Women play a central role in farming in West Bengal, but are often marginalized. Technical training and greater access to land have helped them improve yields, build skills, and promote gender equality in their communities.
By Burton Bollag
A woman farmer in Narayanpur planting potato seeds. Photo: Subarna Maitra/ILRG
In many countries, women produce 60 to 80 percent of the food. Yet women farmers remain largely marginalized and are often not recognized as farmers within their communities. Women own very little of the land they work in and receive only a small part of agricultural loans and technical assistance provided to small farmers.
A pilot project in West Bengal is trying to change that. PepsiCo, a multinational American beverage and snack company, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are working to empower women potato farmers by helping them access land, providing them with training and support, and promoting acceptance of greater gender equality in the communities where they live.
Since its launch in 2019, the partnership has directly helped more than 1,000 women farmers. And although the partnership project is only slated to last four years—until 2023—several measures have been introduced to help ensure the changes produced by the project are long-lasting.
For instance, gender concerns have been added to the training given to PepsiCo’s network of field agronomists, who regularly visit villages to help farmers improve their yields and the quality of potatoes supplied to the company.
At the same time, the project is training a number of women as “community agronomists” who support other local potato growers and help shift harmful gender norms. “I have been able to prove that I can do this,” recounts Arati Besra, a potato farmer and new community agronomist trained under the program. “Initially, my husband doubted my ability to perform. Now I have acceptance and respect from other women and men farmers too. I am learning many new things and I am trying to apply those lessons at a personal level while also reaching out to other women like me.”
The project has also identified a number of men as community champions, such as aggregators and sub-vendors in the potato supply chain, who understand and value women’s empowerment. “I sincerely believe that women can do everything required for successful farming,” said Shyamal Pal, an aggregator and community champion for women’s empowerment. “With support from PepsiCo, the women’s group leased one acre of land to plant potatoes and overcame adverse weather to emerge successful with a financial return. This ‘never before seen’ phenomenon drew the attention of the entire community here and had a demonstrative effect on other women’s groups.” These men and community champions have increased their outreach to women farmers and have played a key role in convincing other men in the communities to support the women’s efforts and recognize them as farmers. They have also taken up women’s empowerment activities more broadly; for example, they have independently engaged women community agronomists in areas outside of the project’s 12 target communities.
USAID and PepsiCo both had good reasons to join forces. USAID has ambitious goals to economically empower millions of women around the globe. PepsiCo was interested in testing out a theory that helps women in their supply chain gain more knowledge and control over their farming, which could lead to increases in the amount and quality of the potatoes they produce.
PepsiCo needs a steady supply of high-quality potatoes to produce chips and other snacks for the Indian market, which it sells under various brands including Lay’s. The company also aims to improve the livelihoods of more than 250,000 people in its agricultural supply chain and sustainably source 100 percent of the company’s key ingredients by 2030.
USAID officials say the first thing they did when starting to work together with PepsiCo in West Bengal was to conduct a study of local supply challenges to gender considerations, like gender norms and access to training. The study was meant to identify social and structural problems faced uniquely by women farmers, such as discrimination in accessing agricultural extension trainings, landholding, and, services or bank loans, as well as crop cultivation issues, such as water scarcity or pests.
Training is tailored to address these issues. Measures are taken to make it easier for the women to attend. For example, sessions are scheduled at times when the women do not have to be home attending to tasks delegated to them by relatives, such as cooking family meals and when children can be cared for by other family members.
In addition to agricultural extension services for women farmers, the project has organized classes to teach them business skills and provides training in such areas as the proper use of personal protective equipment when applying pesticides. “Women staying around me are practicing what they have learned from the training quite enthusiastically. They know how to collect the potatoes properly after harvesting, spray pesticides and take care of the sprayer and much more,” said Dipika Kole, a potato farmer joining the project. “We work equally like all other male farmers out there. When we learn new things from the training, we share it with our family members. They practice it and support us in implementing those practices in our field.” And because women farmers traditionally face steep barriers to owning or even leasing the land they work, the partnership has helped associations of women farmers lease land in their own names.
The project has also focused on helping the potato farmers adapt to the climate crisis facing farmers around the world. By teaching sustainable farming methods like composting, reducing crop residue burning, soil testing, responsible pest control, and drip irrigation to conserve water, the project seeks to help farming communities mitigate some of the harmful impacts of global warming.
Officials say the partnership has been very successful. Evidence of women’s economic empowerment is emerging, as many of these farmers today have improved self-image, confidence, mobility, access to knowledge and resources, income, decision-making power, acceptance by family and community members, and collective agency. “I manage the whole pursuit of potato farming independently and the decision on which land is to be farmed with which variety of potato is mine. That doesn’t deter me from consulting with my husband (on farming decisions) when I feel the need, but I’m left with the freedom to take final calls—which even involves hiring labor,” said Purnima Kora, a local potato farmer.
In fact, in 2020 USAID and PepsiCo established a bigger five-year project, under USAID’s Global Development Alliance for Investing partnership model, to carry out similar work to empower women potato farmers supplying PepsiCo in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in three other countries: Pakistan, Vietnam and Colombia.
Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.