500 farmers, including 2,500 women.
India produces around 11,000 tonnes of mussels every year and about three-fourths of them—nearly 7,500 tonnes—come from the venture that Mohammed initiated in 1996—Green Mussels Farmers Society, which has attracted farmers in Padanna and surrounding villages.
Memories of Mohammed’s hometown Padanna, with its backwaters, drew him back to India in 1990, after he had spent some 20 years managing a construction firm in Dubai soon after graduating with a commerce degree.
When he decided to move back?to Padanna, as luck would have it, a local entrepreneur, who was into shrimp farming, was selling out because of low yields. Mohammed used his savings to acquire the two ponds, added two more and started shrimp farming.
The going was smooth up until 1996 when an infection that left white spots on the shrimp forced him to abandon the shrimp business. Though dejected, Mohammed was unwilling to leave the waters and instead took to crab cultivation. Crabs, he says, shed their shells at regular intervals in sea water leading to a reduction in their flesh and weight. However, allowed to grow in fresh water with less salinity for a month, the shells get hardened and the crabs fetch as much as Rs280 a kg—four-and-a-half times the price they would have fetched earlier.
Mohammed experimented and began using waste from the abattoirs, or slaughterhouses, in the neighbourhood as crab feed. He collected the waste dumped in the backwaters, cleaned it and used the layer of oil from the fat, which formed on the top after boiling, as crab food.
It was an experiment, but one that paid rich dividends, recalls Mohammed. But greed got the better of him and he bought soft-shelled crabs worth Rs3 lakh from Chennai and dropped them in his ponds. But the east coast crabs did not adapt well in Kerala waters and Mohammed saw his money go down the drain.
Still, the entrepreneur in him did not lose hope. Mohammed knocked on the doors of the government agency, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, which was into mussel breeding. The institute agreed to despatch a team of scientists to inspect the waters to check whether mussels could be bred in Mohammed’s backyard, on the condition that he would bear all the expenses. But he didn’t have to actually shell out any money because the condition was imposed by the institute only to test his intentions.
To breed mussels, Mohammed followed an innovative method that helped grow mussels in a record two-and-a-half months—much lower than their normal gestation period of five-six months. Indeed, in countries such as Spain, where mussel farming is very popular, it takes 6-24 months for mussels to grow.
The method: Small ropes are wound around a strong string. On this, a few mussels seeds are left and cloth tied round it. Around 600 such strings, knotted to a raft, are left hanging 5-6m down in the water. In a few days, these seeds stick on to the ropes and the cloth wound around disintegrates into the water. Feeding on the little organisms in it, these mussel seeds grow to a large size in a relatively short time.
Mohammed’s first harvest was a tonne of mussels. And when Anwar Hashim, a leading seafood exporter and managing director of Abad Fisheries in Kochi, complained that it was not sufficient quantity for export, Mohammed mooted the idea of getting other farmers involved. “I have done some work, but cannot meet the export demand alone,” he says. “Why not get the local people involved? I gave it serious thought and a few days later met the people in the area and explained to them the prospects of mussels farming.” The audience was hard to convince. If the business has tremendous prospects, Mohammed himself should take it up in?a?big?way, they said.
Only a handful of people, including some women, initially came forward. But, today, 3,500 people work with Mohammed. Last year, his total mussel production?was 7,000 tonnes.
Mohammed’s business has not been without troubles. The European Union (EU) banned import of Indian mussels in 1999. The EU was not happy with the water quality, which affects the breed of mussels.
When Mohammed got the government trade promotion body Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA)?to test the water, it showed that the water was contaminated because the villagers around did not have toilets and human excreta was left in the water bodies. While there have been improvements since then, India still continues to be banned from exporting mussels to Europe. This also forced Mohammed to go after the domestic market.
While mussels is a sought-after dish in Kannur and Kozhikode districts of Kerala, it was not popular even in the neighbouring areas. So, he told the local farmers to carry the mussels on bicycles to nearby villages. For the first two weeks, the response was poor. But slowly, people began to accept it and now, during harvest time, trucks line up to carry mussels.
Mohammed’s Green Mussels Farmers Society is formed by farmers from four nearby villages—Padanna, Valiyaparamba, Cheruvathur and Trikaripur. But the society’s success has had a fallout as mussel farming, extending to more than 25 sq. km, has reached near saturation. What used to take two-and-a-half months for one harvest has steadily climbed to almost five months. The culprit: a shortage of phytoplankton, an organism in the water that mussels feed on, which is getting depleted by extensive mussel farming.
But that crisis has opened up a new front, some 30km into the sea. While the raft, coir and other expenses are around Rs25,000 for fishing in the backwaters of Kerala that yield around 7 tonnes of mussels per year, the cost would more than double to around Rs60,000 for a similar raft put out in the sea. But the raft can be used for five or six years and the mussel yield could potentially double, which means the profits can be higher. Another advantage of farming in the sea is that the salinity of the water dips only during the monsoons.
Meanwhile, Mohammed’s innovative zeal continues in other areas as well. For instance, he has motivated local farmers for sea bass farming in cages and also carrageen algae cultivation. Soft drink makers buy the dried algae and pay Rs10 per kg; some women are earning as much as Rs5,000 a month from algae alone. Carbohydrate extracted from carrageen is used as a thickening agent in cold drinks.
The society is also looking at promoting tourism through homestays. Mohammed took the lead by building five huts, including a floating one. Now some of the farmers have begun adding a few rooms to their houses where tourists can stay and watch the farming process.
Over time, life appears to have changed for the people in these villages. Geeta, a local graduate, who just goes by her first name, has not attempted to take up any other job. She concentrates on mussel culture, which fetches her a steady income. Sumathy, who also goes by her first name, plans to renovate her house so that she can offer homestays to tourists. MPEDA continues to monitor the water quality at regular intervals and is hoping that it would lead to getting an all-clear from the EU for exports to resume.
None of Mohammed’s four sons are involved in his activities. While three of them work in the IT and financial sectors, his fourth son is studying engineering. “Life has not been smooth all along,” he says. “First, I lost money in crab culture. The farmers found it difficult to find a market for mussels and put all the blame on me. My family was upset and advised me to get out of this, but I knew for sure that those were temporary blips and one has to face these if one wants to help the community,” he says.
“I have no regrets.”
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world, a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com)