AGRICULTURE: PLANTING SEEDS OF CHANGE

Published May 26, 2024
Women farmers in Keonjhar town in India’s Odisha use smartphones to learn about sustainable agricultural practices | Jennifer Kishan
Women farmers in Keonjhar town in India’s Odisha use smartphones to learn about sustainable agricultural practices | Jennifer Kishan

Aisha Bibi and her husband work as daily-wage labourers on land in a village near Sahiwal in Pakistan’s Punjab. Over the years, the couple’s struggle to feed their six children — five daughters and one son — has only increased.

A major reason why things have become more difficult for women like Aisha is climate change. While she might not understand the term or its impact on her daily life, Aisha knows that her life has become more difficult over the last several years. Unpredictable rain, hailstorms and heat have caused crop production to falter, meaning cuts in wages and opportunities to work.

“I, along with my three elder daughters, used to work as labourers in fields,” she tells Eos. “But we couldn’t manage a stable income.”

Her daughters now work as maids, while she continues to work as a farmhand, harvesting potatoes, cleaning wheat crops, and cutting rice and sugarcane.

Aisha doesn’t know her but she would feel a sense of shared struggle with Nirmala Mahanto, over a thousand miles away, in the drought-prone town of Keonjhar in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. When Nirmala first started farming on her in-laws’ land, she was taken aback by the extent of back-breaking work involved in crop production.

Pakistan and India are facing a climate crisis, including heat waves and floods, which are impacting agricultural yields and disproportionately impacting women farmers. Can technology come to their rescue?

Moreover, the scarcity of water in Keonjhar means that women must walk miles, lugging water, to irrigate their lands.

Nirmala tells Eos that she has to travel about 15 kms outside her village, to the cluster markets, to buy fertilisers and seeds and other agricultural equipment. This costs her both time and money, while challenging circumstances meant that she had no bargaining power and couldn’t negotiate on the price.

“Only 60 percent of the seeds I sowed turned into saplings, which meant huge losses in my field’s produce,” she says. “It depleted my family’s income and I could hardly break even with what was left.”

BURNING CAULDRON

Climate is having a major impact on both India and Pakistan, where rising temperatures and growing populations will require a significant increase in food production.

In Pakistan, a 2022 report on the state of the environment by the Punjab Environment Protection Department found that, over 30 years (1975–2005), the minimum temperature of Punjab had increased by 0.97°C and the maximum temperature by 1.14°C, putting it on the list of most vulnerable regions to climate change.

The situation is similar in India, which has been in the grip of another heatwave recently, with temperatures crossing 45 degrees Celsius in Delhi earlier this week. In April, the eastern Indian state of West Bengal recorded the highest number of heatwave days for the month in the last 15 years, followed by the coastal state of Odisha, where heat conditions were the worst in nine years.

One of the outcomes of this evolving situation is a greater focus on technology, such as drones and artificial intelligence (AI), to assist agricultural activities, particularly those spearheaded by women.

There has been a surge in investments for training and resources for women involved in agriculture on either side of the border.

SKEWED GROWTH

But there is much of the past to overcome. As it stands now, women-led agricultural plots are far less productive than those headed by men. An FAO report from 2011 posited that, globally, women-led farms were 23 percent less productive as compared to men.

In Pakistan, according to statistics released in a 2016 report by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, the total area of land owned by women in the province, the country’s bread basket, is a fraction of the area of land owned by men. “Only 21.8 percent of the total female population of Punjab are land owners,” it revealed.

According to one report of the Pakistan Economic Research Institute, published in 2017-2018, 27.6 percent women work in the agriculture sector in Punjab.

Dr Aamer Irshad, who heads programmes at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN in Pakistan, says many women work as unpaid labourers in fields and handle domestic tasks. “Women play an important role in Pakistani agriculture, but their role is often overlooked,” he tells Eos.

“There is a significant gender pay gap in this sector, too,” says Dr Irshad. “And women are exposed to occupational health and safety hazards — 79.7 percent of women and 38 percent of men are exposed to accidents,” he continues, citing findings of a study on the situation of women farmers in Pakistan.

Dr Nayab Raza, a PhD scholar at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, visited Pakistan to train farmers and was appalled by the lack of safety measures for women working on farms.

Her work focuses on highlighting the importance of sustainable farming techniques and promoting women’s empowerment in agriculture, and she has trained hundreds of women in Sindh.

