Nitisha Agrawal – Founder and Director @ Smokeless Cookstove Foundation

Nitisha Agrawal – Consultant, Social impact & Community Development | Founder and Director @Smokeless Cookstove Foundation

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She is not just bitten by Wanderlust. She is in fact a Soul Searcher. A woman after her own heart, she carves her own paths. She does not hide behind a facade of mere words; not your typical slogan shouting, effigy burning, facebook ranting leader. She is a Doer… and her story speaks for itself. Not one to believe in glorification of any kind, Nitisha is a simple girl… warm, assertive, tad shy but a determined person. Her story may read longer than many… but once you have taken the time to go through it, you will wish and realise we need more like her. Many more like her. Read on and be inspired 🙂

  1. How about you tell me your story first?
    Well I call this phase of my life ‘a lifelong transit’ and I believe I have found myself on a path that I always wanted to be on, but before this, did not know how to get on it. After having worked in the corporate sector for well over 17 years, I felt exhausted and my intellectual growth hit a pause. The void of purposelessness was expanding. I felt I needed a complete turnaround in the way I look at life and what I really wanted to do with each day of my life. I also want to state that I have no regrets about my corporate life and I have enjoyed every bit of it. I had the privilege of holding key positions in high profile organisations like Volkswagen, Skoda, Marico and Lintas and I am very proud of and fulfilled by my corporate career. But, on a complete whim, I bid goodbye to my corporate job to let serendipity take over. And after 18 months, I have to say that I feel I am exactly where I was destined to be.

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To put into perspective – I am currently in a process of giving shape to two of my most precious projects – my NGO – Smokeless Cookstove Foundation (www.smokelesscookstovefoundation.org) and my work with children – ‘Children of Tribe’ https://www.facebook.com/childrenoftribe/
Both these projects are in line with the SDGs 2030 and address pertinent social issues concerning health, environment and children’s mindful development as responsible citizens. On a personal level, I feel that I have achieved goals and fulfilled dreams that were somewhere shoved under the carpet as not so relevant because of a hurried pace of life that I was leading in my last decade. But now, in this transition phase, I have gone back to dancing and have been diligently pursuing dance forms like Free Style Jazz, Salsa and Bachata. I have been trekking the Himalayan peaks and have reached as high as 14,500 feet (The Hampta pass); have been writing about my various travel experiences. My articles have been digitally published on one of the most immersive and informative travel websites; http://www.travelpurist.com. http://www.travelpurist.com/spotting-the-snow-leopard-in-ladakh/ http://www.travelpurist.com/tribal-rhythm-korkus-khandwa/
I have been doing pretty much everything that I always wanted to do. I have even picked up academics in the last few years and have completed a few prestigious certifications programmes and last one being a Certification programme with United Nations, The Earth Charter for Education in Sustainable Development. I feel I have a wide canvass, and I only need to choose the colours I want to fill my canvas with.

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2. I am intrigued by the Smokeless Chulha initiative. Please tell us more. Where did you get the idea? What is your plan? Are you working with the government? What is the technology? All that you would like to share about the initiative please.

Smokeless Cookstove Foundation (SCF) is a Section 8, Not for Profit set up that I started in November 2016 but officially registered in December 2017. SCF is a training and capacity building project designed to teach rural communities across India in making efficient chulahs at virtually no costs.. Using far less fuel than a traditional chulha and being much less polluting with the wood they burn, a Smokeless Chulha is a breath of fresh air for the choked homes and hearths of the nearly these 3 billion people still using traditional cooking methods around the world.

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The Smokeless Cookstove Revolution addresses three key issues facing people and the environment, being deforestation, women’s health, and air pollution, which includes both indoor and outdoor smoke. Household Air Pollution is one of India’s most devastating killers, claiming more lives each year than HIV, Malaria and TB combined, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures. This amounts to 1 million premature deaths in India and more than 4 million globally.

The idea started when a friend of mine, an Australian inventor Russell Collins was experimenting with clay as a material for his stoves in Ladakh. He was working on a social enterprise called Himalayan Rocket Stove (www.himalayanrocketstove.com) in the mountains when he realized that he couldn’t get the high-tech materials he needed to make his stoves work.

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After searching for a local solution, he came up with a way of using clay that changed its nature from being heat absorbing to heat repelling. This made it possible to make clay tubes for his commercial stoves, and in the process, came to realise that he had stumbled on a simple and incredibly affordable way to make smokeless chulhas (cookstoves) using well established ‘rocket stove’ technology. I had been following Russell’s work for a long time, and my love for Himalayas kept me interested in the aspects of conservation work in that region. Epiphany happened when I quit my job and he was looking for an Indian mind to shape this solution into a scalable idea to spread it across the country. And that’s when we got together to set up Smokeless Cookstove Foundation.

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The Smokeless Cookstove team been working tirelessly since late 2016 taking the work into remote regions that are desperate in need of this technology. Workshops have been conducted in Dharwad (Karnataka); Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh); New Delhi, Chandigarh, Kanha Tiger Reserve in Mandla District of Madhya Pradesh, Bundlekhand in Uttar Pradesh, Mount Abu and Udaipur in Rajasthan, Kalimpong in West Bengal; Punjab, select districts in Maharashtra.

