Till 2012, 60-year-old Vanita Sahebrao More used to spend Rs 40,000 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, infamous for crippling droughts and farmer suicides.
Vanita's husband was working in a sugarcane factory, which left the responsibility of managing the farm entirely on her. She 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 per cent organic inputs.
Instead of the traditional approach of focusing on cash crops, Vanita has been trained to put the nutritional needs of the family first. 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 Rs 45,000.
Vanita 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.
For its efforts to help women farmers to cope better during extreme events, SSP is among the 15 winners selected for this year's Equator Prize by the 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.
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 Vanita.
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.
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."
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.
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, Vanita has also eliminated a big chunk of the farm input costs which earlier amounted to almost 30 per cent 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. "We are working towards forming farmer producer cooperatives for women… producer groups led by women who can claim space in that market," says Verma.
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 $10,000 and the opportunity for a community representative to join a weeklong summit in New York during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.
SSP has come as a ray of hope in the Marathwada region which is 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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