Bengaluru-based start-up Alswamitra Botanicals LLP has launched an initiative in tribal hamlets in South India to standardise the yield and quality of organic crops such as turmeric and millets by distributing seeds from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and then buying back to distribute them to other farmers.
But the firm also insists the growers form a farmer producers organisation (FPO) as it will not only help them increase their bargaining power but also share their knowledge with one another in the group.
For this purpose, Alswamitra has joined NGO Sahaja Seeds, the country’s first farmer-owned organic seed firm. The NGO is into reviving indigenous seeds and has a bank of tens of thousands of seeds. For example, it has seeds of over 29,000 varieties of rice.
Alswamitra, which is being run by a few corporate employees on a pro bono basis, distributes these seeds in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andaman and Nicobar.
According to Neil Thomas, Director, Alswamitra, the seeds are distributed after a proper contract is signed with them. The contract is based on the template suggested by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“Growers have the freedom to fix the price. For the seed we supply in advance, growers can either pay in cash or in seeds. They need to think of repayment only during harvest since the seeds are supplied as a loan,” he said.
No interest is charged for supplying the seeds in advance. “We prefer to get the returns in seeds, though,” the firm’s director said.
The seeds thus propagated and got back are then distributed among other farmers willing to work with the firm. “This has dual benefits. One, organic produce of uniform quality is produced. The quality is maintained as the seeds get distributed among other willing farmers,” he said.
Second, the varieties chosen are high-yielding ones. Thus, more farmers get the chance to grow high-yielding organic variety of either a millet crop or turmeric.
Before farmers get the seeds, they will have to form the FPO. In fact, the Alswamitra initiative, launched 18 years ago, is a tribal farm initiative inspired by doctor couples George and Lalitha Regi who worked in Sittilingi Valley in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu, during 1990s. They launched Tribal Health Initiative in 1993.
By 2009, the movement led to the formation of the Sittlingi Organic Farmers’ Association (SOFA) with its members agreeing to the conditions that their produce will be organic and they will consume 50 per cent of their production.
“The result was that farmers grew traditional crops such as millets that needed less water and was traditionally eaten. Turmeric was grown as a cash crop to bring in the money and the excess produce left after self-consumption was sold. This was an ingenious move—the traditional farmers got enough food and money from their livelihood,” said Thomas.
It proved to be a welcome change as the tribal farmers had been struggling with a turmeric variety whose yield was low. In the case of turmeric, Alswamitra invested in the Pratibha turmeric seed and distributed it to the farmers.
“They were given the option to return the seeds or sell it to a private firm. The private firm bought the turmeric at a higher price since it had higher curcumin and curcumin oil content,” the Alswamitra director said.
Then followed the setting up of the Sittilingi Valley Organic Farmers Producer Company Limited in November 2015, with the majority shareholders being women from women’s entrepreneurship groups in the valley. The company was formed to accommodate the expanding sales and market their products.
“Our initiative encourages rural women entrepreneurs and small holding farmers. Our success has been in creating FPOs and then look at the growing pattern by the farmers,” he said.
Alswamitra also wants the growers to directly market their produce. “They don’t have an entity to market their produce. They don’t have direct access to retail outlets and tend to rely on middlemen.
It is here the Alswamitra comes into the picture. “We buy the produce paying growers 25 per cent more and market them on digital platforms such as Amazon, Flipkart, etc. We had launched another initiative to market these products under the brand name GrainForests,” Thomas said.
The brand connects 12,000 farmers with consumers who are health, environment and socially conscious. “The creation of the brand has also helped the firm in creating work and income opportunities for tribal and local women in processing and packing,” he said.
Alswamitra, a limited liability partnership (LLP) firm, also ensures that 40 per cent of the profit from selling organic produce under GrainForests brand is given back to the tribal farming community.
The company chose to be a LLP firm as it wanted to be sustainable, while operating like a corporate firm. “We are in the process of getting trade certification. It is also trying to get registered as B Corp, which is a US format recognition for NGOs. Getting B Corp registration carries a lot more value in Europe and the US,” Thomas said.
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