Providing income opportunities for farmers throughout the year is the goal of most promoters of farmer producer organizations (FPOs). Gujpro, a state level federation of FPOs in Gujarat, was set up in 2015 to help its 29 FPO members of 45,000 farmers.
Gujpro’s main support to its members included procurement (including minimum support price) and processing of groundnut, pulses and oilseeds, and trading in cumin. To diversify its portfolio, it started providing marketing support to mango growers in 2018.
Gujpro launched Satvik Grahak Bazaar, its ‘farmer to consumer co-operative shop’, in February 2019. In the summer of 2019, Gujpro facilitated the sale of carbide-free kesar mangoes in Ahmedabad, with a well-publicized Kesar Mahotsav.
Building on its positive experience, Gujpro sought to expand its outreach and sales this year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting lockdown from 25 March, severely affected their operations. Gujpro decided to explore alternate avenues so that the farmers would be able to sell their mangoes.
Stalled mango sale
Due to the lockdown, the much-anticipated mango festival, scheduled to be held in May, had to be cancelled. The rapid rise of the coronavirus infection in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, the FPO’s key markets, led to restrictions on vehicular movement. Gujpro had to cancel confirmed orders of four trucks.
On the supply side, Gujpro staff were unable to visit and coordinate procurement and the onus shifted to the FPOs to maintain quality and ensure that the mangoes were carbide-free, a key differentiator for Gujpro’s customers.
Gir Krushi Vasant Producer Company, one of Gujpro’s FPOs, ran a campaign for the summer sale but soon had to manage its orders from local clients through home delivery service.
The Gujarat horticulture department’s outlook indicated a drop in mango prices. Things looked bleak for the FPOs in early May. Gujpro came forward to support them by exploring alternate channels for the perishable produce.
The milk capital of India, Anand, is well-known for leading the cooperative revolution in the dairy sector with several institutions such as the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (GCMMF), Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) and Federation for Ecological Security (FES), working to spread collective enterprises across the country.
Before the lockdown, at a conference on the institution building challenge of FPOs at the IRMA campus, Kuldeep Solanki, CEO of Gujpro, had shared his insights on facilitating services for their member FPOs.
Solanki’s post on 2 May, in FPO connect, a national FPO group on a mobile message sharing platform, elicited discussions in a small group at IRMA. They decided to see if they could become conscious customers and help the FPO, as it could potentially provide premium mangoes to those locked in the campus.
Gujpro offered to supply mangoes at a price lower than the online rates at Ahmedabad, if they had confirmed orders of 200 boxes of 10 kg each. This seemed a tall order for the sparsely populated IRMA, as there were no students on campus.
Employees of NDDB, GCMMF and FES indicated interest. IRMA built on the FPO’s original message by emphasizing the farmer connect. A simple online form was designed for pre-orders, with a request for advance payments to the FPO, so as to minimize marketing risk for the FPO and avoid handling cash during delivery.
Quick collective action saw the identification of a volunteer and coordinator from each institution to manage pre-orders and collection, as well as smooth operation in a decentralized manner even as the customer database was centrally monitored.
Team effort in coordination within and across institutions was critical in the delivery process with minimal crowding and speedy distribution following physical distancing protocols. The first lot of 229 boxes was delivered on 20 May.
A survey conducted on 25 May showed encouraging feedback from 82 of the 129 customers. 85% of the respondents expressed interest in a repeat purchase, while 75% rated the quality and taste of the kesar mangoes as excellent.
Many respondents shared positive comments for delivering mangoes at their doorstep and for facilitating the connect where the farmers as well as consumers had a good price advantage. While some preferred smaller quantities, some said that the boxes weighed less than 10 kg.
Gujpro acted on the suggestions and concerns, and included an option for ordering a half-box, officially changing the listed weight of the box as 9 kg on their website, to account for the difference in weight when it reached the customer, even though common industry practice is to label it as 10 kg.
Even as residents were looking forward to a second order, the numbers were lower in the second round. GCMMF opted out as they had committed to another supplier. With the lockdown having eased in Anand and with supplies coming in, some residents opted for non-carbide-free mangoes at a slightly lower rate.
The volunteers were not sure of a full-truck order. They were anxious about the supply due to Cyclone Nisarga expected to hit Gujarat on 2 June. But Gujpro ensured timely procurement and ensured prompt delivery. On 5 June, World Environment Day, residents of Anand received their second lot of 100 full boxes. Delivery was quicker; residents felt the mangoes were more sweet. Smaller families were grateful for the half boxes.
Collective action and goodwill
Market operations work on trust. The spirit of collective action and consumer connect with producers had a few pleasant surprises. During the first order, there was a shortage of two boxes during the multiple deliveries in a short time window and the truck having to go to GCMMF. As a result one customer did not get his box.
The volunteers, with goodwill, decided to make up for the loss of the customer by contributing mangoes from their personal order and ensured delivery to the customer. Gujpro on its part was in constant touch and even offered to reduce its price marginally after collections were made the second time.
Solutions were found through discussions and Gujpro decided to offer a few complimentary boxes for each institution, that were later distributed again in kind with security staff of respective institutions. Sharing made the experience sweeter.
The two rounds of transactions per se did not make much of a dent to an FPO’s profitability even though consumers have been requesting for more supplies. The larger message to FPOs and farmers though, is the belief and hope that consumers are to support safer food and non-chemical alternatives, and even help during disruptions in the supply chain.
Conscious consumerism need not just be a big metro fad; residents of smaller towns are willing to pay slightly more for good and safe products if the message is communicated. For the FPO it provided newer business opportunities even as some volunteers joined the Gujpro mobile platform group to learn and take the message of safe food further.
The small experiment also showed the need for greater cooperation among cooperatives, the sixth cooperative principle that is often not talked about enough.
Traditional bazaars, unlike modern markets, allowed for conversations among producers and buyers, with each knowing more about the other’s world and lives. The pandemic presents an opportunity to rework these relations to suit contemporary times.
The experiment of IRMA and Gujpro, ably supported by sister institutions at Anand, is one step further to reimagine a post-COVID-19 world and remembering the farmers, and those who work with them, as corona warriors as well.
C Shambu Prasad is a faculty at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and founded its incubation centre ISEED. Vandana Ravichandran is research associate and Ayush Vani a research intern in the ‘Living Farm Incomes: Inequality, Sustainability and Civic Action in India’ project at IRMA.