She has also set up a company that works on inventive products, including a bio-fertiliser derived from native freshwater microalgae.

CHANGING TIMES

Agricultural education has been limited in both India and Pakistan, particularly for women, with literacy levels, the fear of gender-based violence and societal biases also having a detrimental impact on women’s participation in the labour market.

But that has changed over the last decade or so, with the emergence of collectives and self-help groups that seek to facilitate women farm owners and workers.

One such novelty is the farmer producer company (FPC), which is a hybrid between private limited companies and cooperative societies, and are registered under the Indian Companies Act. They constitute groups of producer organisations that collectively give the small and medium-sized farmers the advantage of market opportunities — supplying seeds, fertilisers and machinery, and providing market linkages and technical advisories to them.

In Keonjhar, a women-run FPC — Saharapada FPC — has been playing a critical role in changing the way women farmers work.

They provide saplings through their greenhouse, and organic fertilisers and agricultural machinery at reasonable rates. More importantly, the centre has been harnessing digital technology to build awareness on climate-smart agriculture. They are also working to ensure that women have access to information on weather advisories.

Using videos, flash messages and WhatsApp groups to disseminate this information, the FPC has trained hundreds of women on climate-smart agriculture and organic farming.

These new ideas are coming just in time. The FAO reported in 2024 that an increase of 1 degree Celsius in temperature leads to a 23.6 percent decrease in household agricultural income.

Community-based organisations are spearheading similar efforts in Pakistan.

SMART STRATEGIES

Dr Adnan Arshad, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Potohar Development Advocacy Organisation (PODA), says the non-governmental organisation has set up an aerial agriculture training centre to familiarise women farmers with digital technology.

The centre is powered by tech-driven devices, such as soil moisture meters as well as hygrometers, that provide real-time weather advisories in local languages via mobile networks.

Dr Arshad revealed that they have also established a climate-smart sustainable agriculture farm, to assess the efficacy of the latest technologies and climate-resilient crop varieties.

“We translate these findings into local languages for dissemination among women farmer networks, accompanied by training sessions on establishing wheat seed banks in villages,” Dr Arshad tells Eos.

Such interventions are beginning to have an impact.

When Sarah Babar, who is a teacher, decided to start an olive farm in 2017, she was met with scepticism. “At the outset, my colleagues at school doubted my commitment to the entrepreneurial path I had chosen,” she tells Eos. “However, quitting was never on my agenda. “

The initial stages, she acknowledges, were challenging, as the land, located in Chakwal, lacked development, with no road network or electricity. “It took over seven months of dedicated effort to level the uneven farmland, before we could access it by a vehicle,” she says.

She now runs a successful olive nursery, while crediting the “smart agricultural techniques” she found out about “at PODA and some other international organisations.”

STATE-LEVEL SUPPORT

In the recent interim budget announced by the Indian government, agri-tech has been speculated to see a boost as several government initiatives aim to enhance the adoption of agri-tech solutions.

Agri-tech solutions, such as real time data collection systems, drone-based agriculture and AI-based precision agriculture, are being seen as ways to increase farmer yield to meet the rising demands of food production.

In Keonjhar, women farmers are looking forward to these solutions. “Earlier we used to be dependent on our families for all farming decisions,” says Nirmala Mahanto. “We can now provide solutions and information — they now listen to us instead.”

In Pakistan, the thrust is coming more from multilateral donors.

Dr Aamer Irshad emphasises the crucial role the FAO plays in empowering female farmers and enhancing agricultural sustainability and food security in Pakistan. He points out that their Digital Village Initiative (DVI) is making significant progress in empowering rural communities, particularly in Rahim Yar Khan and Sargodha districts.

Similarly, with other projects, such as the ‘Transforming the Indus Basin with Climate Resilient Agriculture and Water Management’ project, FAO is making strides in gender equality. Some 28 percent of direct beneficiaries and 49 percent of indirect beneficiaries of the project are female.

Saddia Mazhar is an investigative journalist and feature writer, writing for different national and international news organisations.
She tweets at @saddiamazhar

Jennifer Kishan is an independent journalist and photographer based in Kolkata, India. She writes on climate change, disasters, social justice, migration and art & culture.

This story is the result of a cross-border journalism programme of the East West Foundation

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 26th, 2024

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