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Resilient rural women of the drylands

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Special Feature: International Day of Rural Women – October 15

Long before COVID constraints crept in, ‘resilience’ was and is the operative word for agri-food systems research in the semi-arid tropics. And when the pandemic happened, all we did was factor it into existing operations. Working towards hunger-free drylands is ICRISAT’s priority and recognizing the vital role that rural women play in achieving food and nutrition security pivots all initiatives.

Some of the pointers that experts have cited to build the resilience of rural women in the wake of COVID-19 have been an integral part of ICRISAT’s work since inception. Be it direct access to improved seed and inputs, harnessing the power of mobile technology, financing women through self-help groups and revolving funds and handholding women farmers in adopting best farming practices, cultivation of cash crops, and creating off-farm businesses – all of these come with real-life examples.

Facilitating direct access to improved seed and inputs

“If you give an opportunity to a woman, you can change things,” says Dr Rebbie Harawa, Research Program Director, Eastern and Southern Africa, ICRISAT, sharing her personal experience. “For me, access to technologies from research and resilience in the rural spaces is something I have grown up with and it impacted my life positively. I witnessed my mother access seeds of pigeonpea improved varieties, a new kind of seed ICRISAT was promoting, and convert it to an opportunity for us as a family. She planted, processed and sold the pigeonpeas to raise an income for our education. These were varieties that are resistant to wilt (which was a big challenge in my region), and we were able to grow them in the shortest period with higher yield. I have witnessed many farmers in my country, who were given a similar opportunity to access improved varieties that ICRISAT had released and were able to send their children to school.”

In the hands of women farmers, high quality seeds convert into an opportunity for enhanced production leading to better incomes and better nutrition. ICRISAT’s crops have good nutrition qualities especially for weaning children and women of reproductive age. They are the seeds of recovery and a critical building block in enhancing resilience for women in the wake of COVID-19.

Harnessing the power of mobile technology

In Kenya, over 11,000 farmers are receiving through SMS crop advisories since the outbreak of COVID and in the past 15 weeks, two advisories were sent every week focusing on the nutrition of women and children as part of Feed the Future Kenya Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) program. Prior to COVID, the Smart Food initiative was working to empower rural Kenyan women, families, and communities through participatory cooking classes, nutrition training, and door-to-door educational outreach.

A drive to understand concerns of farmers and stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic for the 2020-21 cropping season in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Senegal led to recognizing the importance of digital technologies. Digital extension and advisory services, online payments and fund transfers, and virtual learning platforms were among the key needs outlined by them. Efforts or on to bridge this gap not just for the current scenario but also for the future.

Financing women through self-help groups and revolving funds

“My children’s education is a priority,” says Ms Dachia Midana (far left in the photo), leader of the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) in northern Ghana. “I joined the VSLA to save money and also get credit for running my small enterprise. The income I earn from it helps me pay the school fees of my four children who are in high school. In fact, I pay the fees much in advance,” she says.

Even at the peak of the pandemic, it was business as usual for VSLA that serves as a platform to help groups raise funds to support activities that require financial assistance. The groups observed the prescribed safety protocols during their weekly meetings and did not encounter any problems with group activities. The Tropical Legumes III project partnered with SEND-Ghana (Social Enterprise Development) to set up the association.

“Income generating activities for rural women initiated through corporate social responsibility projects offered a safety buffer during the pandemic,” says Dr Sreenath Dixit, Principal Scientist & Head, ICRISAT Development Centre. “Building the capacity of rural women for activities such as goat rearing, vermicomposting, roti making, setting up small retail outlets, and cycle repair shops has been part of the overall strategy of diversifying incomes of poor families participating in the project. The initiative built resilience among women who toiled to support their family incomes and helped them bounce back after the lockdown ended,” says Dr Dixit, who led a watershed management initiative of the Power Grid Corporation of India in Ukkali village, Karnataka state.

One of the beneficiaries Ms Mukta Bai says that despite the lockdown, she managed to sustain her business. During the first two months of the lockdown, she struggled to supply sorghum rotis to nearby families and earned about Rs 2,500 per month, a quarter of the income she used to earn. After the lockdown restrictions were lifted, she started supplying rotis to nearby dhabas (roadside outlets) and now she is earning about Rs 5,000 per month which is still 50% of what she used to earn. She says that business is gradually picking up and with the Indian festive season around the corner, she hopes to revive her business to what it was before the pandemic.

Creating off-farm businesses

“Agribusiness is important to ensure agriculture is successful and profitable,” says Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT. “Agribusiness and agriculture go together and support for both is important. With COVID-19, we are recognizing this even more through challenges across the value chain,” she emphasizes.

A recent survey of millet entrepreneurs across India has revealed challenges and areas of intervention for the government including promoting healthy foods, GST exemption, more options for online selling among others, during and post lockdown.

For the survey, responses from SMEs in 11 cities having business operations in 24 states and Union Territories was collected as part of the Smart Food initiative, founded by ICRISAT. The results are being discussed with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which is working to address challenges faced by the industry.

Doorstep initiatives during COVID lockdown

“The food products we formulated are rich in dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and bioactives beneficial for boosting immunity,” says Dr Saikat Datta Mazumdar, Chief Operating Officer of the NutriPlus Knowledge Program at ICRISAT’s Agribusiness Innovation Platform. “The food products promote dietary diversity and are produced using locally available nutritious millets and protein rich pulses,” he says, talking of the ready-to-eat foods containing millets, sorghum and pulses produced by ICRISAT which were provided to tribal communities in the state of Telangana, India, at their doorstep. The move was to ensure nutrition sufficiency in children, pregnant women and lactating mothers in the communities during the lockdown period.

The initiative, which began in 2019, was being implemented through select Anganwadi centers (community centers for education, health and other purposes). The beneficiaries were being provided three ready-to-cook and three ready-to-eat products as supplementary food, served as breakfast and evening snack, in addition to the governments mid-day meals. However, during the lockdown, the Anganwadi centers closed and nutrition of the beneficiaries became a matter of concern until the program team worked to change the model of implementation.

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