The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.
Cultivating guar through climate-smart agriculture
Used as a thickening agent, stabilizer and binder in a variety of industries, the guar gum derived from the guar bean has many applications, making it a highly sought after ingredient, sourced predominantly from the Rajasthan region in India. But increased industrial demand also raises environmental challenges. Climate variability and climate change, water scarcity, soil erosion and deforestation are just some of the environmental concerns related to guar farming. So what to do?
To address the challenges head on, Solvay, L’Oréal, Henkel, Procter & Gamble and NGO TechnoServe have partnered for the Sustainable Guar Initiative (SGI), an ambitious and pioneering project to source guar sustainably in the arid region of Bikaner in Rajasthan, India. The goal was to train local guar farmers in climate-smart agricultural practices to improve guar yield and soil fertility, and improve the region’s climate preparedness and resilience. Eight years later, the initiative has set an industry standard for sustainable guar farming – and potentially for other raw materials as well.
Establishing a blueprint for sustainable guar farming
To develop sustainable guar cultivation in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, three core challenges had to be addressed:
- Climate change, resulting in extreme temperatures in summer and winter seasons
- Very little and inconsistent rainfall
- Hard terrain that is difficult to cultivate
To overcome these challenges, enabling local farmers to become more climate-smart and resilient was key. This meant equipping them with the expertise and tools to effectively manage resources, adopt good agricultural practices and mitigate the impact on the climate and environment.
To put this vision into action, Solvay reached out to TechnoServe, a non-profit that supports low-income communities in building regenerative farms, to help develop and implement best practices for guar cultivation: “We brought the business case and came with a set of sustainability objectives,” Chloé Moreau, Sustainability Manager at Solvay Novecare, explains. “TechnoServe is the team that is making it happen on the ground; they are leading the operations and are able to confront us with reality.”
“There is always open communications going on,”Kumar Rupam, Senior Project Manager at TechnoServe states. “What we learn on site, we share with Solvay, and if there is a necessity we revise our plans.”
Promoting water conservation
While opting for irrigated farming would have been easier, the initiative opted for rain-fed farming, saving costs and preserving essential resources in a water-scarce region.
A key initiative was the renovation of five Johads, or community ponds. Spread across the villages in Rajasthan, these rainwater harvesting structures are used principally for water storage and aid with groundwater recharge. Neglect, however, had reduced their storage capacity significantly. Following seven years of renovation, the Johads now have a cumulative capacity of 22.4 million liters.
Furthermore, the program has overseen the construction of 24 Khadins (so far). The Khadin system collects and stores rainwater during the initial monsoon rains, which is then used to replenish groundwater and saturate dry land, making farmland more productive and ensuring farmers can continue to grow crops during dry periods.
Moreover, 40 families were equipped with rooftop Rainwater Harvesting Systems (RHS), capable of collecting 8,000 liters annually per household. These installations facilitate the collection, storage and reuse of rainwater, providing additional water resources for household tasks, community plantations and kitchen gardens, allowing households to consume locally sourced, chemical-free produce and reduce their carbon footprint.
“It’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to figure out what sustainability looks like, and you’re putting these pieces together,” Krishnan Hariharan, Senior practice Lead at TechnoServe explains. “And then you see it come together, and it’s a much bigger story than the pieces – the cost and water implications are huge. This isn’t New York or any other global city; this is the Thar Desert. 22.4 million liters is much more significant here.”
Fostering climate resilience
The program has also introduced a variety of other climate-smart practices to further enhance the farmers’ resilience against climate variability.
Up to 90% of the guar farmers in the program use a more robust and adaptive 90-day seed. Compared to the traditional 120-day variant, this seed type cuts down time between sowing and harvest and is better equipped against erratic rainfall conditions and drought.
Additionally, the program has introduced mixed cropping and crop rotation to minimize the spread of pest and disease and enhance soil fertility. And farmers are also being trained on the appropriate methodology for creating composted farmyard manure to improve soil health and moisture retention – ideal when there’s a period of dry spells.
It’s fair to say that implementing these agricultural practices has paid off. Since 2015, average guar productivity has doubled from 50 kg to 100 kg per acre!
It’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to figure out what sustainability looks like, and you’re putting these pieces together.
Continuing the work with agroforestry
After eight years, the ambition of the program hasn’t diminished. In fact, this year, we launched an agroforestry pilot with the aim to introduce farmers to more regenerative farming practices, provide cover for guar and capture and store CO2.
So far, 25 agroforestry plots have been planted using the Khejri tree as the primary tree species due to its resistance to extreme weather conditions and ability to preserve ecosystems in arid areas. And we have high hopes for this pilot: “The ambition is to scale it up to one million trees in the next three years once we develop an appropriate model,” Kumar states.
That’s in addition to the work already done with the establishment of four Community Plantations and two Silvi Pasture Units, which have significantly increased guar cover and improved soil quality and access to fodder grass (a continually recurring grass suitable for cultivation in humid areas). And with the Silvi Pasture Units included, a total of 69,000 trees have been planted across 46 villages in the Bikaner district.
Pioneering a framework for sustainable guar
With the Sustainable Guar Initiative, we set out to protect the climate, preserve resources, and foster a better life for the local guar farmers – a commitment that’s solidified in Solvay’s One Planet commitment.
And the impact of the Sustainable Guar Initiative can’t be overlooked. Today, 12,500 farmers across 60 villages in Rajasthan are involved, as well as several big industry names. However, as sustainable guar farming is gaining traction, the effort and learning curve involved shouldn't be underestimated – there’s no cutting corners.
“It takes patient capital,” Krishnan confirms. “If you really want to see something through, it's going to take time and adjustment.”
With the success of the Sustainable Guar Initiative, Solvay hopes to inspire others to follow a similar framework, not just for guar, but potentially also for the broader spectrum of raw materials. “At the end of the day, it’s simple: if you want a good sustainable product, and you want to do good business, this is the way to do it,” says Krishnan. “Only when the community benefits does everybody benefit.”