Every year, following the monsoon rains in Rajasthan, India, farmers head to their fields to plant guar, a drought-resistant legume also known as cluster bean.
In Rajasthan, the largest guar-producing region, the sun-loving plants stretch for miles, growing close to 10 feet tall in the sandy soil by driving their strong roots into the ground. Blue and white flowers sprout from their stems, contrasted against the hairy green leaves.
Historically, the plant has been used as an important source of food (it can be eaten like a snap pea), in animal feed, and as a part of organic fertilizer.
Then came guar gum, a gelling agent produced from guar seeds used as an eco-friendly alternative in many industries.
Guar production skyrocketed across India, with farmers quickly benefiting from the processed gum’s use in fracking, cosmetics, and food production.
Now, only 10% of Indian production is for domestic use; the other 90% is exported.
Guar farmers in Rajasthan help make India the largest producer in the world. And they do it while managing the challenges of living near the massive and inhospitable Thar Desert.
But the explosion of guar farming over the last decade has also led to environmental- and gender-related challenges in the value chain, which impact smallholder farmers both in Rajasthan and across all of India.
Some guar gum producers, like Solvay, are working to support these value chains with sustainable agronomy programs for farmers. One such program – a partnership between Solvay, L’Oreal, Henkel, HiChem, and TechnoServe – is the Sustainable Guar Initiative (SGI).
Launched in 2015, the program has helped more than 7,300 farmers – 25% of them women – improve their guar cultivation techniques and increase their incomes.
Driving Sustainable Farming in the Guar Supply Chain
This work was recognized recently when TechnoServe was awarded the External Collaborator Award by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), for its “commitment to working collaboratively with ACC members and others throughout the guar supply chain to drive sustainability and innovation.”
Anne-Charlotte Butrot, sustainability project manager at Solvay, noted TechnoServe’s “inestimable contribution to the success of our Sustainable Guar Initiative by offering strong local expertise, on-the-ground involvement, and market analysis.”
In addition to helping farmers improve their yields through climate-smart techniques, TechnoServe has also worked to help create a more inclusive market system through traceability initiatives involving technology like blockchain, to help integrate farmers more directly into the supply chain. The program has also helped farmers set up their own producer companies, which enables guar buyers to regularly purchase crops from these farmers on a greater scale.
“Small farmers in India face numerous challenges ranging from soil quality, scarce water supply, and lack of access to markets for their crops,” Butrot added. “With a specific focus on women farmers to help them improve well-being, nutrition, and gain economic independence, we provided the tools and resources for improving yields, thereby helping enhance revenue to raise their standard of living.”
“TechnoServe has been the enabling partner for Solvay and its international collaborators providing farmers training for land and seed treatment, improving crop cultivation for arid conditions, soil replenishment techniques, and rainwater harvesting systems to enhance crop yields,” said Punit Gupta, country director of TechnoServe India. “The program also focuses on women empowerment through the management of kitchen gardens and health and nutrition training.
“Assisting Solvay and their partners to bring to fruition this commendable initiative to transform the lives of guar bean farmers in poor communities has been a very rewarding experience.”
Future Plans for the Sustainable Gaur Initiative
Without the farmers who grow guar on the sandy banks of the Thar Desert, much of the global guar supply chain would be in jeopardy.
But these farmers – like so many others – had a rocky year in 2020. While the training program has helped them improve their households’ incomes and resilience, they are still greatly affected by guar market prices, which depend on international market trends.
The guar industry saw sluggish demand in 2020 due to declining crude oil prices and the COVID-19 crisis, which continues to be a significant concern across India.
Since 2020, TechnoServe has been providing guar seeds, agricultural equipment, seed kits, and sanitary protective equipment to farming families to help them sustain their livelihoods.
With these challenges in mind, SGI will continue building income resilience, especially for women, who are often most vulnerable in times of crisis. These sustainable farming and innovation initiatives include:
- Guar seed production – Training farmers on how to identify the fully grown healthy pods and other crucial seed production techniques
- Kitchen gardens – Teaching women to grow vegetables in their own backyards, giving them an independent income source and supply of nutritious food for themselves and their families
- Plant nurseries – Promoting nursery use amongst women enhances the survival and availability of plants at the village level
TechnoServe has also trained a cadre of “champion farmers” who have shown consistent engagement in all the activities. These local advocates will play an increasing role in training delivery, community sanitation, and on-the-ground program operations.
“Our ambition is to increase the revenue of engaged guar farming households by 25% through best guar farming practices and no incremental demands on groundwater,” said Anne-Charlotte Butrot.
For TechnoServe teams and the farmers they support, the work is just beginning.