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From improving yield to generating steady income, technology is changing the game for small farmers in UP and Jharkhand

Sulekha Nair

A patch of his two-acre landholding used to be filled with sunny, green chillies. The sight was a pleasant vision that hardworking Umakant Singh looked forward to in his 5-acre farm in Uttar Pradesh. However, his joy at his hard work bearing fruits would be shortlived.  A large quantity of the chillies that were harvested had to be thrown away as disease struck the crop.

With a B.Sc in Agriculture, Umakant recalls how his green chilli crops were getting destroyed season after season. Singh says that he was unable to understand what he could do to overcome it. "I used to get 7-9 tonnes of chillies per acre. And then rot and disease struck my farm and my plants produced only a small harvest or none at all," he said.

Like Singh, another smallholder from Ranchi, Embrosiya Kira, complained about her meagre crop of tomatoes on her 3 acre land in Lohardaga district near Ranchi in Jharkhand. She recalled that the yield was not much.

In India, 80 percent of farmers are small landholders who farm on less than two hectares of land. The use of technology to increase the yield is beyond their means. Even if the suggestion is made, they need handholding with regard to seeds, irrigation, finance, etc.

Today, Singh and Kira talk not only about how they increased their harvest with access to better technology and advice from Better Life Farming centre, but also are now advisors to other farmers in the area.

Better Life Farming is a global alliance of International Finance Corporation, Bayer Crop Science, global insurance company Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, and drip irrigation technology firm Netafim €" that together aims to help smallholders unlock their farming potential.

In April 2018, Bayer, International Finance Corporation (IFC, a member of the World Bank Group), Netafim and Swiss Re Corporate Solutions launched the 'Better Life Farming' alliance. It was launched in India in July 2018, along with additional local partners such as Yara Fertilisers, DeHaat and Big Basket.

The alliance decided to focus on certain regions in the north. In 2019, the Better Life Farming alliance has introduced an agri-entrepreneurship model for smallholder farmers. The model runs through the Better Life Farming Centers where agri-entrepreneurs enable the transfer of technology on topics such as seeds, crop protection, crop nutrition, drip irrigation, mulching, etc.

Classroom training is given before the farming season and on-farm training is given on demonstration plots during the season. A field officer is also available for individual consultation to the farmer. They also deliver services such as market linkages, access to inputs and crop advisory. Each centre covers a group of 500 farmers from five to six nearby villages.

Harmanpreet Singh, Lead-Smallholder Farming, India, Bayer CropScience, says the aim is to work with farmers who have small landholdings that get the lowest productivity. "The idea is to unlock their potential and also improve livelihood," he said.

How it works

In 2016, an extensive survey was carried out to know the extent and productivity of small farm holders. With the help of local panchayat, classroom training on crops are held before the sowing season. "We do not want farmers to have very high expectations. We carry out multiple training, take the farmers for field visits and show them farms where the new learning has yielded better harvests," said Singh.

In Uttar Pradesh, especially in the eastern region of the state, average landholding of farmers is between 2 and 2.5 acres; while in Jharkhand it ranges between 0.4 or 0.5 acre. "Our only criterion is to reach out to farmers who get the lowest productivity," says Singh.

Once they are able to increase their yield, the farmers are encouraged to help other farmers. In fact, says Kiro, other farmers ask for advice once they see their crops thrive. "I grow tomatoes and chillies on my 3 acre land in Lohardaga district near Ranchi in Jharkhand. After being trained in good agricultural practices by the Better Life Farming alliance, I have not only achieved better harvests but also increased my farm income."

After completing training and increasing their yield, farmers can set up a Better Life Farming centre, through which they sell seeds, produce, etc and are able to earn an extra income. The centres also work as mini collection units from where offtakers can collect produce. At this stage, the partner organisations under the Better Life Farming alliance helps smallholders procure the necessary seeds, pesticides and fertilisers licenses, GST registrations and acquire digital expertise to set up their agri-entrepreneurship business.

Around 8,000 farmers in 350 villages growing green chillies in Uttar Pradesh were so far able to double their yields and triple their income. Around 2,000 tomato farmers in 100 villages in Jharkhand witnessed an increase in yield by 60 percent and income by four times, said Harmant Singh.

"I was able to double my green chilli yield and triple my income as compared to previous years. This success has helped me dream bigger. I am now working with the alliance as an agri-entrepreneur. My goal is to help my fellow farmers with the latest agronomic know-how and thus give back to my community by creating employment for the people in my village," said Umakant Singh.

Under the Better Life Farming alliance, Netafim is working with Indian smallholder farmers to create awareness about precision irrigation and other advanced farming practices that can reduce vulnerability to weather changes. Yara Fertilisers is educating farmers about balanced crop nutrition and maintaining soil health. DeHaat and Big Basket are working as offtakers to ensure that smallholder farmers get the right price and market access for their produce.

"Sustainability is at the core of all the initiatives under the Better Life Farming alliance and that means creating value for all the stakeholders involved. We will measure the success of our initiatives through the economic, social and environmental impact that we create for smallholder farmers and their local communities," says D Narain, Managing Director, Bayer CropScience.

By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world, and an estimated 50 percent more food will be needed to meet the future demand for nutritious food, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Therefore, increasing food production is going to be vital. It is important small farm holding farmers are roped in too.

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