Tale of Arkhiben: The 105-year-old Wonder Woman of Gujarat

Arkhiben Mithabai Vankar, a 105-year-old lady from Sabarkantha, Gujarat is a village healer and a midwife. But these are not the traits she is commonly known for. Arkhiben is hailed as the “Pesticide Lady”.

She fits well in the wonderful tag given to her. After all, her traditional knowledge can give even well-educated scholars run for their money. Ask her anything about the uses of different herbs for agricultural and veterinary diseases, and she will not disappoint you. She has a vast knowledge of the subject and has become everyone’s “go to” person when it comes to exclusive knowledge of herbs and plants.

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At this age, Arkhiben’s energy is contagious. She carries a wide smile on her face and her eyes brighten up whenever anyone talks about her vast traditional knowledge.

Arkhiben had learned the use of a local herb for pest control from her mother-in-law. Hardly did she know then that this knowledge would one day become a reason behind her global success.

Her interest towards plants goes back to her childhood days.

“I used to help my father in the field. All my brothers and sisters worked together on tasks like extracting water from the well or weeding out the fields. I have done the same kind of work in my husband’s house too,” she recalls.

Arkhiben also observed her mother who always turned to home remedies to cure any ailment.

“If we had stomach pain, our mother would put snuff on the belly button. For dysentery, she would rub the burnt mango seed on the stone and give us one or two spoonfuls of the extract to control dysentery. If we had the fever, we would bathe in water soaked with neem leaves,” shares Arkhiben.

These childhood experiences left a huge impact on her and strengthened her beliefs in traditional knowledge. Since she lived in a close-knit community, this belief got stronger with time. This is one major reason behind her undying confidence in the farmers’ organic knowledge about crops and herbs.

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Farmers in different areas of Gujarat have been developing their own herbal solutions for controlling pests in crops. Arkhiben too was not behind. She came up with a revolutionary herbal pesticide that changed the way people looked at women entrepreneurs and innovators.

Arkhiben invented herbal pesticide that keeps aphids, whiteflies, and mealybugs away. Her idea picked up and soon she became a renowned entrepreneur.  Thanks to her invention of herbal pesticides, she now generates an annual six-figure revenue.

This success is precious to Arkhiben because of the many struggles she had faced in the past. She recalls the time when her family saw severe poverty during a drought in Gujarat. Arkhiben and her husband would extract stones from the mountain to build a bridge to earn money to feed their family.

Leaving the challenging past behind, Arkhiben dedicated herself to preserving the vast traditional knowledge. She tested various plant extracts and finally came up with a solution that can deter pests.

Arkhiben reported an herbal pesticide to control in chickpea with seeds and leaves of Thornapple (Datura metel) and yellow-berried nightshade (Solanum xanthocarpum). The organic pesticide helps keep aphids, whiteflies, and mealybugs away. She has also found good results using Shikario, a local herb in Sabarkantha, as a vermicide to treat maggot-infested sores in cattle.

The herbal pesticide, which is made from bitter plants is free of toxins and has reduced the expenditure incurred by the farmers to save the crops from pests. Arkhiben claims that this non-toxic pesticide is as effective as chemical pesticides.

“Back in the old days, there were no pests or diseases in the crops and we would use only natural fertilizers like cow dung in the fields,” she says.

When asked what inspired her to come up with an innovation like this, Arkhiben responds that the lack of available options to ensure sustainability of crops made her innovate a new product.

Arkhiben is one of those thousands of farmers who want to somehow sustain themselves in this challenging period for Indian agriculture. These farmers are coming up with various interesting innovations and techniques to save their crops with limited resources.

Like Arkhiben, many other farmers have benefitted from the grassroots innovations. Arkhiben is all supportive of new inventions, but still has a few words of wisdom for the new generation. She believes that people of her generation used to have simple lifestyles and meals. This plain lifestyle naturally saved them from many diseases and issues.

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“People are always stressed and surrounded by worries, which is the main reason behind various kinds of diseases these days. People try to add new twists to traditional recipes. My advice for good health would be to drink water stored in clay pots, cook food in clay vessels and avoid eating food that is cooked using gas, if possible,” shares Arkhiben.

She concludes with just one piece of advice, “Eat well and avoid stress!”

The Honey Bee Network came up with an idea to see if these individual practices could be brought together to produce a more effective and broader spectrum formulation for herbal pest control.

SRISTI Drop, an herbal product for the control of pests, was thus developed on the basis of community knowledge. The product is being promoted by SRISTI Innovations and the benefits are being shared with the communities.

Photos and Inputs: NIF and SRISTI

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