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Opinion: Environment, Gender

Building the Resilience of Smallholder Women Farmers in India

Reema Nanavaty Reema Nanavaty

Reema Nanavaty, Director of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), discusses the ways women can be better empowered in agriculture.

Women are the backbone of marginal farmer households in India. They work hard in the field, prepare meals, raise children, tend to animals and maintain the household. Given their intrinsic tendency to put family first, women are also the most affected during crises. Yet, these women are not often recognised formally as farmers.

Small-scale women farmers in the Global South face an array of issues in agriculture – such as lack of direct access to markets – as well as those deriving from unequal gender norms and practices. For instance, they often endure irregularity of work, low and unequal wages, fewer employment opportunities, lack of skill development as well as minimal income and food security even after working long hours. All of these difficulties are compounded by growing environmental challenges such as soil degradation, unseasonal rains, depleting water tables, and more. Rural households – and women in particular – are often left without adequate access to food. How is it possible for a farmer, someone who grows and produces food, to remain hungry?

Food security cannot be viewed in isolation. Instead, it must be approached together with nutrition security and sustainable agriculture, as well as access to agricultural inputs, the latest available technologies, and information, among others. Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has taken several simple yet innovative initiatives to facilitate access to climate-resilient agriculture and ensure nutritious food for our members.

Building resilient rural communities

SEWA has initiated a number of national and regional agriculture campaigns to support small-scale, marginalised women farmers. A working model for agricultural development was created which approaches the farm as an enterprise, shifting the focus from solely subsistence to profitability. Climate-resilient practices have been gradually interwoven into this model over the past several decades.

Under this agriculture campaign, the women farmers are organised into collectives based on the different crops they grow. This enables aggregation, increased negotiating capacity, and access to mainstream markets as well as financial and technical services.

Women farmers tending crops

Women farmers tending crops. Photo: SEWA

Small-scale female farmers in India are often not noted in land records, and as a result, they are not eligible to access government-certified subsidised seeds. To address this, SEWA is training women farmers to move towards regenerative farming practices. This entails reviving the traditional seed-bank concept wherein a few members from every district are trained in seed plotting (producing and preserving seeds from their harvest) which they can then sell locally in their village. This generates livelihood opportunities and enables access to good quality certified seeds for other smallholder women farmers in the village.

The Rural Distribution Network

One of SEWA’s pioneering initiatives is the Rural Distribution Network (RUDI) – a network in which the entire value chain is owned, managed and operated by low-income grassroots women workers. RUDI creates a rural supply chain that builds jobs, provides income for farmers and improves food and nutrition security at the household level. It does this by first procuring agricultural produce directly from small and marginal female farmers at fair prices, essentially eliminating the ‘middleman’ and enabling direct market access. Second, RUDI trains rural women to grade, process and package the produce. Lastly, a large team of trained saleswomen from vulnerable communities bring the affordable products to remote households.

Women using small machinery to close food packaging

Women processing food products. Photo: SEWA

RUDI positively impacts marginalised households in a number of ways. Approximately 15,000 small and marginal farmers sell their produce to RUDI every year, at their doorsteps for rates that are 20 to 30 per cent better than those offered by traders. More than 300 marginalised women are employed at RUDI processing centres, earning between 5,000 to 8,000 Indian Rupees (INR) per month. More than 4,000 saleswomen deliver RUDI products to rural households, earning them a monthly income between 2,000 to 10,000 INR.

Technology and services

In addition, SEWA supports small-scale farmers with agri-advisory services. By providing information about the weather, pest and disease, and sowing, farmers can adopt best practices and receive better returns for their crops. Typically, farmers depend on fellow farmers and input dealers for advice on such problems, but SEWA is helping small and marginal farmers build their resilience and make informed decisions.

Mobile phone technology can be a useful tool to better communicate with and educate farmers in these situations. It can help overcome the distance between farmers and resources and, at the same time, provide the necessary information. To this end, SEWA has started using the pre-recorded messages relayed over a voice call, which is then sent via WhatsApp. Voice Message Based Mobile Technology fills the information gap regarding weather prediction, crop advisory, the market price of commodities, government schemes related to agriculture, and more.

The way forward

The success of initiatives like RUDI under SEWA’s agriculture campaign has shown that if scaled up, they can help the sector become more sustainable, viable and profitable. In addition, they can help to address food and nutrition security challenges and improve energy access in rural areas. At the same time, generating livelihood opportunities in rural areas can curb rural emigration, mitigate poverty, reduce the carbon footprint of villages and, above all, provide income security to poor rural informal workers.

Cover photo: SEWA

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  1. urey kokeh says:

    Great initiative lunch by your team and hope to interface for better program in my country Liberia.