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Steering woman-dominated farm company amidst uncertain, volatile environment

By Vanita Pise*

I am co-founder of the Mann Deshi Farmer Producer Company (MDFPC) which aims to organize 12,000 small and marginal farmers (70% will be women) to secure better prices for their farm produce. It was founded by Chetna Gala Sinha, the well-known social entrepreneur is stewarding a rural revolution in western Maharashtra. The epicenter of this movement is Mhaswad, a large village that nestles in Satara district, on the placid banks of Manganga River, some 300 km south-east of Mumbai.
My upbringing and training as a farmer and entrepreneur enabled me to help Chetnaji in setting up this company. I was born and brought up in Malshiras in Solapur district. On account of adversities at home I could study only till 9th grade in school. I married a farmer based in Mhaswad when I was 17 years old.
Within a week of my marriage, I had to take care of the family poultry business. I had never entered a poultry shed before. When I stepped in, the stench repulsed me. But I persisted and soon I was able to grasp the entire operations. When the poultry had to be wound up after an outbreak of bird flu, I became a daily wage labourer. The failed business left us with a debt of Rs 55,000.
In 2004, I came to know of the Mann Deshi Bank and its work with rural women. I approached them and secured a loan for a buffalo. Within a week, the buffalo delivered a calf and I began selling milk. With my earnings, I repaid the loan in six months. I took another loan and bought a paper cup machine.
Six months later ten women, impressed by my success, approached me to help them set up similar units. But their ventures could not succeed and I had to face a backlash from them for no reason. Undeterred by this setback, I went back to Mann Deshi, and took a course in financial management in their business school and then set up another enterprise with the help of a loan. My experience in small business, farming and livestock came in handy when we decided to set up this company.
It was clear to us that the future of small farmers lay in collectivizing themselves. In this model, scattered small farms are systematically aggregated and provided centralized services around production, post-harvest, and marketing. This helps reduce transaction costs of the farms for accessing the value chains and makes it easier for small farmers to access inputs, technology, and the market.
It also opens opportunities to bring primary processing facilities closer to the farm gates and help producers gather market intelligence and manage the value chain better with digital agriculture tools.
The task was however not easy. We faced several challenges, most of them related to the contentious issue of categorisation of women as farmers. In the registration process, we were told by the concerned officials that since women did not own farms they could not be classified as farmers.
Similar hiccups continued; but now that we have been able to make this venture a success, I would like to recount the exciting and fruitful journey so that other women farmers are inspired to promote such replications. Women have come a long way in several fields. They have also been the mainstay of farming, doing much of the primary work in the fields. Ironically they cannot claim themselves to be farmers because they don’t own the land they till. It is in the name of their husbands. This makes a huge difference to their economic and social status and disqualifies them from several official development benefits.
The Farmer Producer Company (FPC) was finally registered when the husbands certified that their wives were the coparceners in the land parcels owned by them. Since then we have been trying to make women farmers’ coparceners in their husband’s property and registering these women as members in the FPC.
My work as the team leader is very hectic. I have to oversee all major operations at the company. I have to supervise aggregation of the farm produce and the entire intermediate cycles leading to despatch of consignments to the market. This includes sorting and grading and organising the logistics in the supply chain.
Our model of procurement is different and is done through farmer weekly bazaars which are run on the premises of the bank. Women farmers are then contacted and we send vehicles to their homes to procure grains. In addition to vegetables and grains we also deal in processing and make products including chikki (fudge), syrups, flaxseed chutneys, amla candy, pickles among other products. 
Though the FPC was formed two years back, it has been operating informally for the last couple of years. The company deals in both perishables and non-perishables. On a daily basis, some four truckloads of vegetables from women farmers are sent to Mumbai which is supplied to 5-star hotels and local retail outfits in Mumbai.
MDFPC's formal journey began in September 2018 with onions, a highly uncertain and volatile crop. The key reasons for severe and frequent price shocks of onions are on account of the production fluctuations and changes in the nature of demand. I helped the farmers grow high quality onions so that they could get better price.
We struggled a great deal but succeeded in our efforts albeit partially. Getting a market was difficult because Mhaswad is geographically not well connected and we face several logistical impediments. Bringing women famers on a common platform, designing appropriate crop patterns, and aggregating and marketing the produce requires rigorous planning and execution.
 The three farm laws will work only if proper infrastructure is created through warehouses, cold storage and other support systems
Some of the enterprising women have been able to sell their produce in Mumbai markets and got good value. But it is important to get more women farmers enrolled and make them align their pattern of farm production with the market.
Meanwhile, we entered into an agreement with a promising company that wanted to export okra (ladies finger). Our members were excited with the opportunity and 16 women joined the project. Unfortunately, things didn’t work as per the plan. The MoU, which was worded in technical English, stipulated that agronomists would visit the farmers and guide them on quality control, packaging etc.
We couldn’t grasp the legal implications of the contract. We had to compensate the counterparty for failure to deliver the consignment within the stipulated period. However, we learnt an important lesson - when you want to reach the market and customers, you have to maintain quality and honour every term of the contract. In addition, timely delivery is very important.
The learning came handy in a recent contract. We received an order of 11,000 dal from Mukul Madhav Foundation. The dal was to be supplied in 22,000 packets of half kg each. We approached our women farmers in Latur, who grabbed the opportunity. In just eight days, we worked out the whole chain of harvesting, aggregation, packaging, and logistics and marketing of the product.To its surprise, our team found a bug in one of the 1200 packets. We decided to recheck the entire consignment .
It took the women six hours; and it made them understand the importance of quality of the product and the credibility of the seller. Finally, the consignment was delivered on time. A woman farmer named Devika Shivpuje was instrumental in the aggregation of the entire order of 11,000 kgs dal. It’s a rare achievement as it’s usually the men who are seen as adhtiyas in the market.
During this project, I found that many women farmers store pulses at home and not in warehouses because of the logistical and transport issues. These women would prefer warehouses if they could be assured of a loan against the pledge of warehouse receipts. The best gift for farmers would be to initiate practical steps for their benefits.
The government has introduced three new farm laws. And there has been a mixed reaction to them. There are also several apprehensions in the farm community. However, these laws will work only if proper infrastructure is created through warehouses, cold storage and other support systems.
Our farmers are capable of producing good quality crops if they get the required services, such as soil-testing, advisory in agro-economics etc. Instead of grandiose reforms, our farmers need solutions to their fundamental problems.
This cannot be done by NGOs alone; government will have to actively invest in it. It is also important to build the capacity of FPCs. In the Budget last year the Finance Minister declared a plan to form 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) over a period of five years. This will require extensive government support. We women farmers hope that our collectives will get the necessary support from all stakeholders.
I feel proud that I have come a long way and women farmers repose trust in me. Before I got associated with Mann Deshi, I was too shy to even speak to my neighbours. And today I’m the first woman from my village to have gone abroad by myself on work!
---
*As told to development expert Moin Qazi. Vanita Pise, 45, is the recipient of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) Foundation Woman Exemplar Award, which she received from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She regularly participates in lectures, conferences and workshops on rural entrepreneurship across the country. She has also lectured abroad

Comments

Anonymous said…
Good luck.

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