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The Increasing Role Of Women Farmers Who Work With The Soil

The Economic Survey 2017-18 says that with growing rural to urban migration by men, there is ‘feminisation’ of the agriculture sector, with an increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers.

Women’s participation in rural labour markets varies considerably across regions, but invariably women are over-represented in unpaid, seasonal, and part-time work, and the available evidence suggests that women are often paid less than men, for the same work.

India’s poor soil status

A recent report (April 2022), by The State of Biofertilizers and Organic Fertilizers in India, flagged the poor status of soil health and increasing utilization of chemical fertilizers in India.

The report says that between 2015–16 and 2018–19, more than five crore soil samples from across India were tested in government-approved laboratories to understand the state of the country’s soils. The results revealed a severe and widespread deficiency of organic carbon and micronutrients in Indian soils. About 85 percent of the samples were deficient in organic carbon; 97 percent of samples were deficient in available nitrogen; 83 percent samples were deficient in phosphorus, and 71 percent samples were deficient in potassium. At least half of the samples from 24 states and union territories were deficient in organic carbon.

Historically, Indian agricultural soils have been generally deficient in carbon, and traditional farm-yard manure (FYM) has been used to replenish carbon and nutrients in the soil. Farmyard manure refers to the decomposed mixture of dung and urine of farm animals along with litter and leftover material from roughages or fodder fed to the cattle. But, with decreasing livestock, the availability of farmyard manure waste is declining, leading to reduced productivity in agriculture and also higher input costs. The narrative that livestock causes the emission of green-house gases has taken a toll on regenerative practices that were so important to reclaim soils and farmers are now falling into the trap of using chemical fertilisers. Grasslands meant for livestock are taken up for agriculture too, further degrading the soil.

The report also mentions that more than 50 per cent of the chemical fertilizers consumed in India are in the form of urea and that the total subsidy on chemical fertilizers is steeply growing every year. In 2020–21, the annual subsidy bill was Rs 1,31,230 crore, which is more than 10 times the subsidy bill in 2001–02 (Rs 12,908 crore).

In contrast, only a negligible 0.04 per cent of the total subsidy on fertilizers was provided for city compost and even this was discontinued from October 2021. This is worrisome as chemical fertiliser overuse can contribute to soil acidification and soil crust, thereby reducing the content of organic matter, humus content, beneficial species, stunting plant growth, altering the pH of the soil, growing pests, and even leading to the release of greenhouse gases. We are also seeing that when there is a lot of tillage, no cover crops, the soil just doesn’t function properly.

Composting, as we know, is the natural process of recycling organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants and is a good way to keep wet waste away from landfills.

SBM and composting as a substitute to farmyard manure

India currently produces close to 1.5 lakh tonnes of solid waste every day. Its biodegradable fraction ranges between 30 percent and 70 percent for various Indian cities. This means there is a huge potential for composting, the most natural form of processing wet waste. The Swachh Bharat Mission had committed to ensuring that all organic waste produced in Indian cities is processed into making compost by October 2019. But unfortunately, not even 5 percent of organic waste generated by cities is converted into compost.

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The biodegradable fraction of a city’s municipal waste can be easily processed in aerobic/ vermicomposting to produce city compost.  The compost from city garbage not just provides carbon and primary or secondary nutrients to the soil, but helps keep the city clean. Hence, this has the potential to substitute traditional farmyard manure (FYM) and function as a nutrient enhancer as well as a soil conditioner. Studies have shown that using compost from urban organic waste streams has shown encouraging results in terms of agricultural productivity, especially compared to other sources of organic matter.

However, the city compost as a soil conditioner and farmyard substitute has not been very popular. As mentioned earlier, the Government of India had provided a subsidy of ₹1500/ ton to promote the use of city compost but with limited success. Hence, it was evident that innovative business models have to be developed and demonstrated to encourage the widespread use and distribution of compost.

Soil & Gender

The other interesting aspect to agriculture in India is that the sector employs 80 percent of all economically active women in India; they comprise 33 percent of the agriculture labour force and 48 percent of the self-employed farmers. The Economic Survey 2017-18 says that with growing rural to urban migration by men, there is ‘feminisation’ of the agriculture sector, with an increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers.

Almost 50 percent of rural female workers are classified as agricultural labourers and 37 percent as cultivators. About 70 percent of farm work was performed by women which included, main crop production, livestock production, horticulture, post-harvesting operations, agro/social forestry, and fishing. They are found to work on their farms or other farms as paid labour. Even in plant nurseries, 85 per cent of work is done by the women such as sowing, nursery management, transplanting, weeding, irrigation, fertilizer application, plant protection, harvesting, winnowing, and storing.

