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Dealing With The Pandemic: Women’s Organization In Odisha On The Frontline

(Pre-COVID photo of women in Odisha, IRRI Archives (2018))

Refusing to be defeated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a women-led Farmer Producer Company (FPC) introduced new farming practices in their community in Kalahandi district in Odisha, India. The efforts of the Adarsh Dharmagarh Women Farmers Services Producer Company Ltd (ADWFSPCL), incubated by IRRI and Access Livelihoods Group (ALG) supported by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment of the Government of Odisha,  yielded  tangible socio-economic benefits, highlighting the advantages brought by Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs). 

With the creation of the FPC, formal supply chains were established, providing women and their communities the much-needed boost to address the impacts of the pandemic, such as shortage of cash, reduced market demand for produce, and the general breakdown of logistics.

In Odisha, smallholders producing maize resorted to distress-sales when  the government imposed  lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19. Their lack of holding capacity and the halted trade in local markets made them vulnerable to exploitative prices.

In one case, a woman who sold mudhi (puffed rice) and earned an average of USD 80 a month could not sell her products and had close to nothing for herself and her family. The difficulties experienced by many other families became apparent when, instead of face masks, they would use table napkins or cloths as a way to protect themselves from the virus. 

The unprecedented health crisis inadvertently highlighted the important role of FPCs as they provided the necessary connection between farmers and other entities in the agricultural supply chain. The FPCs filled the gaps in the logistics-- from acquiring and distributing seeds and fertilizers, and establishing communication between farmers and traders.  The ADWFSPCL was able to provide quality paddy seeds to 720 of its members, while 595 members acquired fertilizer on credit. During the year, a paddy seed processing plant was established, creating local employment for community members. The processed paddy seed was marketed under the brand name ‘Creyo’. The seed production program for the kharif included 229 members, providing more income for these households while enhancing community access to quality seeds of preferred varieties. 

The FPC also went above and beyond their usual roles when they provided safety nets to cushion the blow of the pandemic, especially for severely impacted members of the community. In a noteworthy effort, each of the directors of the FPC in Odisha contributed their sitting fee of INR 7,000 (around 95 USD) towards the preparation and distribution of masks to 700 members. Two others led the team which took responsibility for preparing food for 200 people per day through the support of  Mission Shakti Yojana, a program of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) of Odisha that aims to empower and protect women. Many members of the FPC individually made and distributed 50 masks per day for free. 

As many as 1,491 food packets, each costing around INR 200 (around USD 2.70),  with around 31 staple food items that meet the minimum household requirements were distributed in 21 villages through 17 distribution points. The FPC Retail Services also supplied groceries to 2,000 member and non-member households. The distribution of masks, grocery supplies and food packets became a lifeline to the many communities struggling to survive in these uncertain times.     

Information, while always a valuable commodity, increased manifold in value during this pandemic. ADWFSPCL conducted trainings through videos and disseminated information both related to agriculture and the pandemic through mobile phones, allowing the workers to return to their fields with vigor and hope. Business knowledge and technical know-how became crucial in sustaining these smallholder farmers. Credible information and connectivity gave the farmers a chance at surviving and even conquering the many challenges brought about by lockdown and the virus itself. 

This case of a women’s collective in Odisha is proof that, when provided with adequate support and assistance, women can significantly contribute to enhancing their own resilience and that of their communities during such protracted crises which was stopping everyone in their tracks.

Women (and men) were made to realize that, instead of waiting for external support, they can take control of the situation by taking initiative to address the challenges they face . Working together as a collective allowed them to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and demonstrated a way forward to respond to  future challenges that might come their way.