Training women to take charge of the fresh fruit market in India
India is the second largest producer of the lychee fruit. But for the women producers tending lychee orchards in the state of Bihar, life was not so sweet. A notoriously difficult fruit to tend, harvest and get to market before it perishes, women in Muzaffarpur were accustomed to leasing their trees to middle-men. These middle-men would harvest the lychee, sell it, and pay the farmers a verbally agreed sum, capturing most of the fruit’s final value for themselves. Often, they only paid a fraction of the promised sum.
In 2016, TechnoServe launched an initiative to help women smallholder farmers participate more equitably in the fresh fruit market, known as the Women’s Advancement in Rural Development and Agriculture (WARDA) program. That’s where they met Chanda Devi.
30 years old and a mother of two, she is the Chairperson of the all-women farmer producer group Samarpan JEEViKA Mahila Kisan Producer Company Limited (SJMKPCL). She was elected to the post by a large majority in 2013 after working as a community mobilizer for over a year, facilitating eleven female self-help groups. Her role included helping them to keep accounts, and keeping them updated on improved farming practices.“When I was voted the Chairperson of the group, I was overwhelmingly happy,” says Chanda. “I never knew I was so liked by my women members. Everyone in my house – my husband, my mother-in-law – was very happy with this news. Being voted as the Chairperson brought along with it many responsibilities to be fulfilled.”
Now, Chanda is helping spearhead the program to ensure women are receiving the technical assistance they need to tend to their lychee trees themselves, allowing them to get the prices they deserve at the market.
“The farmers were unaware of the actual value of the fruit in consumer markets,” says Chanda. “That’s why they found it more convenient to lease their orchards out to middle-men than tending them all by themselves.”
SJMKPCL trained the women on how to irrigate at the right times to maximize soil moisture, to use crop protection products and take good care of the orchards. They were also taught a specific fertilizer regime, that would ensure the trees got the right type of fertilizer at the right time of year and in the right quantity, to promote optimum growth.
In addition, they signed 23 pre-harvest contracts with 130 women farmer members who produced 32 metric tons of lychee, which was sold to big buyers. The revenue generated by SJMKPCL has increased from 0.5 to 2.5 million Indian Rupees in 2017. Over 260 female farmers have been trained on orchard management practices.
Chanda herself knows the value that increased income can bring to a family. She first applied for her role as Community Mobilizer when her family was struggling to survive on her husband’s income from his one-hectare cereal farm. She attributes her success to the support of her family.
“Women, when given the right opportunities, are most likely to seize them and become successful at the same time,” she says. “The most important factor, however, in them being successful is the support from their family – especially her husband and in-laws.”
But the benefits do not end there.
“The women members who have benefitted from the group are now more vocal about their concerns that they face both at their homes and farms. They are more confident as they have learnt how small savings, when combined, can bring big fortunes.”
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
“South Asia has one of the lowest rates in the world of women’s participation in the labour force,” says Anja Rabezanahary, who works on gender and social inclusion at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
“Less than 35 per cent of women are engaged in paid work. While agriculture employs over 60 per cent of the economically active women, they comprise only 35 per cent of the total agricultural labour force. Only 7 per cent of farm holders are women. Women are generally far less able to access extension services, credit and production assets.”
“Norms and traditions in South Asia still exclude women from profitable economic opportunities. From an early age, gender ratios are skewed owing to a continued preference for boys in society, at least in part because of the dowry system,” she adds.
“Women in South Asia are key actors in agricultural production and processing. However, value chain development activities can result in men taking over profitable activities performed by women, or confiscating the income these activities generate. Women’s decision-making power in the household is low compared to other Asian regions. For instance, only 57 per cent of women in the poorest quintile have some say in deciding on visits to relatives. The percentage is higher in richest quintile and goes up to 71 per cent.”
“More women like Chanda can be empowered. To do this, self-help groups need to be further strengthened to increase decision-making and economic power of women. The groups offer a safe place for discussion, and women hold control of working capital and profits, preventing them from appropriation by husbands and male relatives.”
“Second, women-specific value chains must be supported by providing microcredit, technical and social trainings to improve household-level gender relations.”
“Dedicated human resources for gender issues at IFAD have improved gender outcomes, advocacy and networking. For instance, in India, country-level gender coordinators have provided direct support to project design and supervision and convened annual gender network meetings of IFAD-funded project staff.”
Photo credits: Suzanne Lee