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Pune-based Swayam Shikshan Prayog has won the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize for promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture in drought-prone Marathwada

Women in Marathwada are using the one-acre model to practice sustainable agriculture. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

Women in Marathwada are using the one-acre model to practice sustainable agriculture. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

Till 2012, 60-year-old Vanita Sahebrao More used to spend INR 40,000 (USD 620) every year to cultivate soybean, sorghum and cotton on seven acres of land in her village in drought-prone Nanded district in Maharashtra. The district is part of Marathwada, which is infamous for crippling droughts and farmer suicides.

More’s husband was working in a sugarcane factory, which left the responsibility of managing the farm entirely on her. More used to grow some vegetables and pulses as well but all of this came at a hefty cost as she was totally dependent on chemical inputs and seeds purchased from the market. Moreover, she used to allocate two acres of land just for growing cotton. Focusing on the cash crop meant that those two acres remained underutilised in terms of farming capacity as the crop blocks the fields for a whole year. Neither she nor her family had an alternate means of livelihood to ensure steady income during adverse climatic conditions and changing market scenarios in the rain-deficient land.

This changed five years ago when she adopted the so-called one-acre model, an innovative way of practising climate-resilient agriculture. Starting off with half an acre, she today manages around 3.5 acres of land, and cultivates vegetables, wheat, pulses and turmeric with 100% organic inputs. Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on cash crops, More has been trained to put nutritional needs of the family to the forefront. She grows mainly food crops for the family’s consumption, crucial during the far-too-common drought years. She sells the surplus in the market, which fetches INR 45,000.

More is one of the 72,000 women farmers in Marathwada whose lives have been transformed by Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a Pune-based non-profit that is empowering women to take up sustainable farming practices and effectively manage available natural resources to derive benefits such as continuous income, better health, food and water security in the region.

Empowering women

For its efforts to help women farmers to cope better during extreme events, SSP is among the 15 winners who have been selected for this year’s Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The initiative that began in 2009 to promote a climate-resilient agro-ecological farming model and entrepreneurship has empowered over 20,000 women farmers to act as decision-makers in the area in the last two years alone.

Women farmers learning the nitty-gritty of the one-acre model. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

Women farmers learning the nitty-gritty of the one-acre model. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

It goes a step further. Engaging at the nexus of nutrition, sustainable agriculture and gender, the initiative has created 5,500 self-help groups that support women to engage as farmers, entrepreneurs and leaders. The programme trains them to negotiate with their families to obtain their own plot of land for cultivation, usually about one acre each. “After being trained by SSP, I began farming on half an acre of land in 2012. But elated with the incredible results, my husband gave me legal land rights for 3.5 acres,” says More.

Under the one-acre model, multiple crops are grown to boost nutritional security, soil fertility, agro-biodiversity and income viability. Women who run family kitchens and raise children understand the nutritional requirements of their family better than men, a reason why this programme is specifically for women.

“Men tend to focus on cash crops to generate income, while women understand the nutritional needs of the family and it is important that they make decisions on which crops to grow to ensure that food is available for family consumption during any crisis while generating income at the same time,” says Anjali Verma, Programme Manager, SSP.

Drought and distress

In Marathwada, where hundreds of farmers have committed suicide during five consecutive drought years, life gets tougher for women who are left to look after their families. “If you see the suicide cases, it is always the men who quit,” says Verma. “For women, quitting is not an option. They fight for their families till the end.”

“Marathwada is not just about farmers’ suicide,” says Shaila Narore, another woman farmer from Marathwada who has benefitted from the programme. “It is also about people like us who have challenged drought and destiny.”

Climate-resilient farming has ensured food and nutrition security for villagers in drought-prone Marathwada. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

Climate-resilient farming has ensured food and nutrition security for villagers in drought-prone Marathwada. (Photo by Swayam Shikshan Prayog)

Under the model, low-input sustainable farming techniques including efficient water use, organic farming, mixed cropping, and increased crop cycles are adopted to enable the women to improve food security, increase climate resilience, enhance agro-biodiversity and reduce stress on water resources.

“This model addresses the issues of food security, income security, natural resource management and women empowerment, all at the same time,” says Prema Gopalan, Executive Director, SSP.

Sustainable methods

Women practise sustainable methods such as hydroponics, use of bio-pesticides, organic fertilisers and water conservation techniques like drip irrigation, sprinklers, farm ponds, recharging of bore wells and tree plantation to augment precious and scarce groundwater and to improve soil fertility.

Further, a shift from the traditional practice of growing cash crops like soya and cotton that require more water and more chemical inputs is helping conserve the environment and health of the people.

Under the one-acre model, women are also trained in other means of livelihood and sources of nutrition such as livestock and poultry. With the integration of livestock, More has also eliminated a big chunk of the farm input costs which earlier amounted to almost 30% of the net earnings.

The model is now being scaled up in 600 villages to develop a cadre of trained women farmers who will act as resource people and reach out to support other women farmers through training and farm demonstrations. “We are working towards forming farmer producer cooperatives for women. Cooperatives are usually dominated by the male farmers and so we aim to have producer groups led by women who can claim space in that market,” says Verma.

Equator Prize

The 15 winners of this year’s Equator Prize have been selected from a pool of 806 nominations across 120 countries. Each winner will receive USD 10,000 and the opportunity for a community representative to join a weeklong summit in New York during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.

“It is our privilege at UNDP, alongside our partners at the Equator Initiative, to have this opportunity to recognise and commend the achievements of this year’s Equator Prize winners,” Achim Steiner, newly-appointed UNDP Administrator, said in a statement. “The solutions they have found in the service of their communities are as diverse as the development challenges they face. But what unites them is that each shows the power of people to bring about change while protecting the planet.”

SSP has come as a ray of hope in the Marathwada region which is now known as the suicide capital of the country. It is providing a space for local women to create their own development solutions and play a pivotal role in bringing sustainable change.

More is also embarking on the journey of personal and professional growth. At the age of 60, she has got a licence to drive a small truck. She now looks forward to transporting her farm produce from Nanded to other parts of the country.


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