With the wind beneath our wings, we soar together and higher

 Ranjitha Puskur, Soma Bhattacharjee, Deepti Saksena, and Mukund Variar   |  

The Farmer Producer Company has ushered in a new era of farming practices with tangible socio-economic benefits and more, especially for the women farmers.  The women are now empowered and brimming with confidence having acquired leadership skills and farming-related knowledge.

Women paddy seed growers attend training on mat nurseries usage for machine transplanting at Ichhapur Village in Dharamgarh, Kalahandi (Photo: IRRI India)

Women paddy seed growers attend training on mat nurseries usage for machine transplanting at Ichhapur Village in Dharamgarh, Kalahandi (Photo: IRRI India)

Dutika Pujari (23 years old), Hemanti Pujari (30), Pramila Gopal (42), and Dharani Gopal (36) are women farmers that have something else in common: they all endeavored to improve their well-being, social, economic, and health status. Today, they are proud shareholders of the Adarsh Dharmagarh Women Farmers Services Producer Company Ltd (ADWFSPCL) in Kalahandi in the Indian state of Odisha.

Women with dreams take the first step
Until recently, women farmers in the area were struggling to meet their needs and keep up with their sustenance. To become food self-sufficient, farmers should have constant access to quality seed of acceptable and suitable varieties that are affordable. Without access to institutional credit, marginal farmers depend on village mandies (wholesale markets) and moneylenders for loans.

“Our agriculture depended solely on monsoon rains.” said Ms. Gopal. “The cost of farming was high as we procured seeds from local mandies at a high price. We also paid for our transport to and from the mandies.”

“Three years ago, I had to mortgage my jewelry to buy seeds” recalled Ms. Dutika Pujari sadly. “We neither had knowledge of new methods of cultivation nor awareness about different varieties of paddy suitable for our soil.”

In 2018, these women farmers took the first step towards realizing their dream of having their own identity and economic empowerment through the opportunity provided by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment (DAFE) in Odisha, and Access Livelihoods Consulting India (ALCI). ALCI is a social enterprise that promotes producer enterprises that transform lives and usher greater self-reliance. It also works at the macro level to shape the livelihood environment.

A survey with 300 women farmers, a feasibility study, and stakeholder analysis in 2018 formed the basis for developing the business plans focused on enterprises in rice agri-food systems.

Nurturing women leaders
ADWFSPCL is a women-led and managed Farmer Producer Company (FPC), aiming to work with 3,000 women farmers in Kalahandi District.

An FPC is a hybrid between a private limited company and a cooperative society that benefits from the professional management of a private limited company and the mutual benefits derived from a cooperative society. FPCs are registered under the special provisions of the Companies Act 1956, where its members have legal provisions for sharing of profit earned by the producer organizations commensurate with the volume of business.

The FPC is governed by a 10-member board of directors who are all women, including the president and the vice president. There are currently 1,751 members in the FPC of age ranging from 23 to 50 years, with an average age of 35.

A household needs to own at least 0.2-hectare of land to qualify as an FPC member. Some of these households have uncultivated wasteland and have also become members opting to start poultry enterprises and pulse cultivation. Each FPC member pays about USD 33.00 as share capital at the time of joining.

Adarsh Sathis are appointed to work closely with the women farmers each, covering at least 30-40 families per village. Adarsh Saathis are local resource persons trained and placed in villages to support the transactional activities of FPC services. They are identified by the community and perform the role of endpoint service agents of the FPC. They are paid for doing tasks such as procuring seed, generating orders for agricultural inputs, delivering groceries,  collecting baseline data, selling paddy seed, and others. Adarsh Saathis also provide technical support to the farmers. ALCI and FPC directors conduct monthly reviews and monitoring to guide and track the management of the FPC.

It is noteworthy to mention that the Aadarsh Saathis in the FPC in Kalahandi are all women. Evidence shows that women farmers who worked with female extension agents showed relatively higher levels of awareness of and participation in extension activities and technical knowledge of recommended technologies and practices. The research also showed that female extension workers led to higher adoption of modern practices among women farmers.

Women farmers distributing fertilizer in Kundamal Village, Dharamgarh, Kalahandi. (Photo: IRRI India)

Women farmers distributing fertilizer in Kundamal Village, Dharamgarh, Kalahandi. (Photo: IRRI India)

Reaching out to small farmers

The FPC started service for agricultural input supply such as seed, fertilizers, and bio-pesticides. It procured seeds and fertilizer from traders at wholesale prices and sold them to its members at prices lower than the prevailing market price. It distributed diammonium phosphate, urea, and potash enabling about 650 members to meet their fertilizer requirement.

Stock points have been established from which representatives of women affinity groups collect the required amount of inputs for their group and distribute them to their members.

“Initially, only large farmers were registering with us,” said Smt. Sabita Nayak, president of the FPC. “But now, as the benefits of being a member of FPC are becoming more visible, small farmers are also joining.”

Thanks to the FPC, Ms. Dutika Pujari, who used to mortgage her jewelry just to buy seeds, now has a much better alternative to the local mandies and a better outlook on life.

