How Bengaluru-based Beforest can help you to live a life close to Mother Nature, in your city 

Lead an agreeable and sustainable life in a community of like-minded people by opting for the ways of Beforest, a Bengaluru-based start-up that seems to have found the right way to live the good life
One of their collectives | (Pic: Beforest)
One of their collectives | (Pic: Beforest)

What if we told you that you don't need to retire to live on a farm and eat fresh produce? Beforest can make it possible at any point in your life. Using principles of permaculture and natural farming, they bring together people with the same purpose, of living as one with nature, in a collective where you will have fresh air to breathe, organic fruits and vegetables to feast on and a repurposed life to lead. 

The Bengaluru-based start-up behind this mission, is new to this too and makes no bones about the fact that this is an experiment, albeit a successful one. The food forest collective in Hyderabad and or the wilderness collective in Coorg, it is all part of their plan. Interested? So were we. So we got in touch with Sunith Reddy, Co-founder, Beforest, who took us through the process of how they chose the venue for the collective, how they bring together people and what their future plans are. Excerpts from an interview:  

Shaurya Chandra and Sunith Reddy | (Pic: Beforest)

After a slew of start-ups, the last of which, if we are not wrong, was Carbon Zero falling under the environmental sustainability category, how was that will to give back to the environment really born?
Carbon Zero was one of the first sustainability initiatives that we took way back in 2010. Since then, I’ve been involved in a couple of successful start-ups in the algorithmic trading and EdTech space. I was quite engrossed in running in these ventures but at the back of my head, there has always been the urge to reimagine the way we work and go about things. The fundamental question I have always wanted to raise is the question of commons. Who accounts for all the common resources that we are freely using? Today we are thinking of it as a zero-cost input  the clean air, the continuous supply of water and so on. In reality, we have gone past the point where they are free and are continuously digging into the reserves built over millennia. This has always been at the back of my mind. Beforest was the culmination of this thinking and it was definitely accelerated by the conversations I had been having with my co-founders for the past 10 years.  

Tell us the process of selecting the area for setting up these collectives? And once they are set up, what goes into maintaining them?
The fundamental goal of our collectives is to nudge people to reestablish their connection with nature and get a holistic perspective of things. This way, they begin to reassess their consumption and behaviour. Farming is just a tool to achieve this. We just want people to start thinking of producing rather than just continuously consuming. To get this going, we require our members to be very participative in the process. In that sense, our collectives are not finished products with plans prepared for end-users to just buy into. It is more a co-creation process where we are moderating, enabling and getting things done on behalf of members. So, there is a certain level of experimentation involved.
Usually, the collective setup process begins with a group of individuals approaching us with an interest in a collective in their area. Some criteria need to be met for this to go ahead. For example, the place itself needs to be close enough to allow for participation. It should also be within a certain price point where experimentation is possible. Post this, we identify a specific piece of land that fits the bill. In choosing this, we are not too concerned about the current state of the estate — its terrain, its irrigation capacity and so on. As long as there is access to the place and an annual rainfall of over 550mm, the remaining problems can be solved. Post this, we announce a collective and spread the word to reach out to more interested members. Usually, we do not accept everyone who approaches us. It is absolutely necessary to be congruent with the philosophy and the vision to qualify as a member. 

While people do take up land enthusiastically, do they often have trouble integrating into the new lifestyle? Is there some sort of induction of sorts that you offer to ease them into it?  
This is not a fixed product where we can develop induction programmes. Each collective is a function of the vision that the members share and the purpose with which it was created. For example, the Hyderabad collective is focussed primarily on establishing a food forest. The aim is to really grow food sustainably while the Coorg collective is set up as a wilderness collective, where the aim is to diversify a coffee estate and see if we can grow coffee in a forest context. The members who subscribe to each collective come together because of a very specific vision for that collective. So, it’s a coming together of minds by choice and not by chance. People do take time to set aside the 'I want this' mindset to move to a more community decision-making framework but we enable and moderate this process to see that it is as smooth as possible. Eventually, what we have seen is that as long as the intent is aligned to the purpose, the methods get figured out.

One of their collectives | (Pic: Beforest)

Tell us about your most challenging projects and briefly tell us how you overcame the challenges.  
We are a young company and currently have really only done three collectives. In fact, in all three, we are still executing the collectives. One big challenge we faced was to convince folks to really adopt the idea of a collective. In the initial days, we were quite skeptical, if an audience would take to our proposal of coming together onto a project where even the location of the collective was only tentative. Essentially, we wanted to see if people buy into a vision rather than into a place. One thing that really helped us in doing this was brutal honesty. We were extremely frank about the experimental nature of the collective, the lack of expertise and the presence of a strong will to do this. This worked well for us with members coming in and readily adopting this new approach. The fact that we did not have ready master plans or floor plans did not seem to have come in the way.
Another big challenge we are currently facing in our Coorg collective is that we are taking over a working coffee estate. When you start from scratch on barren land, it’s like a blank paper and you are free to draw what you please. But when you think of a working estate, then the painting on the paper is there. You are looking to modify this painting and make it better. This continues to be a challenge and we are heavily relying on small scale experiments and a baseline study to understand how we are impacting a working farm. It is really about doing as little as possible to achieve as much as possible. Maximum effect, with minimum effort.

What are the avenues through which people who are interested but not ready to commit can engage with the collective?
Buying our produce is one. The collectives ultimately depend on consumers buying the produce, using our hospitality services and so on. Another avenue we offer is the workshops and volunteering opportunities that we periodically announce on our website and social media.
What are your upcoming projects and what can we expect from you next?
Currently, we are involved in three collectives that have found their seed community. In addition, there have been several requests from Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka for collectives. These probable locations are waiting for a seed community, a critical mass of people who can confirm their buy-in based on the vision and in the absence of the specific location. Once that is done, we can go ahead and execute those collectives as well. In addition, we are receiving a lot of requests from large estate owners to diversify and run their farms in a sustainable manner. In the future, we will be exploring these avenues as well.  

Any last thoughts?
Well, quite often, being sustainable is being equated in our daily conversations as a trade-off. We are here to establish that it need not be so. There are several ways to lead our normal lives without being as exploitative as we normally are. The trick of the trade is to be ecologically and economically viable. In fact, our premise is that over a long-term horizon they are the same. One cannot exist without the other.

Pictures from their other collectives

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