As per the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census, about 80% of India's poor live in rural areas. Though India's GDP has steadily grown by 6.5% over last decade, however "low income states (LIS)", with large proportion of rural population primarily engaged in agriculture, have fallen further behind. Thus poverty is now increasingly concentrated in the LIS. Growth in farm & allied sectors however during this period remained stagnant at <2%, thus a critical challenge is the crisis faced by smallholder farmers (SHF), also recognized by the government which is now talking about doubling farmer incomes. There has been a steady increase in productivity in key agriculture crops since Green Revolution, however low productivity of SHF in the hilly, undulating, unirrigated regions (HUUR) especially in the eastern parts, which broadly come under Agro-climatic zone-VII of India, is a concern. Small land fragments, rain-fed areas, remoteness, poor extension services, rudimentary technologies, lack of input & access to terminal commodity markets contribute to the current situation. Lack of land ownership, little voice in decision making, almost no presence in markets of both men and women from SHF families, non-recognition of women as farmers in govt. programmes- all serve to 'invisibilize' women's role in farming. Empowering women becomes all the more critical with increasing feminization of agriculture.

While talking about farming systems, there is also a conspicuous neglect to develop the livelihoods based upon small ruminants and local poultry birds, which are an important source of income for SHF & holds tremendous potential. Thus the multiplicity of factors requires different stakeholders to work on various fronts.

"LEAP - Livelihoods Enhancement through market Access and women emPowerment", a two-year project supported by a philanthropic grant from the Walmart Foundation that aimed to impact lives and livelihoods of 45,000 small holder women farmers (population of about 225,000 people), across the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal in India, was launched in July 2020.

About 70% of the target communities were from the indigenous communities, recognised as Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) communities and another 27% were from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities. A majority of these are small and marginal farmers and a small section are landless families.

The proposed project sites are characterised by hilly, undulating & forested terrain with high concentration of Tribal communities; red laterite soil & moderate to good rainfall (1000mm- 1400mm annually). The population is predominantly rural (between 80%-90%) with an overwhelming majority of households (HHs) earning their livelihoods (LLs) from paddy monocrop centric rain-fed farming with little crop diversification. Low farm incomes are supplemented by other means such as livestock rearing (country fowl & goats). The above aspects make the region ideally suited for a wide variety of LL systems & a potential engine for future growth. This required systematic investments in building capacities of Small- Holder Families (SHFs), supporting them to acquire productive assets & enhance access to market services. Key enabling conditions for community participation needed to be created through engagement of professionals at the grassroots to facilitate women & men from marginalized HHs to collectivize & embark on ventures to improve their LLs & wellbeing. The project pro- actively targeted deprived communities in endemic poverty regions to bring them into the mainstream development efforts.

PRADAN collaborated with Walmart Foundation in these regions to unleash growth in agriculture sector that was synergized by building robust value chains of vegetables, cereals, horticulture crops & livestock. The objective was to create opportunities for the SHFs to sustainably double their income over 2 years and take them irreversibly above the Poverty Line.

The LEAP project, supported women who were already mobilised into Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and collectivised into informal production clusters, to take up agriculture and allied activities through synchronized production and market interface. These informal producer collectives have since evolved into 13 formal Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), and interventions are in progress towards strengthening of these institutions through streamlining of accounting, governance and other process and enhancing their ability to gainfully engage with the market players.

Some of the key outputs of the project, concluded in September 2022, include:

  • Training and capacity development of almost 42,000 (the number is 41,880 – see what you want to use) women farmers on adoption of improved and sustainable agriculture practices, and over 16,000 (the number is 16,338) women farmers on adoption of modern animal husbandry practices. This was done by organizing small holder women farmers into Producer Groups to take up synchronized production and marketing of identified commodities, identified as ‘winner crops’ – crops that suited the local soil and climatic conditions, farmers had earlier experiencing of raising them, and they had a good market potential in the local and adjacent areas. Similarly, Integrated Livestock Producer Groups were engaged in rearing of goat and backyard poultry.
  • Development of 514 Producer Groups of 50,000 (49,519) women farmers (net number across all value- chains) from Small Holder Households involved in agriculture, goat and poultry rearing activities, which have evolved into 13 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs), governed, managed and controlled by women.
  • 85 Agri-entrepreneurs (AEs) from the local community were also promoted to provide various services and advisory support to the women farmers involved in the Producer Groups, for increased access to improved inputs, and aggregation and collective selling services in local and terminal markets.
  • Ecosystem and infrastructure support was ensured by mobilizing around $11.46 Mn of public funds (through government development schemes) as direct grants to farmers for investment in developing water harvesting, irrigation, land treatment. Irrigation cover in lands of the smallholder farmers was increased from 22% to over 29% over the project period. Enhancement in use of farm machinery & amplification of mechanization for drudgery reduction of women.

The project interventions resulted in 63% project households (HHs) reporting an increase in incomes over the project period, with the HHs in the less than INR 50,000 p.a. income going down from 26.4% to 10.3% and those in the more than INR 75,000 p.a. income going up from 31.8% to 67.2%. It was also encouraging to note that women had an increasing role in the decision regarding use and deployment of the increased incomes with 57% project participants investing their additional incomes for education of their children, 53% households setting aside savings for the future, and 29% reported investing the incomes for purchase of agriculture assets like pump sets, sprayer, etc.

