Women Farmers Unearth New Profits from Potatoes

September 24, 2018

Female potato farmers in Bihar, India, join forces to negotiate fair prices and claim a bigger share of revenue for their harvest.

Women farmers are earning a higher price for their potatoes by selling through a producer group that was established through TechnoServe's WARDA program.

Potato farmers in Bihar

First introduced to India by the Dutch and the Portuguese during the 17th century, and later promoted by the British in the 18th century, the humble potato has long shed its colonial roots and is now a staple in the Indian diet.

Even as certain tubers are avoided by a few communities in India because of religious observances, the batata or aloo – as the potato is known in western and eastern India respectively – is central to the diet of Indians, both rich and poor. The potato holds special significance in Bihar, a poor agrarian state where 60 percent of its population of 110 million is dependent on agriculture. As the fourth major crop in the state – after rice, wheat, and maize – the potato is cultivated predominantly by smallholder farmers and and is widely consumed in rural households. With nearly 90 percent of production available as marketable surplus, the potato has long been considered a cash crop.

Yet until recently, smallholder potato farmers like Renu Devi were at the mercy of market inefficiencies that stemmed largely from intermediary buyers. In the journey from farm to plate, the potato passes from smallholders through local village-level traders to wholesale mandi brokers, and ultimately, to large buyers and retailers before the produce reaches the end consumer. At each stage, commission is added to the crop’s value, while the farmer’s share remains fixed at the low price received at the farm gate.
With limited or no access to market information and no alternative way to sell the produce, Renu Devi and others like her were forced to sell potatoes at whatever price the traders quoted. Moreover, local traders often engage in faulty weighing practices, and payment for the crop can be severely delayed or lost entirely by exploitative traders, placing farmers’ livelihoods at risk.

TechnoServe is working with Renu Devi and over 3,700 other farmers to ensure a fair price for their produce through the Women’s Advancement in Rural Development and Agriculture, or WARDA, program. WARDA launched a pilot project in 2017 that demonstrated the effectiveness of aggregating and marketing potato through a Farmer Producer Organizations (FPO) – a community-owned institution allowing a group of women farmers to operate with a collective voice. The three-year program is building the capacity of FPOs in Bihar and building sustainable businesses in multiple value chains (including maize, vegetables, mango, and litchi)  by providing technical assistance to the JEEViKA program of the Government of Bihar.

In addition to improving her own income, Renu Devi is mobilizing other women in her community to realize greater profits from their crops.

Renu Devi

In 2018, the program was extended to Vaishali district, which includes Renu Devi’s small village of Bishunpur Madhaul. The project team provided trainings on best agricultural practices as well as post-harvest management,  including introducing cold storage to allow sales in the off season. Business training focused on improving transparency by introducing digital weighing machines, sharing price information on a daily basis to curb market information asymmetry, and introducing cashless transactions, with money deposited directly into the women’s bank accounts within five to six days. Trainings also introduced grading and sorting practices and grade-based pricing to ensure that better quality produce fetches a higher price rather than selling the whole lot at a uniform price.
These market interventions met with an encouraging response, with 679 smallholder women farmers mobilized and supported in selling their potato harvest through a transparent mechanism.

“My father didn’t think it was important to invest in my studies. We were raised to lead a life inside the four brick-walls of our house.”

Renu Devi has emerged as a champion in the cause, playing an active role as a community mobilizer, supporting women smallholder farmers and organizing trainings on sorting, grading, and weighing. The women farmers were also trained on proper bookkeeping. For the first time, Renu learned to operate a manual potato grader and educated her fellow farmers on the benefits of grading. Her efforts resulted in mobilizing 62 farmers which helped in the sale of nearly 13 metric tons of potatoes from her village.
With a registered Farmer’s Producer Company (FPC) formed by small farmers, multiple layers of intermediaries have been replaced and farmers now expect higher percentage per consumer rupee in future. Going forward, the FPC also plans to engage in seed production and contract farming in potato with identified progressive farmers.

With the program’s guidance, farmers in the district also formed and registered a Farmer’s Producer Company (FPC), which replaces multiple layers of intermediaries allowing farmers to receive a higher percentage of the final consumer price. The FPC will also engage in seed production and contract farming with identified progressive potato farmers.

For Renu Devi and the other women in her group, WARDA has ushered a welcome change in their livelihoods and their sense of agency. “My father didn’t think it was important to invest in my studies. We were raised to lead a life inside the four brick-walls of our house,” she says. Now her eyes gleam with pride and determination at the change she was instrumental in bringing to the lives of more than 60 women farmers.

While the struggle for a better future for Renu’s family of five is ongoing, the knowledge of how to get more from her small half-acre plot has filled her with energy and purpose. “TechnoServe and JEEViKA together have given me a ray of hope. I wish to take part in more such activities in the future,” she says while cooking a curry for the evening meal with potatoes from her own patch of land.