A new dawn for women smallholders in India
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The work of a female farmer begins well before dawn, and continues well after dusk, and yet in terms of empowerment, agency, and ownership, many women farmers are still in the dark. Harmanpreet Singh, Lead – Smallholder Farming for India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka talks about the evolution of Better Life Farming in India and its positive impact for women smallholder farmers and women agri-entrepreneurs.
The work of a female farmer begins well before dawn, and continues well after dusk, and yet in terms of empowerment, agency, and ownership, many women farmers are still in the dark.
In India, 85% of rural women are engaged in agriculture, yet only about 13% own land. Overcoming the gender gap with support and empowerment measures for India’s female farmers is crucial for improving livelihoods and food security, as well as the progress of sustainable agriculture.
Better Life Farming, a global, multi-stakeholder alliance, which works with partners across the agri-value chain– is working to empower women smallholder farmers in India in unique ways by providing solutions which are more flexible, approachable, and equitable.
Agrarian systems in rural India are predominately skewed in favor of male farmers and women smallholders don’t get a level playing field in terms of access to resources, extension services and agri-inputs. But the Better Life Farming Alliance (BLFA) is working to change this.
At the nucleus of the Better Life Farming program lies the Better Life Farming Center. These centers are located in and near farming communities and serve as a one-stop shop of agricultural inputs for smallholders.
The BLFA is working to upend the gender-based struggles female farmers face by developing gender-champions that focus on women smallholder training, capacity building, extensions support, and the skills women need to own and run BLF Centers.
In one such case we have Kalyani Singh – a 24-year old smallholder tomato farmer based in Jharkhand. Today she is a proud owner of her own Better Life Farming Center in Namkum block of Ranchi, working to help women smallholders in the community overcome the same challenges she faced when she first began farming.
Kalyani joined Better Life Farming in January 2020 to begin cultivating tomatoe’s on her 3 acre family farm. With help from BLF, she increased her yields and incomes by 50% and 40% respectively.
Thanks to Kalyani, and several other women entrepreneurs in BLF Centers across rural India, women smallholders are finding it easier to access resources, knowledge and support and be successful in their farming endeavors.
The role of the agronomist, sometimes called agri-consultants, is to support agri-entrepreneurs in the BLF centers by providing training and assistance in 7 areas: sustainable agronomic practices, information and training, continuous social impact monitoring, quality farm inputs, finance and literacy solutions, irrigation and technology, and market linkages.
Prior to the gender-smart initiative, all the BLF Centers were owned and run by men, and many women were uncomfortable with visiting the centers or asking for help. To effectively support women farmers, we needed strong female representation in the centers, that’s how we started onboarding women. Today, we have 12 female agri-entrepreneurs running their own BLF centers across two states in India and serving 15,000 women smallholders across 50 villages.
These centers provide rural women with new employment avenues, training on financial literacy, access to credit/banking services, mobile and digital Agri technologies, in addition to holistic, in-field support from skilled agronomists for challenges like drip irrigation and crop protection. With prominent female representation, women are more comfortable visiting our centers and working with us to gain valuable knowledge and the tools they need to improve not just their own livelihoods but uplift the standard of living for their entire family.
It would be difficult to empower women without consideration of their men counterparts. So it was important for us to develop a gender-sensitization and awareness program for the BLFA extension staff and other field-staff. This training was focused on gender biases and stereotypes, as a clear understanding of gender issues and inculcating gender-sensitive conduct to make the program a success.
We partnered with IFC (International Finance Corporation, part of World Bank) to create a gender sensitization workshop as part of a thought leadership effort to initiate conversations with male farmers in the community. Dr. Jyoti Dar, Gender Specialist, International Finance Corporation, highlights the value of gender-smart agriculture, "IFC is supporting BLFA partners in developing gender-smart solutions that not only address some of the gaps and inequalities that exist in agriculture, but also provide new avenues to empower women through capacity building for becoming successful agri-entrepreneurs.”
The workshop was a great way to re-educate and show that women farmers are as competent as the men, and to establish role-models who demonstrate the value of unbiased thinking.
Elaborating further, she said, "this reality check helped the participants in re-thinking their gendered assumptions. It created an environment in the workshop to have an open conversation and on becoming aware of the need to design solutions that bridge gender gaps.
Recognizing Women in Agriculture
For the Better Life Farming Alliance this gender smart approach is off to a successful start, but this is just the beginning. The alliance is looking to the future for ways to recognize and unlock the enormous potential of women in agriculture. This means reaching more women in every step of the value-chain from farms, to communities, and households. We are also working on building our capacity, and beginning from a mindset of gender awareness, this means that those representing women farmers must be women. And finally, we are working to continuously improve our understanding of the unique needs of women farmers, and transforming our initiatives into targeted goals.
We believe that empowering women is fundamental to the success of sustainable agriculture and also to establish an equitable society where women comprise half of the workforce. The work of overcoming the gender gap has already begun, but there is a long road ahead. Thanks, in-part to the BLFA, the sun is rising for female farmers in India, and now, they too are looking forward to the dawn and stretching their horizons far and beyond.