Muni Heprika, a woman belonging to the Kandha tribe from Karagadi village of Kolnara block in Rayagada district of Odisha, shares her story of transformation: “I was married off when I was 25, into a household consisting of nine members. The challenge was to provide food for all from four acres of land – our only possession. We used to grow paddy, finger millet, and sunflower for their own consumption, and cotton for cash income and earn INR 20,000 in a year.” Rs. 20,000 a year! Well, for a family size of nine it meant a little more than INR 2,000 for a year, rather INR 167 a month, for every member. What would one exactly do with that amount? Buy food? Buy medicines? Spend on education? Repair the roof that was leaking each time it rained since last monsoon?

An income of INR 20,000 by selling their cotton was clearly insufficient to meet all the household expenses. While Muni continued with her struggles to make both ends meet, from her SHG meetings she started learning about changes in agriculture practices that some of the smallholder farmers, like Muni, from nearby villages, had started adopting. Concerted efforts towards synchronised vegetable cultivation, as per market demand held the key for a paradigm shift, realised smallholder farmers like Muni.

“At first I didn’t believe what they were saying. None of us did in fact. It’s only when I went to those villages, and saw all of it myself, it started sinking in. I took my husband and a few of my group members also along with me. There we saw that with just a little planning, and some knowledge about how the market functions, those farmers had started earning between INR 70,000 – 80,000 from each acre of land. When we looked at ourselves, we found that it’s mainly because of the lack of knowledge and assurance of marketing that we could never think of investing in vegetable farming”, reminisces Muni.

Muni joined Maa Gangeidevi Producer Group (PG) in 2021 which was a part of the Mahila Pragati Farmer Producers Company Limited, promoted under the LEAP project, to grow brinjals in the upcoming monsoon. For a beginning, Muni decided to use only 0.75 acre of their four-acre arable land to experiment with brinjal farming. Members of the FPO assured her of selling the entire produce. “I had a sense that I was going to succeed with their help. They had already started arranging various trainings, on nursery raising, crop care, how to protect crops from pest-attacks (IPM or Integrated Pest Management) and organic medicine preparation conducted under the LEAP project. Without the support from the FPO, it would never have been possible for me to plunge into brinjal cultivation”, shares Muni gratefully.

Muni sold eight-tonnes of brinjal by 31st March 2022 and earned INR 122,914. The FPO provided all quality inputs for Muni’s brinjal farm, and gave her support with marketing services at the door step with a full guarantee of payment. The collective marketing system helped her to sell her entire produce. Earlier, her family could manage INR 167 on an average for every member per month, and now it is Rs. 1137 per member a month – almost a seven times increase! Not just additional income, it also gave her the much-desired self- confidence, recognition and acceptance in her family and in the community as well. The persons who were opposing Muni Didi have changed their minds and have accepted vegetable (brinjal) cultivation whole heartedly. Muni was all smiles after the cultivation season, as she had brought about a remarkable change in the field of agriculture as well as in the thought process of the community. She not only managed all the household expenses from this income but has also saved some for her child’s education. Her status and decision- making power in her family are greatly enhanced; her ideas and vision are positively accepted in the community.

Such stories of change and empowerment abound in the LEAP project. However, to maintain and grow the momentum created through social mobilisation and formation of economic groups like Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), efforts are required to ensure that these FPOs becomes self-sustaining business entities, who are able to interact and negotiate with various market actors, community institutions and the local administration on their own.

Walmart Foundation supported ‘PROWFIT’ (Prowess of organized ResOurces & Women- farmers for transforming FPOs into Independent insTitutions) initiative launched in October 2022, is a concerted effort in that direction. The 30-month project intends to nurture 60 women-led FPOs (including the 13 FPOs registered during the LEAP project) in NGO partner PRADAN’s work areas, with membership of women from small, marginal farm holders and mostly tribal households in the poverty pockets of eastern India. This would empower nearly 0.12 million (120,000) women creating viable smallholder businesses with total cumulative annual turnover of INR 2,400 Mn ($32 Mn) (base average additional earnings unlocked of $266 per women small and marginal farm holders). Besides support in development of business plans, the project also provides for building necessary systems and processes and governance of the FPOs and linking them to technology and financial services partners, and the relevant National or State Government programs. For example 29 of the FPOs being nurtured under the project will be able to leverage under the Government of India Scheme, "Formation and Promotion of 10,000 Farmer Produce Organizations (FPOs)", which lays down a clear strategy and resources to facilitate small and marginal farmers with access to improved technology, credit, better input and more markets to enhance quality and value realisation of their produce through promotion of 10,000 new FPOs. The long- term vision for the project is to bring a new functional and aspirational approach to improving rural livelihoods for small and marginal farming households in the Tribal regions of the eastern states of the country, potentially making villages much better places to live in, with equal say in livelihoods decision making and control over income and spending for women like Muni Heprika.

Talking on the occasion of the launch of PROWFIT project, Avijit Choudhury, Integrator at PRADAN mentioned, "Our partnership with Walmart Foundation through the LEAP and PROWFIT projects is very significant for not only creating the identity of marginalised, rural women as 'women farmers' but also helping in establishing them as business leaders and entrepreneurs, with the registration and support to more than 60 women-led FPOs."

PRADAN is one of the premier NGOs working on poverty alleviation in India. It recruits and trains young professionals from reputed institutions to engage with poor communities at the grassroots; helping transform lives at a large scale, by strengthening community institutions, building social capital, and supporting local leadership to take charge of their own development. Basis our programs and pilots impacting 1,947,979 rural households prototypes have been developed for wide- scale replication. PRADAN is a National Support Organisation for the Government of India (DAY-NRLM) and five State Governments (SRLMs).  We partner with three State Governments for their natural resource management and agriculture programs.