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As of today, we are pretty much using our own resources to prove the viability of the project, SCF team have run workshops across regions and impacted the lives of over 800 families. The team has also done a pilot workshop with Pharma major’s Glenmark Foundation in Khandwa region of Madhya Pradesh. And now we are hoping to get a bigger mandate going in the tribal region of Khandwa.

The initial phase of this work has been challenging and yet extremely satisfying as we feel our solution could make some difference in the lives of those living under extreme conditions. I have to say though, that a Not for Profit set up is a very tough structure from a governance point of view and very little information or advisory is available to anyone to move forward – especially someone like me who is virtually an outsider in development sector. Raising funds is also a challenge. As people in India do not really like to donate towards charitable cause and the system does not allow you to freely operate and carry on genuine work. But I am hoping that this will not deter me to carry on in our mission to provide relief from indoor pollution in rural homes and save our forests from faster depletion rate.

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3. Wow, that’s so amazing. I am so excited with your project. Tell me about ‘Children of Tribe’.

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Sure, Let me also tell you about Children of Tribe here. Though this is also in its initial stage, this is my passion project and I want to build this further because it involves children.

Children of Tribe is based on the ideology that we believe in a world where everyone respects and understands nature, the environment and people, where we all learn from and within nature. We engage children, young adults, pets and their families in largely unstructured nature play sessions, adventure experiences that are creative, hands on and experiential led.

The experiences are held in rain and sunshine, mountains and forests, river waters and waterfall, oceans and seas where the children get to experience all possible flavours of nature. Experiences are conducted in the outskirts of Mumbai in locations like Karjat, Pali, Kamshet, Kolad, Palghar also giving the young minds, a glimpse of beautiful local Indian cultures.

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We do fun activities like – stick building, rock stacking, journey stick, organic farming, forest art & games, garland making, participating in farming, cooking and cleaning; adventurous stuff like trekking, rock climbing, river swimming etc.

Participants are encouraged to record their experiences the old-school way for Children of Tribe journals; Based on modern and slightly worrying truth that the city kids learn to walk on even, concrete and carpeted surfaces. But when they are eventually faced with an uneven surface, they will be unwillingly out into danger as they do not know how to use the space and how to walk. With Children of Tribe, my wish is to feed onto a child’s innate need for risk but with reasonable risk in order to prevent them finding greater risks for themselves at later stages of life.

The other driving principle of Children of Tribe experiences is Sustainable thinking & sustainable living. These experiences are steeped in No Plastic; Consume Less; Give Back concepts. So, Children of Tribe provides experiences which are fun in an unplugged way! Just for a few hours, say bye bye to ‘gadgets & e-play’ instead, get your hands dirty in mud.

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So far, about 40 children have participated in these camps and I am hoping to reach out to a lot more children and parents this year.

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4. You are a mom by adoption, I know it’s a brave thing to do and probably one of the most loving things to do as well. Would you be so kind to share your story on adoption.

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Well, I truly believe that anything in life is about what you want. Once you know what you want, there is no need to be bothered by issues surrounding it. Adoption is a beautiful blessing and a personal choice. I for one never really paid too much attention to what would anyone say or react, so for me it was choice I made from my heart. I was lucky that I got love and support from the family on both sides and today Pavitra pretty much forms the centre of all our lives. I was also lucky that my journey into the adoption process was rather easy and quick unlike what is usually the case. So there is no heroic aspect to it. I feel it is a normal process of loving and caring for a child and making sure that we put the child on right path with good values.

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Even now, I do not make a big deal about it. As adoptive parents, we have been honest and truthful with Pavitra about where her journey started. She may be young to grasp her reality fully, but she definitely knows that she took birth ‘from my heart’ and me from hers as a mother.

Few years ago, I had composed a small poem on her home coming day. Since you like the poetic form of writing, you may choose to add this to my response.

“So you came from my heart on this day four years ago and I may suck at playing all other roles in the world but to be your Mammu Tammu is the badge that i carry in my heart as the most precious one..
 
I may not be uploading your accolades on the damn facebook or taking you around for Barbie themed parties but I promise that we will chase the sun..the wind..the sand..the moon and the stars…& we’ll roam the jungle.
 
I may not be able to drop you and pick you up from the bus stop every single day but I promise we’ll run the road in the Thar that you love..
 
