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Indian women using science to start agribusinesses

Worms feed on any organic waste (© ICRISAT)
Worms feed on any organic waste

Access to science and technology is challenging in rural areas. But in Andhra Pradesh in India, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been teaching women how to use science to shift from subsistence farming to successful agri-businesses - lifting themselves and their communities out of poverty.

In the village of Kothapally, for example, women have increased their income by almost 80 per cent through community income-generating activities, after receiving training from ICRISAT as part of an integrated watershed management programme. Bijli Lakshmi used to work as a farm labourer for a few rupees a day, until she was introduced to vermiculture. By converting degradable waste, weeds and crop residues into valuable organic manure using earthworms, she now earns an extra US$36 per month. "We can even give the worms toxic weeds that would otherwise take over our fields," Lakshmi explains.

Water harvesting and worms

Over 250 low-cost water-harvesting structures have enabled farmers to diversify and grow high value crops, doubling their income. Demand for vermicompost is high because it nourishes the soil between harvests and increases yields; this is particularly important now farmers have a plentiful supply of water and are able to grow three crops each year instead of just one. "Before ICRISAT started watershed systems here, our meals used to be chapattis with a little chutney. We could afford dal or lentils only once a week," Lakshmi says. "Now we have rice, dal, potatoes, and curries with vegetables such as okra, brinjal (aubergine) and tomatoes."

Lakshmi has opened a shop with her extra income (© ICRISAT)
Lakshmi has opened a shop with her extra income

Vermicomposting has become one of the most important income-generating activities for women in Kothapally. So far 35 women's self-help groups (SHGs) with ten or more members have taken up vermiculture as a micro-enterprise, the extra income allowing the group members to diversify their businesses: Lakshmi opened a village shop, while other members started tree nurseries and tailoring businesses. With rising incomes, the women have also become the targets of sari sellers.

"By uniting in SHGs, members are able to run commercial enterprises, enabling them to increase their economic resilience and improve the quality of their lives," explains Dr Suhas Wani, project coordinator. "The social status of women in Kothapally is better than in surrounding villages." The SHGs also function as micro-credit institutions for their members, enabling women to start other businesses.

Through income generating activities, women's self esteem and standing within the community has greatly improved. Lakshmi has inspired and trained 300 other women in 50 villages in Andhra Pradesh, leads 33 SHGs and owns a village shop and a new house. School attendance is also improving: "We want our daughters to learn and become nurses and teachers and not work like us," a group of women states.

Woman now receive drought advice on their mobile phones (© ICRISAT)
Woman now receive drought advice on their mobile phones

Scaling out

Due to its success, Kothapally has become a learning site for farmers, agricultural officials, researchers and extension agents from all over India, as well as Vietnam, China, Thailand and East Africa. Several other Indian states are also beginning to replicate Kothapally's approach to integrated watershed management. ICRISAT and its partners have also introduced biopesticide production, livestock rearing, and tree nurseries as other micro-enterprises for women. Already, the community is producing 1,000 litres of surplus milk worth 20,000 (US$450) rupees every day.

"To ensure the participation of women - which is critical for the sustainability of watershed management - activities must be demand-driven and targeted at women," Wani explains. "Enhancing awareness of women's rights through concrete action is also critical and literacy training is required to enable the women to act collectively and harness the benefits from their agri-businesses."

Contingency plans

Even while neighbouring villages grapple with drought, Addakkal, in Andhra Pradesh, is a green exception. In 2009, the region suffered a severe drought, but farmers had good harvests because women from the Adarsha SHG had drawn up contingency plans after being informed about drought and desertification through ICRISAT's Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT).

Women get weather predictions and drought advice at the village resource centre (© ICRISAT)
Women get weather predictions and drought advice at the village resource centre

By using information and communication technologies (ICTs), VASAT links rural farm communities with researchers and other credible sources of information. At the village resource centre, the women are able to receive weather forecasts and drought advice from VASAT through weekly audio and video conferences. Through the Virtual Academy, the women also provide the researchers with vital information on pest attacks so that solutions to their problems can be found.

After receiving information, the women share their newly-acquired knowledge with their communities. According to researchers, farmers who have heard the women's advice are more likely to plant drought resistant millet, instead of rice, if a drought is predicted.

With contributions from: Dr Suhas Wani and Showkat Nabi, ICRISAT

Date published: May 2011


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