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Women Who Lead: Empowering Women Farmers in India

In India, women often face gender-specific challenges that limit their ability to achieve their full potential. TechnoServe is working to identify and support women leaders in male-dominated spaces, such as in farmer producer organizations throughout the states of Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

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women who lead - Maize procurement in Uttar Pradesh, India

Every year, 45-year-old Bajakiya Khan buys the same wheat seeds from a small shop near her house in Bhul Parwa, Uttar Pradesh, India. The store only offers one variety, which sells for $14.32 per bag. By the time she pays to have the seeds shipped to her farm, the cost is almost $15 per bag — 5% of her total revenue. This is a steep price for a smallholder farmer with fewer than two acres of land, most of which is leased. 

As part of her lease, Bajakiya must return a share of her crops to the landowner, so she has less wheat left over to sell at the end of each harvest. This, in addition to the high cost of farm supplies, has made it difficult for her to earn a decent living over the years. But this was what she had always done, and it never occurred to her that there might be another option. That is, until she heard of a farmer producer organization (FPO) operating in her community.

The Role of Women in Farmer Producer Organizations

In rural Uttar Pradesh, countless women farmers like Bajakiya are committed to creating a better life for themselves and their families but don’t have the information and tools they need to manage profitable farms. The emergence of FPOs has enabled smallholder farmers to join together, access better markets, and improve their economic potential.

In 2019, a farmer organization called Ekta Mahila Kisan Sewa Mandal visited Bajakiya’s community in Uttar Pradesh. But this was an unusual group. In a region where men make up 90% of typical FPO membership, Ekta Mahila Kisan Sewa Mandal is primarily led by women. 

TechnoServe is assisting Ekta Mahila Mandal through the Sustainable Livelihoods for Smallholder Farmers program, funded by a philanthropic grant by the Walmart Foundation. The group’s main focus is to help farmers access more affordable and higher quality farming supplies — precisely what Bajakiya had been struggling with before.

After joining this new group, Bajakiya started receiving high-quality wheat seeds at $14 per bag, delivered directly to her farm. “I am so happy that I am now getting cheaper seeds right at my doorstep,” she says.

Gender-Specific Challenges

Joining the FPO has changed Bajakiya’s life for the better. But unfortunately, women often struggle to participate in these organizations due to time constraints, family care responsibilities, lower social mobility, and restrictive cultural norms. Men not only constitute the vast majority of FPO membership but these groups’ leadership, as well. Women’s representation on these organizations’ boards is often mere tokenism. When women do become members, they attend meetings infrequently, rarely speaking up when they do.

As one of the few organizations that caters to these women’s needs, Ekta Mahila Mandal fills a much-needed niche. But this change didn’t happen overnight.

Women gather for the annual general meeting of Ekta Mahila Kisan Sewa Mandal, a women-led FPC in Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh, India
Women gather for the annual general meeting of the Ekta Mahila Kisan Sewa Mandal farmer producer organization.

Women Who Lead- Facilitating Women’s Leadership On and Off the Farm

Since 2018, TechnoServe has been working to sustainably increase incomes for 27,315 smallholder farmers in Uttar and Andhra Pradesh, 46% of whom are women. One key aim is to increase women’s control over business and household decisions. 

In India, only 65% of women are literate, compared to 80% of men. Rural women have an even lower literacy rate of 52%. The country also has one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the world: less than one in three women are actively working or looking for a job, a number that has been declining for the last 10 years. When it comes to agriculture, women are systematically excluded from ownership of most resources of production. While over 70% of rural women work in agriculture, less than 13% own land. 

To help counteract these disadvantages, TechnoServe has been working with FPOs to induct women into leadership positions as board members, trustees, and shareholders through capacity-building. To ensure that these women can also play a greater role in the groups’ financial decisions, TechnoServe has trained 12,567 women across 26 FPOs on governance and business plan development, providing smallholder women farmers with an improved understanding of, and access to, a range of financial products and services.

But despite these changes, there was still a significant gender-equity gap within FPOs. TechnoServe also observed that men tended to dominate FPOs’ crop collection, or procurement, activities. In FPOs, procurement involves going house-to-house to collect produce from individual farmers, weighing it, checking for quality, and aggregating it to the shared pool.

Women Who Lead Help Dispel Gender-Based Stereotypes

The prevailing societal assumption was that since the work involved regular interactions with program farmers and the use of technical equipment like digital weighing scales, women were not suited for the job. So the program specifically taught women how to deploy quality metrics and use digital weighing scales, in the process bolstering their presence in the field and in the public sphere. 

Women Who Access Economic Empowerment Become Women Who Lead

To further supplement women’s incomes, TechnoServe worked with FPOs to train 1,000 women in Andhra Pradesh to create and maintain organic “kitchen gardens” in their backyards. These gardens consist of vegetables that can be used in daily cooking, including spinach, okra, eggplant, beets, and carrots.

This training has ensured families’ supply of fresh produce and essential nutrients, especially in a year of market shutdowns and reduced incomes due to the COVID-19 crisis. But these kitchen gardens have also supplemented the discretionary income of women who manage them, giving women a measure of financial autonomy.

Back in Bhul Parwa, Bajakiya is busy sowing her fields with wheat for the upcoming season. Since 2019, 22 farmers from Bajakiya’s community have followed her lead to purchase wheat seeds from Ekta Mahila Mandal. With support from TechnoServe trainers, these farmers were able to access essential information about wheat seeds and markets, enabling them to increase their profits and invest back in their farms and communities. 

Support women farmers and leaders like Bajakiya.