“Because we were dependent on local mandies for seeds we were always burdened with huge debts from the local moneylenders and private landlords,” she said. “We don’t feel the same way today. Our self-respect and confidence have been restored. I had never left my village in my entire life. Having participated in two exposure visits with the FPC, I am now confident to travel and interact with people even outside my state!”

The paddy seed processing unit at Boden Village in Dharamgarh. The processed seeds will be sold under the Creyo brand. (Photo IRRI India).

The paddy seed processing unit at Boden Village in Dharamgarh. The processed seeds will be sold under the Creyo brand. (Photo IRRI India).

Changing the seed market

It is not only the lives of the women farmers who are changing. The FPC is also changing the nature of the seed market.

“About 180 FPC members, including ADWFSPCL, produce paddy seed,” said Smt. Reena Patel, vice president of FPC. “During the last kharif, the FPC procured the seed of three rice varieties after ensuring quality standards from 149 members amounting to around 241 tons. The members sold the unprocessed seed at USD 251.00/ton.

“If farmers sold their seeds to mandies or to middlemen, it would have fetched them only about USD 200.00 or even lower per ton,” she added. “In addition, the cost of transport to go to the mandies is quite high. A paddy seed processing unit has been set up in Boden Village and the processed seed will be sold under the Creyo brand”.

In the next two years, the FPC plans to increase production to 2,000 tons.

“FPC now directly purchases the foundation seed from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-National Rice Research Institute and Krishi Vigyan Kendra and distributes it among its members for seed production as per the requirement, making the process cost-effective and organized,” Ms. Patel said.

The benefits of credits
All FPC member farmers now also enjoy the benefits of credit facility for buying fertilizers from FPC. The farmers need to repay the principal amount six months after harvest of the crop. However, an interest rate of 18% has to be paid annually. This is 7-8% lower than what local moneylenders charged the women who usually borrowed from them.

“I joined the group so that I don’t have to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining agriculture loans from the banks,” said Ms. Hemanti Pujari. “As a woman I face particular challenges without the land title in my name. Now, I can also avail other kinds of support from FPC where we are the shareholders. I can benefit from the continuous training, exposure visits, and technical support provided by IRRI and ALCI.”

From marginal invisible farmers to knowledge-rich business women…
“Registering with FPC, the members are planning to cultivate paddy in both the kharif and rabi seasons,” said Aparajita, one of the FPC directors. “They have widely adopted line transplantation. They have now learned to preserve seeds with the correct moisture content and the method to use healthy seeds at sowing by dipping the seed lots in salt solution and removing the floating seeds”.

“We continued farming the way we always did until IRRI and ALCI came into the picture,” Ms. Dutika Pujari said with a smile.

“The business perspective of women farmers has improved manifold. Through exposure visits, the women farmers are now aware of other livelihood options,” Aparajita added. “Women farmers of the FPC are also planning for bio-fertilizer production and sale and other enterprises like wholesale grocery distribution, chatua production, mushroom cultivation, poultry, and aquaculture.”

An FPC member with packed paddy seed ready for the market. (Photo: IRRI India)

An FPC member with packed paddy seed ready for the market. (Photo: IRRI India)

And future leaders
“Our women farmers have developed leadership qualities, the impact of which can be seen in the next two to three years,” said Ms. Patel. “They are now capable of analyzing the performance and assessing the profitability and suitability of enterprises and make decisions and plans for the following year on their own. Additionally, they are now aware that year-round crop cultivation is possible and that it could improve their livelihoods”.

All the members unanimously agree on the positive impacts of FPC on their lives. They all felt empowered with confidence, leadership skills, and farming-related knowledge. They acknowledged the support and appreciation of their work and achievements from their family members and their community. They are unified in their vision to elevate their FPC to match the bigger and more established ones they have seen in Kesingha and outside the state.

“We need the support of ALCI and IRRI for a few more years,” FPC member Bhabisya Hati said. “After which we should be able to manage on our own. We are also planning to have life insurance for our families shortly.”

Spreading their wings
The women farmers also expressed the need for more training on machinery usage, seed-specific and pest-specific management techniques, pesticide use, water and drainage management, drought-resistant cropping, and rabi crop cultivation. They also require technical and input support for crops other than paddy, particularly vegetables.

“Farmers, even after being trained in machine transplantation, still use manual transplanting as they do not have support from either the agriculture department or banks to procure mechanical transplanters,” Assistant Agriculture Officer Hemananda Majhi said. “In 2021, the FPC plans to procure some machines and set up a Custom Hiring Center in time for the kharif.”

The FPC has ushered in a new era of farming practices with tangible socio-economic benefits, especially for the women farmers. This became the wind beneath their wings that has enabled them to soar!

Dr. Puskur is the Livelihoods, Gender, and Nutrition research lead at IRRI. Ms. Bhattacharjee is a consultant at AUXIN. Ms. Saksena is a communication specialist at IRRI India. Dr. Variar is a state coordinator of the IRRI-Odisha Project.

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