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CSR Empowering Women by Ensuring Food Sovereignty in Rural Communities

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India is seeking to double the incomes of its farmers by 2022. Food sovereignty is an important measure to meet this target.

What is Food Sovereignty?

Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

Food Sovereignty in India

In India, people are more connected to their food since little of it is processed and packaged. Even then, there is little food sovereignty for either the grower or the consumer since neither of them is aware of the safety aspects of food and the dangerous consequences of this ignorance. Amid this, implementing food sovereignty for farmers seems far-fetched in the absence of external aid from the government or CSR initiatives.

Sodexo’s CSR initiative to Implement Food Sovereignty for Women Farmers in Maharashtra

With an intent to implement food sovereignty for women in Maharashtra Sodexo launched its CSR initiative Beej Sakhi Program in association with Sulabh International Centre for Action Sociology. As part of the initiative, Sulabh International Centre for Action Sociology identified 16 villages in Sangamner and Akole blocks under the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra and sought the help of women volunteers to make this project a success. The objective was to create a seed bank, managed by these women, that would act as a storage for high quality indigenous seeds. Farmers could purchase these organic seeds for a nominal price; these seeds would give rise to a healthy crop, devoid of chemicals, and it would also help conserve agro biodiversity. Additionally, the project would establish food chain from farm to end-customer and lead to economic and social empowerment of women.
“Seeds from traditional agricultural varieties help to solve food shortages and malnutrition. This also intensifies the food system resilience to climate and cultural challenges. Seed banks promote resilient and diversified food production of sorghum, millets and many more indigenous varieties which also protects the biodiversity of the area. In our initiative, women farmers are using the conservation of the native seeds as the basis of their own development.
This vision aims to preserve and promote the indigenous seeds to achieve food sufficiency which eventually eradicates hunger and restores the dignity of farmers. I am sure this joint partnership of Sulabh International with Sodexo India – Stop Hunger will contribute immensely towards food security and will come out with a successful model of food sovereignty”, said Nirja Bhatnagar, National Director – Program and Advocacy, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation.
Once the villages were identified for the project, community seed workers, or animators, having interest and experience in working with women farmers were employed. They held meetings in the village to build rapport with the women, discussed with gram panchayat members to gain the support of key persons, visited nearby kitchen gardens to gather more knowledge and created a focus group of already engaged women farmers who had been conserving and cultivating indigenous crop varieties. These activities helped both the project staff and the local women to gear up for project implementation.

Overcoming the challenges

There were several constraints that challenged the success of this project. To begin with, the problem of patriarchy had to be resolved. Traditionally, the men of the house have always handled farming while the women looked after the house. Further, there prevailed a strong belief that hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers would help increase yield; quantity took precedence over quality. Inappropriate farming practices were followed too; for example, more interest remained in mono-cropping as it was easy, overlooking the fact that this practice would eventually rid the soil of fertility.

Changes observed after Implementation

There were many interesting and welcome changes once the project was implemented. The women became aware of gender discrimination in farming and endeavoured to break the shackles. They took an active interest in the cultivation of crops and promoted an indigenous variety of seeds. The adoption of organic farming practices led to a reduction of production costs of farming goods in comparison to farming with chemical inputs. Women were encouraged to start their own kitchen gardens. This helped them produce vegetables for their daily meals, and the surplus could be sold in the local market to get the money that supplemented the family income.
Gradually, the advantages of organic seeds became apparent, and women farmers started exchanging seeds among themselves instead of purchasing from the market at a higher price. This also fostered team spirit among the women. It led to increased collaboration and the women started discussing best methods for seed conservation and increase of farm produce.
As Savita Lende, belonging to a small, remote, tribal village named Kandarmalwadi in Sangmner, Maharashtra puts it, “I have understood the importance of local seeds and organic farming. Therefore, I have decided to grow the vegetables first for the consumption of my family then to sell in the local market. I will always try to meet the nutritional need of my family and to keep the family healthy”.
On the productivity and financial side, there was an increase of around 13-14% in crop yield after the first quarter, and it was projected that this could go up to 20% if there was the complete implementation of organic farming. Simultaneously, the average income too increased and the value touched Rs. 24000-25000 per annum in the project villages.
“Subsistence and climate-resilient organic farming is the answer to climate change challenges and can also help overcome hunger. Let’s achieve food sovereignty and restore human dignity”, says Ashwin Bhosale, Corporate Responsibility & HSE Head – Sodexo India.
Inclusivity is the cornerstone of Sodexo values. The organization believes in creating a better every day for everyone to build a better life for all. Sodexo already has a Better Tomorrow 2025 plan and aligning with this vision, the company has taken up several community development initiatives to promote sustainable livelihoods.