By Moin Qazi*
There is a tempest in India’s farmlands even as their tillers wage an extraordinary crusade for alleviating age-old distresses. Away from the bustle of the raging storm in the Delhi-National Capital Region is a small semi-literate group of women farmers in a remote hinterland who are assiduously managing a farmer producer company (FPC) to help alleviate the woes of other women growers in Satara.
The Mann Deshi Farmer Producer Company (MDFPC) plans to organise 12,000 small and marginal growers (70 per cent of whom are women) to secure better prices for their agricultural produce. The MDFPC was founded by Chetna Gala Sinha, the well-known social entrepreneur who is shepherding a rural revolution in western Maharashtra. The epicenter of this movement is Mhaswad, a large village that nestles in Satara district, on the placid banks of the Manganga River, some 300 km south-east of Mumbai. A 45-year-old woman farmer Vanita Pise is the co-founder of the MDFPC. However, she does not let the fact that she is semi-literate stop her from trying to better the lot of growers like her.
On account of adversities at home, Vanita couldn’t study beyond class IX. She married a farmer in Mhaswad when she was 17. Within a week she was required to take charge of the family poultry. She had never entered a poultry shed before. With persistence and tenacity, she was able to grasp the entire operations. When the poultry business had to be wound up after an outbreak of bird flu, she became a daily wage labourer. The failed business left the family with a debt of Rs 55,000. It was at this time that Vanita came to know of Mann Deshi Bank and its work with rural women. She approached them and secured a loan for a buffalo. Luckily for Vanita, within a week the buffalo delivered a calf. The enterprising woman started selling the milk. With her earnings, she repaid the loan in six months. Vanita took another loan and bought a machine for manufacturing paper cups. Six months later 10 women of her village, impressed by Vanita’s success, approached her to help them set up similar units.
Sadly, their ventures could not succeed and she had to face a backlash from them. Undeterred by this setback, Vanita went back to the Mann Deshi, and took a course in financial management from their business school. Her experience in business, farming and grassroots community mobilisation came in handy when the group decided to set up the MDFPC. It was clear to Vanita that the future of small farmers lay in collectivising themselves. In this model, scattered small farms are systematically aggregated and provided centralised production, post-harvest and marketing services. This helps reduce the transaction costs of the farms for accessing the value chains and makes it easier for small farmers to access inputs, technology and the market.
The task was not easy. Vanita and her team faced several challenges, most of them related to the contentious issue of categorisation of women as farmers. In the registration process, they were told by the officials concerned that since women did not own farms they could not be classified as farmers. Similar hiccups continued but now that they have been able to make this venture a success. Vanita now wants to spread the word so that other women farmers like her can replicate her success. “Women have come a long way in several fields. They are also the mainstay of farming, doing much of the primary work in the fields. Ironically they cannot claim themselves to be farmers because they don’t own the land they till. It is in the name of their husbands. This makes a huge difference to their economic and social status and disqualifies them from several official development benefits,” avers Vanita.
The FPC was finally registered when the husbands certified that their wives were coparceners in their land parcels. Since then the MDFPC has been trying to make women farmers coparceners in their husband’s property and registering these women as members in the FPC. Vanita’s work as the team leader is very challenging. She has to oversee all major operations at the company. She has to supervise aggregation of the farm produce and the entire intermediate operations leading to despatch of consignments to the market. This includes sorting and grading and organising the logistics in the supply chain. Vanita explains her business model: “Our model of procurement is different and is done through weekly farm bazaars. Women farmers are contacted and we send vehicles to their homes to procure the agricultural produce. In addition to vegetables and grains we also deal in processing and manufacturing products including hard toffee, syrups, flaxseed chutneys, amla candy, pickles among other products.”
Though the FPC was formed two years ago, it has been operating informally for the last couple of years. The company deals in both perishables and non-perishables. About four truckloads of vegetables are sent to Mumbai daily and these are supplied to 5-star hotels and local retail outfits. The MDFPC’s formal journey began in September 2018 with onions, a highly uncertain and volatile crop. The reason for severe and frequent price shocks for onions is the production fluctuations and changes in the nature of demand. The FPC helped the farmers grow high quality onions so that they could get a better price. “We struggled a great deal but succeeded in our efforts albeit partially. Getting a market was difficult because Mhaswad is geographically not well-connected and we face several logistical impediments”, admits Vanita.
“Bringing women farmers on a common platform, designing appropriate crop patterns, aggregating and marketing the produce requires rigorous planning and execution. Some enterprising women have been able to sell their produce in Mumbai markets and got good value for it, too. But it is important to get more women farmers enrolled in the collective and make them align their crop pattern with the market”, says Vanita.
Meanwhile, the FPC inked an agreement with a leading company that wanted to export okra. The members were excited with the opportunity and 16 women joined the project. Unfortunately, things didn’t work as per the plans. The agreement, which was worded in technical English, stipulated that agronomists would visit the farmers and guide them on quality control, which actually didn’t happen. The FPC had to compensate the counter party because they couldn’t fulfil the contractual commitments. However, the women learnt an important lesson: When you want to survive and prosper despite the competition, you have to maintain quality and honour every term of the contract. In addition, timely delivery is important.
This learning came handy in a recent contract. The FPC received an order for 11,000 kg of pulses. The grain was to be supplied in 22,000 packets of 500 grams each. The FPC approached the women farmers in Latur, who grabbed the opportunity. In just eight days, the women coordinated the entire chain consisting of harvesting, aggregating, packaging and other logistics. At the last moment, the team found a bug in one of the cartons. They decided to recheck the entire consignment. It took the women an entire day but it made them understand the importance of quality and the credibility of the seller that hinges on the consignment.
“During this project, I found that many women farmers store pulses at home and not in warehouses because of the logistical and transport issues. These women would prefer warehouses if they could be assured of a loan against the pledge of warehouse receipts”, adds Vanita.
She believes that the best gift for farmers would be to initiate practical solutions for their basic problems. The Government has introduced three new farm laws. And there has been a mixed reaction to them. Vanita feels this can work only if proper infrastructure is created through warehouses, cold storages and other support systems. Farmers are capable of producing good quality crops if they get the required extension services, such as soil-testing, advisory in agro-economics and so on. Instead of grandiose reforms, the farmers need solutions to their fundamental problems. This cannot be done by NGOs alone. The Government will have to actively invest in it. It is also important to build the capacity of FPCs. In the Budget last year the Finance Minister had announced a plan to form 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) over a period of five years. “This will require extensive government support. We women farmers hope that our collective will get the necessary support from all stakeholders”, says Vanita.
Vanita is quite upbeat with her own as well as her women farmers’ journey towards empowerment: “I feel proud that I have come a long way and women farmers repose trust in me. Before I got associated with Mann Deshi, I was too shy to even speak to my neighbours. And today I’m the first woman from my village to have gone abroad by myself on work!”