I may not be showing you off to the world at times but I promise we will continue to groove to the Bobs of Dylan & Marley with a tinge of Buddha Bar and Abba…

Ok..I promise to introduce EDM and Katty Perry into your life but I am definitely protecting you from Beiber and Bollywood..for as long as I can
 
I may not push you to show off your singing and dancing skills in front of people but I promise we will do our Alayrippu together and wait for the day when we set the stage on fire
 
I may not be there to take you down to play every day and sit and chat about sad life with other mothers but I promise I will work so hard in life that we find our home in Goa..where we build sand castles every single day
 
Pavu..you promise to have gratitude to your mother who passed you onto me as a gift greater than life…& you promise that you will inspire me always like you do…& I promise that I will make you a frontrunner in Human Revolution of love!!!”- Nitisha

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4. Tell me something Nitisha. Do you think we are less vocal, less supportive or less encouraging as a society towards adoption? How was your experience going through the whole deal. I have noticed you are very honest and candid about the entire experience. How do you think more people in our country can be guided or encouraged towards becoming parents by adoption?

I feel we unnecessarily waste our time by trying to always find an activist’s voice. Let us treat ourselves as normal and blessed individuals and find solutions to the issues that surround us. There is a lot of positive movement towards adoption in India as well. I don’t think it’s the society that should be the issue for a seeking parent. However, it could be the process that is a bit difficult and can be draining out for the adoptive parents. But if you ask me, I believe in Joanna Macy’s philosophy of ‘Honour your Pain’ and get on with it.

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Its only because of social media, that we all feel we must become social activists and at the next issue that crops up – put up a status, or rant your opinions. Very few have the courage to find the winning solutions. So again, I for one never get bogged down by stereotypes and societal boundaries, at the cost of being a rebel.

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Having stated the above, I feel that there should be counselling and content and stories created for the adoptive parents and children to drive positivity around it. Internationally much has been said and there are lot of websites which offer stories, but sadly in India we do not have such resources. Also, schools need to have a broad view of children who could be adopted. For example, I came across an article about how children were learning about reproduction system and motherhood in a biology class; but there was an adopted child who was lost as the teacher could not really answer her questions related to her natural birth. So, such sensitization for care givers including teachers especially in the initial years is very important.

5.  Tell me what does this mean to you? How do you want to be remembered?
I would like my daughter Pavitra to be proud of me till the end; and I live life with no regrets. Rules and stereotypes have been broken and rewritten to strengthen my own life’s purpose and that’s what I live by.

6. You have successfully balanced home and work and while I know men never get to answer this question, I still would like to know how you did it? Simply because there are a lot of us out there who can take some cues.

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Well again, I feel frustrated when these kind of questions come up. Why is there such an issue about mother hood and our subsequent choices? Especially women from privileged, urban and educated background should not make a big deal about the balancing act. We have been blessed with a ‘free will’ as opposed to animals. Nobody puts a gun to our head and forces us to have a child or not; work or not….So let’s give ourselves credit that we are intelligent and capable beings to handle everything and take responsibility for our choices in life. And frankly, it works for men as well. Why exclude them!!

Also, I believe, that we don’t need to be a super being – aka super mom or a super dad. Its okay to be normal and make mistakes as long as our intent is honest. In the words of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, ‘It’s the heart that is important’.

Unfortunately, we do not like to be happy as human beings. But we were born in this world primarily to be happy. Everything else is subsequent. Yet, we simple deny ourselves happiness by reading too much into our lives problems.

7. You are a career woman, a working Mom. How or what do you have to tell Mothers who want to pursue their careers after Motherhood but do not have the courage to go ahead with it simply because of the daunting responsibilities at hand.

To an extent, I have said a lot of things above, but one must simply make up her mind about what has to be done. We all know that we have the brains that can strategize our lives well and a spirit that will guide us in the right direction. I think women need to let go of negativity surrounding their lives, which is more self-created, and simply march ahead like queens and not super humans. Motherhood is a blessing, Why should it ever become a deterrent to joy.

8. How do you keep your positivity? How do you maintain your zen?

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Well, my practice of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism has been a watershed moment in life and has put me on a spiritual path that has helped me expand my mind and heart. So yes, I believe in the mantra ‘Nam myoho renge kyo’. But I also learn a lot from nature by spending time in forests and mountains to honour my seeking spirit. Every once in a while, I go off the grid and disconnect with some aspects of regular life to heal myself. Very soon, I will start farming and growing my own produce. And this I feel nurtures our soul. There is also dance that helps me bouncing with positivity.

9. What is your Soul Workout?

I am going to talk about fitness here if that’s okay, as it’s an important issue for women. Women need to take their fitness as first priority. Especially mothers. Only then can we win in our lives. I do a mix of things as I am restless by nature and routine bores me out. I like to spend at least a minimum of 5 hours a week and on some good weeks up to even 8 hours towards fitness. And it involves various types of activities. I spoke about dancing. I do strength training in the gym; run for at least 3kms to 5 kms every alternate days and some yogasanas as well. I am happy with my current fitness level and how my body feels. But I have some ambitious plans for high altitude trekking and long stays in wilderness in the next couple of years so, I would really like to start training towards that and further build on my physical, emotional and spiritual strength.

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10. Give me that one quote you live by… not someone elses’, but yours.
Well it’s not entirely mine – but ‘Bonfire Heart’ is what defines me.

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2 Replies to “Nitisha Agrawal – Founder and Director @ Smokeless Cookstove Foundation”

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