Locally-rooted, community-based organisations have demonstrated that they can promote a multi-faceted approach to the socio-economic empowerment of underprivileged, marginalised, and vulnerable groups. Their integrated approach to the community’s development involves multiple sectors and stakeholders to overcome prevailing issues, such as food insecurity, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and gender inequality, among others. The holistic approach, which takes into account the various factors that impact the livelihoods of farming communities, enables a sustainable and transformative change. Having recognised the interconnectedness of issues related to empowering farmers and their families, several private and public sector organisations are now partnering with other enterprises and grassroot-level organisations to extend the scope and improve the impact of such empowerment programs. Our thought leader for the day speaks of his experience in developing and implementing agriculture and livelihoods development programs in several regions in India and the impact they have had on smallholding communities.
In Conversation With
Amit Kumar Singh
Amit Kumar Singh currently heads Tanager’s operations in India as its Country Representative. As someone with a farming background and an education in Agricultural Sciences, he had decided to pursue a line of work in the agri-industry. He was acutely aware of the deteriorating condition of farmers ever since his childhood. When his father chose a career in teaching to give them better education, Mr Singh pursued his passion to do something impactful for the farmers, and, fortunately, he soon got his much-awaited break into the industry. In the course of his illustrious career spanning nearly two decades and with a special focus on agri-business and market development, he has strengthened his experience in conceptualising and executing agriculture and livelihoods development programs within a wide range of value chains, including wheat, paddy, horticulture, forestry, and value-added products. In his current role, he has been successful in managing Tanager’s portfolio of supply chain strengthening activities, with a focus on women and landless farmers in India.
During his professional journey, he has dedicated himself to strengthening communities. He has also built his expertise in conducting large-scale research studies, including baseline and end-term assessments for the USAID, DFID, the Ford Foundation, and UNIDO, among others. Among his many recognitions, he was presented with the Indian Achievers Award for Industry Development in Agribusiness at the National Leadership Summit and Awards 2019. He continues to be extremely passionate about his work, which is dedicated to the betterment of the farming community. This passion ignites in him the inspiration to work ceaselessly in this sector.
You have been the driving force behind several projects that organised over 100,000 smallholder farmers into self-help and producer groups. What would you say is the role and outcome of such groups that focus on women’s socio-economic empowerment? Do they have a direct impact on the livelihoods of farming households as well?
Amit Kumar Singh: The main problem of the Indian farming system is the continuous division of land. On account of this, a majority, i.e., about 86%, are now small and marginal landholders, which doesn’t attract an institutional buyer due to the low economy of scale. Hence, self-help and producer groups help the farmers to aggregate their produce and provide them with the power to bargain. The majority of the farming operations are either done by women, or they contribute as family labour but never receive any remuneration. By ensuring that the women receive their income directly, these groups make them socially and economically empowered and help achieve greater decision-making power at home for these women.
What would you consider as some of the most successful measures so far with regard to improving nutrition and gender equity through agriculture, particularly among smallholder farmers?
Amit Kumar Singh: At Tanager, we build programs with a strong foundation for food security and household-level health and nutrition. We provide gender-inclusive training on the importance of nutrition, good eating habits, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), resulting in joint household decision-making and resource allocation. Recently, we concluded a Food Environment Survey in both tribal and non-tribal areas of Srikakulam and Anantapur in AP, which helped us to develop a Social Behaviour Change strategy for improved nutrition amongst program participants and household decision making for women on nutrition. We reach out to the communities with various gender nutrition initiatives through various tools/activities, like messages, Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials, wall paintings, training activities, etc. Further, there is a conscious effort to encourage and include women in all the supply chain and decision-making activities – across the projects. We conduct gender sensitisation activities at all levels to ensure that everyone within the project is equally involved to promote equality. At the Farmer Producer Organisation/Company (FPO/FPC) level, an effort is made to include women’s participation right from the Board of Directors (BOD) levels to the regular marketing and farming activities. Families are encouraged to adopt the whole farm approach so that they do not depend on a single crop or a single income source. New supply chains like poultry, kitchen gardens, and value addition to the crops are introduced to increase dietary diversity and income levels.
The Government of India has introduced several policy initiatives that aim to improve the status of women in agriculture. From your experience with women’s socio-economic empowerment projects, what opportunities do these initiatives offer to create a sustainable, long-term impact on their livelihoods and empower them economically and socially?
Amit Kumar Singh: There are schemes to empower women, but we are far from reaching the objective as there is a lack of coherence between ecosystem players as they work in isolation. Admittedly, the government has launched good schemes, such as the “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” that ensures free elementary education for the girl child, which are proving to be a game-changer. However, their participation in local grassroots organisations like FPOs and SHGs can serve as a sustainable livelihoods solution if there is proper participatory planning and implementation based on demand rather than supply.
Globally, more and more consumers are making purchasing decisions based on ethical or sustainability grounds. What measures can smallholder supply chains take to ensure sustainable and ethical production, not just to satisfy consumer demands but also to improve farmer livelihoods?
Amit Kumar Singh: Yes, it is true. We need to take the help of technology to enable traceability, sensitise farmers to grow nutrition-based crops using smart farming practices, and eradicate child labour. These practices would enhance the trust of global customers besides fetching better prices.
How have FPOs benefitted smallholder farmers in India? How can this model be strengthened to ensure farmers can make the most of the facilities made available to them?
Amit Kumar Singh: FPOs are an excellent mechanism for smallholder farmers to make significant gains in income, market access, and gender equity in India. Collective groups can enhance farmer incomes, confidence, and the ability to challenge structural inequalities and oppressive social norms and also enhance their bargaining power in markets – both domestic and international. The FPOs in India are in various stages of development, which can be categorised as nascent, emergent, expanding, and advanced. There is still much work to do to deliver on the potential of the Producers Companies Act. Although the government has invested in FPOs and modified some of their approaches (such as the cluster-based business organisation (CBBO)), there remains a need to stabilise the existing FPOs as a majority are struggling to make profits and compete with the mainstream companies. To do this, businesses must take advantage of every available opportunity and source of funding, both from government and non-government sources.
An estimate suggests that tenant farmers or cultivators, who do not own farm lands, contribute up to 40% of the total agricultural output. However, most of the benefits that the government provides are often limited to only those who can prove land ownership, thus ignoring those who do not have land titles to their name. How do Tanager’s projects provide assistance to farmers who don’t own land and grow crops on leased land?
Amit Kumar Singh: We believe that anyone who is cultivating in his own or others’ land being a sharecropper is also a farmer. Hence, all our training programs related to good agricultural practices (GAP) also involve sharecroppers. If they produce more, then their income for both parties would increase.
Could you tell us about the broad-scale impact that some of Tanager’s agriculture-based projects have on the overall livelihoods of farming communities, such as the ‘Shubh Mint’ project that is driving women empowerment?
Amit Kumar Singh:
W e have formed seven FPCs in ShubhMint , Mangal Moongphali , and APFMRP (Andhra Pradesh Farmer Market Readiness Project) projects and are directly working with around 20 FPOs to make them market-ready. One of the FPOs in Uttar Pradesh (UP) had a turnover of more than 1.2 million USD during the last financial year. ShubhMint project has formed around 400 SHGs, and the project has increased farmers’ income from the mint crop by 150%. The project is supporting more than 22,000 farmers through demonstrations and training on GAP. Similarly, the APFMRP project has helped the FPOs to deal with big buyers like Tata coffee and has helped to vertically integrate the value chain by helping them to take processing functions and brandin