Queen Bee

Why is development professional Vijaya Pastala (ISC 1984) using bees to tackle poverty across Western India, and what has this got to do with your breakfast? The X-Cathedralite finds out

Vijaya Pastala bounds into our meeting at the end of a working day exuding energy. Dropping onto the sofa, she thrusts forward a sheaf of papers, “Come on Sunday! Bring the kids!” The event is a swimming gala during Joy of Giving Week, and she is pushing her cause – Bees for Poverty Reduction. Pastala was instrumental in this swimathon, conducted along the lines of the popular Mumbai Marathon. Her rationale: “I don’t run, I swim. So if runners can fundraise for causes, why can’t swimmers do it too?”

The same ‘just do it’ attitude seems to pervade the rest of Pastala’s life. Entrepreneur, mother, homemaker, social activist, the 45-year-old fills all roles with drive and enthusiasm.

The Early Years

After Cathedral, Pastala studied International Relations and Women’s Studies at Mount Holyoke College, followed by Regional Planning at MIT. An interest in rural

development—possibly piqued by early exposure to “the real India” through DEAS camps —led to a string of assignments at the World Bank, The Aga Khan Foundation and the European Commission among others. Her trajectory was one of a successful development professional focussed on livelihoods and natural resource management. But something happened along the way.

 The Shift

Pastala attributes the life-change to “being a late mom”. She explains, “I hesitantly embarked upon motherhood at 38, when my career was going very well. I soon discovered, however, that the joy and energy of parenting was something I was not experiencing through work. That’s when I started the questioning process.” Pastala researched opportunities in the fields of agriculture and rural development, looking for excitement, meaning and flexibility. She laughingly reminisces about Cathedral friends Naheed Carrimjee and Sophie Moochalla being at the receiving end of an endless barrage of ideas (both are on the board of her company today). The actual epiphany occurred in the apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh, where she discovered farmers bringing in bees at flowering time to help with pollination.

The Bees

“Of all natural cross pollinators, bees can be domesticated,” Pastala explains, pointing out that crop production could increase as much as 200% with bee boxes or artificial hives. She soon embarked on a venture —funded by her own savings — to promote low cost beekeeping as a way to increase agricultural productivity and provide additional income for farmers. Once the bees came, honey was a natural next step. With her Cathedral and Mount Holyoke network, ideas rolled into action and she was soon retailing her own brand of fair-trade, single flora, organic honey, Under the Mango Tree (UTMT). Pastala is quick to point out that she uses indigenous honeybee species, and no antibiotics. She also guarantees market access and surplus honey to farmers, making UTMT a unique enterprise with both for-profit and non-profit divisions.

The Future

Photo Credits: Priyam Dhar & Charlotte Anderson

Pastala, whose son Yohan is in Junior School (a Wilsonite, she happily notes), finds the challenge of the work-life balancing act exciting and “what keeps me going”. Before parting she speaks emphatically of her desire to influence government agricultural policy with respect to honey, to directly influence the lives of 20,000 farmers, and to expand the urban beekeeping programme in Mumbai. It all seems likely in the foreseeable future since Vijaya Pastala, whose semi-official designation at UTMT is Queen Bee, can probably do anything that she sets her mind to.

By Miel Sahgal (ISC 1989)

Photo Credit: Priyam Dhar & Charlotte Anderson