Women’s participation in rural labour markets varies considerably across regions, but invariably women are over-represented in unpaid, seasonal, and part-time work, and the available evidence suggests that women are often paid less than men, for the same work.

In farming, evidence shows that when rural women have the same access to productive resources, services, and economic opportunities as men, there is a significant increase in agricultural output with immediate and long term social and economic gains, all contributing to the reduction in the number of poor and hungry people. Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals – 5, as mandated by the United Nations says that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

Prosoil initiative

It was to harness the power of city compost that the Prosoil Inititiative was launched. This is a joint initiative of the German company, GIZ, the Maharashtra FPC (Farmer Producer Companies), with the Bangalore-based environmental engineering company Ecoparadigm roped in as a sustainability consultant. As part of the ProSoil initiative, GIZ has been working to reuse urban municipal waste in order to fertilise the soils, in an initiative called Urban-Rural Nutrient and Carbon Cycle (URNCC). Hence, it was evident that strategies were required to produce high quality source-separated compost. It also needed frequent testing to guarantee a good product. However, what was most crucial was to develop innovative business models to encourage the use and distribution of compost the URNCC set out to develop and demonstrate a commercially viable business model that seeks to promote the sale and use of city compost manufactured by ULBs of Maharashtra through Farmer Producer Companies (FPCs) of Maharashtra.

  • The first model that was adapted was to be a distributer of compost where the FPCs would aggregate compost requirements from members and farmers and place bulk orders on the ULB/manufacturer. The compost would be marked up and sold to the end users, thus earning a small profit so as to make the business sustainable.
  • The second model was to be a retailer of compost. Certain FPCs who were new to the business or required quantities less than a batch of 10 ton could procure compost from the distributors as described in the previous section. They would then charge a handling fee and resell the same to their customers.

The women only FPC experiment

The research question was initially was to examine if compost sales could be a viable business. If so, could a women-only FPC become successful and empowered. Amongst the 1940 FPCs that were registered, 36 of them had a large presence of women farmers.

A women-led FPC, called Amvally Farmers Producer Company Ltd in the Junnar & Ambegaon Taluq, was contacted and encouraged to join this Prosoil project and develop a business in promoting the sale of city compost. It has a membership base of about 150 women belonging to farming families. They were either born in farming families or married into agriculturist families. The age group was diverse and ranged from 25-50 years, with a literacy level of 90 percent.  Due to the prevailing pandemic, this FPC took off on a slow start initially.

However, in this mix, an interesting and encouraging development was the induction of women members, who had completed tertiary education and chose to leave their professional jobs in corporate companies, cooperative banks, societies to join the FPC. While ‘going back to the roots’ was an impetus for some, the study showed that these women also helped in strengthening the FPC and played a central role in mentoring other women too.

The key points of their active involvement last year included the following

  1. A women’s self-help group (SHGs) was created that initially assisted in managing investments and banking procedures for women farmers.
  2. The capacity-building program of the women, focused on multiple issues such as training around different agricultural practices and financial literacy.
  3. Later, as part of the FPCs’ involvement in policymaking, the women’s group (SHG), worked with NAFED (National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd) to stabilize onion prices by storing around 500 metric tons of onions for the year 2021-22.

Wins and Takeaways

The major wins and takeaways included the fact that the Maharashtra Government and GIZ through Ecoparadigm’s intervention facilitated the visit of a few members to attend a workshop in Ambikapur (Chhattisgarh) to understand the UNRCC city compost project. With the confidence gained, the women have ventured to sell city compost to their 150 members for tomato and various vegetable crops. They are currently in the process to reach a maximum number of farmers of Junnar & Ambegaon Taluka. Amvally FPC has also worked with Ecoparadigm to create awareness for city compost use in farms to reduce chemical fertilizers. Currently, the idea of providing turnkey services of setting up terrace gardens/ kitchen gardens, and supplying chemical and pesticide-free vegetables were introduced to them and the women are working to start a “Direct from Farm” scheme to reach pesticide-free vegetables to various cities. Indeed, they are already working as a supplier of fresh vegetables for various malls.

The initiative of the women-led Amvally FPC in expanding the compost sale vertical to the selling of chemical and pesticide-free vegetables (kitchen garden model, terrace gardening) indicates that the business model is feasible on a stand-alone model and has also served to empower them to scale up their business and expand their horizons.

This experiment that initially set out to achieve the goals of SDG 15 (reversing land degradation), also achieved an important goal of SDG 5 (to achieve gender equality and empower women).  It has set a good example and model for the effective replication of sustainable development goals.

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About the Author

Sangeeta Venkatesh

Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school students on solid waste management. As a freelance writer for 20 years, she has contributed to magazines such as Education read more...

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