ADVOCACYNET 410, July 8, 2024

Into the Forest

An AP Partner and Peace Fellow Search for Neem Trees in the Tribal Villages of India


Surajita Sahu and friends savor the rhythm of the forest near Daspalla. Surajita coordinates the Neemola start-up


Adin Becker, seen in the photo below, is spending this summer as a Peace Fellow at Jeevan Rheka Parishad (“Lifeline”), our partner in Odisha State, India. Odisha suffers from the highest rate of malaria in India. As we recently reported, Lifeline has launched a start-up to produce Neemola oil from Neem trees to serve as a mosquito repellent and provide tribal women with an income. In this blog extract, Adin describes a visit to Daspalla village with Surajita Sahu, the project coordinator. Adin is a graduate student at Harvard University. Read his blogs here and scroll down to donate to the Neemola startup.

Field work is the essence of what JRP does and the malaria program would not be possible without education, relationship-building, and monitoring. Many rural areas still have a low internet penetration rate; nothing will happen unless you make the effort to visit.

I recently returned from a four-day initial visit to the Daspalla tribal area to review the early stages of the Neem startup and encourage participation from local communities.

Before venturing into the field, my assumption was that the landscape would be arid and brown. As we are currently at the tail end of the dry season, I expected the vegetation to be lying dormant after months without rain, much like the African savannah I am familiar with.

My first shock upon exiting the bus was Daspalla’s stunning beauty. It’s a lush, verdant environment abundant with towering old growth mango trees, multiple varieties of palms, and flowers of every color imaginable.

Unlike other savannah biomes, Odisha maintains its greenery year-round due to a unique flora and varied topography. Many trees, like the ubiquitous Sal, have deep root systems and waxy leaves that help reduce water loss. The mountainous terrain also traps water in stream beds and shaded valleys.

After a quick lunch in town, Surajita and I took an auto taxi to the JRP field office. Daspalla is somewhat urbanized, but one quickly reaches tribal areas after leaving the center. The buildings change from multi-story concrete blocks into Kumbha ghar, traditional homes built out of mud, clay, wood, bamboo, straw, and plastered with cow dung.

The dress is different too. Western clothing predominates in Daspalla town, but here brightly colored sarees and dhotis (long, unstitched pieces of cloth wrapped around a man’s waist and legs) are more common. The JRP field office, a relatively new building in the middle of the tribal area, stands out among the traditional mud houses. Newer isn’t necessarily better, however. The traditional homes stay cooler.

Although our visit was short, the itinerary was packed and I have to commend Surajita for her effectiveness and efficiency! In four days, we made wall paintings about the Neem start-up; interviewed tribal women; visited tribal homes; spent time with the cooperative of 50 women who are collecting Neem seeds; checked on the machines that will produce Neemola Oil out of Neem seeds; and visited green houses that are part of a JRP project to expand agricultural production in tribal areas.

Overall, the Neemola startup is in good shape. More than 50 women cooperative members have signed up for the program and are collecting Neem seeds. Two JRP field coordinators are providing updates on the quantity of seeds collected on a weekly basis to JRP’s base.

The machines and bottles will be ready come time for processing, and every community member we spoke with expressed interest in using the finished product.

At this stage, heat remains the biggest hurdle. Indeed, it is impossible to work or be productive during the heat of the day. Temperatures approaching 110°F, combined with humidity levels between 60-70%, can make it unsafe to go outside for more than a couple of hours in the morning and evening. It’s so intense that during the hottest moments, even the wind from riding a motorcycle feels like a blow-dryer.

The heat is probably the biggest hurdle for my colleague Surajita, who not only struggles with the heat herself but also faces challenges rallying people to engage with the startup in these conditions.

During downtime, people retreat to the shade and eat water rice, the local specialty. One hot afternoon, while relaxing under mango trees that were being harvested by local kids, I also discovered a new favorite fruit of mine: the sour, tangy Kendu!

Despite the tough conditions, this is a critically important startup. The infernal temperatures won’t last indefinitely. Soon, the rains will start, and mosquitos will once again proliferate. Odisha has the highest rate of malaria in India.

The tribal regions also face significant economic challenges. Most people relying on subsistence farming for their livelihoods, but the participation of women in these agricultural activities is limited. This startup offers women a chance to contribute to their household incomes by working just a few hours daily, providing a valuable supplement to their families’ financial well-being.

The work is hard, but Surajita is truly the ideal person for the job. Not only is she from the region, but she is also a competent and highly organized person who interacts with every community in the field with grace. Her friendliness is so infectious that traveling alongside her is effortless. No matter where we journeyed, we were greeted with welcoming smiles and gifts of fresh fruit.

Daspalla – with its natural beauty, friendly people, and delicious food – is wonderful. I look forward to returning when the weather is more manageable.


Adin Becker joins the fight against malaria