In India, smallholders constitute nearly 80% of total farm households and make up one of the largest constituencies among the poor. Their food and nutritional security, and poverty alleviation pose great challenges. Their lives can be improved only by increasing farm productivity and promoting off-farm rural employment. This requires appropriate technology dissemination systems to equip them with modern practices in both types of activities.
It can be argued that by promoting a community based model of agricultural advisory services, it is possible to improve the lives of smallholding families through increased farm productivity.
Even after 70 years of independent rule and progress, neither the public extension system nor the market is able to reach the millions of smallholders in remote areas of our country. Their low self-efficacy, the lack of belief of outsiders in their capability, and ignorance of public extension workers about their specific needs are some of the reasons for this sorry state.
It is small wonder then that the productivity of most of the farm and off-farm activities they are engaged in varies from merely 50-65% of the national average. We cannot ignore this if we are to ensure their well-being and meet the national food demand. New models have to be developed for these unreached families to have access to right information, knowledge and skills to optimize productivity of their livelihoods and lives.
There have been several efforts to design appropriate models of extension. PRADAN, a not-for-profit working on rural development in the poorest parts of seven central Indian states, has been promoting community service providers (CSPs) for many years. It is one of the successful attempts to address the challenge.
Led by women
The uniqueness of this approach is that women from disadvantaged households organized into self-help groups select, engage and supervise local youth to work as community service providers (CSPs) to help members adopt modern practices and also access markets.
This mechanism is found to be sustainable only if the work of the CSP is carried out as an enterprise that supports the rural production system, which benefits both the community and entrepreneur.
Though the public extension system in India has undergone several changes since independence, a large number of smallholder farmers and other vulnerable groups remain outside its reach. Moreover, the models of extension of government and private agro-dealers do not meet the needs of smallholders in hilly and undulating areas due to the high transaction costs of reaching the pockets, the need for crop and livestock management solutions suitable to local conditions, and lack of willingness by extension specialists to live and work in such remote and sometimes insecure areas.
For families engaged in farm-based livelihoods, the services found necessary included asset creation through government grants; working capital mobilization through credit; supply of quality agricultural inputs; knowledge and skill transfer for soil health management, nursery raising, crop production, crop protection, farm mechanization and post-harvest processing; and marketing.
PRADAN initiated a community based model to provide the services related to knowledge and skill transfer, natural resource management (NRM) based asset creation, and marketing to fill the gap left by the state and the market. Women were organized into SHGs for mobilizing credit for their members and local agro-dealers were oriented to provide quality inputs on time.
Initially, men were largely chosen as CSPs. Later, when PRADAN’s focus shifted towards empowering women SHG members by enhancing their skills and capabilities in agriculture, interested women were groomed as service providers.
Soon, the process of selection and training was standardized. Communities selected the candidates against a list of agreed upon criteria such as 20-40 years of age, education at least to the eighth standard, acquaintance with modern farming but not completely occupied in farming, owning a mobile phone, wide social acceptance, and possessing a mode of conveyance.
This model has been quite successful making a large number of women farmers adopt modern agricultural inputs and practices at relatively low cost. They have begun to fetch a good price for their produce and earn a decent income. This experience has now been adopted by many NGOs and also under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), the national flagship program for poverty reduction.
However, there are still some challenges. Meeting the full cost of CSPs through contribution from the community has remained a concern. In our society, where paying for information is not the norm, it was hard for CSPs to get a reasonable payment from their community for the services they provide.
To overcome this, PRADAN in association with Transform Rural India Foundation adopted the tested model followed by agro-dealers, who provide knowledge free of charge to increase their sales. We focused on promoting entrepreneurs in partnership with TRI around missing services like input supply, including seedling, irrigation, mechanization, and marketing for which the community was willing to pay. Introducing knowledge on modern farming became complementary to these services to attract more people and increase the demand for their services.
We then selected high-performing CSPs and trained them, after which they were given a stipend of Rs 3,000 a month for six months to select an enterprise of their choice, prepare a business plan, secure bank loans and launch the venture. This has worked quite well. Most of the trained entrepreneurs have been able to start a business of their own to provide different services to the farmers on payment.
Some of the prominent businesses include agricultural input supply, polyhouse nursery to supply healthy seedlings, accessing government subsidies to procure agricultural machinery and provide rental service, and marketing of vegetables and fruits to distant markets and enterprises like Mother Dairy. This approach of promoting micro-enterprises seems to be a win-win situation for both CSPs and small and marginal farmers.
A suitable rural extension model has to be an integral part of sustainable agriculture and livestock development strategies. The entrepreneur – who can rightly be called an agripreneur – model seems to be the best to establish a strategic alliance between producers and service providers to promote the exchange of information and facilitate wider dissemination and uptake of improved farming practices.
This model can be scaled up to cover a large number of farmers but requires quality training, finances (grant and loans) and support for 6-12 months to help the CSPs stand on their own feet. It is also a challenge for the CSPs to obtain a license from the government to sell fertilizers and pesticides. Advocacy for favorable policies may therefore be vital to support these entrepreneurs run their ventures successfully and provide critical information to the smallholders to revitalize Indian agriculture.
Manas Satpathy is in the leadership team of PRADAN, a large grassroots organization working on rural development. Views are personal.