Bengaluru-based company empowers tribal farmers to practice organic farming

Farmers must first form the FPO before receiving the seeds.

Alswamitra Botanicals LLP, based in Bengaluru, has launched an initiative in tribal hamlets in southern India to standardize the yield and quality of organic crops such as turmeric and millet by distributing seeds to an NGO and then selling them buying them back to distribute to other farmers.

However, the company also insists that growers form a Farmer Producer Organization (FPO) as this will not only help them increase their bargaining power but also allow them to share their knowledge within the group. Alswamitra has joined the NGO Sahaja Seeds, the first farmer-owned organic seed company, for this purpose. The NGO works to revitalize native seeds and has a seed bank with tens of thousands of seeds. For example, it contains seeds from over 29,000 different rice varieties.

Alswamitra, which is run on a voluntary basis by a few company employees, distributes these seeds in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andaman and Nicobar. According to Neil Thomas, director of Alswamitra, the seeds are distributed after signing a formal contract with them. The contract is based on a model recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“Producers have the ability to set their own prices. Growers can pay cash or seed for the seed we supply in advance. They only have to think about repayment during the harvest because the seeds are provided on loan,” he explained.

“There is no interest charged for supplying the seed in advance. However, we prefer to get the seed revenue,” the company manager said.

The seeds that have been propagated and returned are then distributed to other farmers who agree to work with the company. “This has two advantages. First, high quality organic products are produced. Seed quality is maintained when distributed to other volunteer farmers. Second, the varieties selected are high yielding. to be able to grow high-yielding organic varieties of millet or turmeric,” he said.

Farmers must first form the FPO before receiving the seeds. In fact, the Alswamitra initiative, which began 18 years ago, was inspired by medical couple George and Lalitha Regi, who worked in the Sittilingi valley in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu, in the 1990s. In 1993, they created the Tribal Health Initiative.

In 2009, the movement culminated in the formation of the Sittlingi Organic Farmers Association (SOFA), with its members agreeing that their products would be organic and that they would consume 50% of their production.

“As a result, farmers grew traditional crops such as millet, which required less water and were traditionally eaten.” Turmeric was grown as a cash crop to generate income, and any surplus produced after self-consumption was sold. “It was a brilliant move – traditional farmers were getting enough food and money from their livelihoods,” Thomas said.

It was a welcome change for tribal farmers, who had struggled with a low-yielding variety of turmeric. Alswamitra has invested in Pratibha turmeric seed and distributed it to farmers in the case of turmeric.

“They had the option of returning the seeds or selling them to a private company.” “Private enterprise paid a higher price for turmeric because it contained more curcumin and curcumin oil,” Alswamitra manager explained. The Sittilingi Valley Organic Farmers Producer Company Limited was established in November 2015 with the majority of shareholders being women from women’s entrepreneurship groups in the valley. The company was created to manage sales growth and market its products.

“Our initiative promotes rural women entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers. Our success has been in creating OPFs and then looking at farmers’ growth models,” he said.

Alswamitra also wants producers to sell their products directly to consumers. “They don’t have a marketing entity for their products. They don’t have direct access to outlets and instead have to rely on intermediaries.”

This is where Alswamitra comes into play. “We buy the products, pay the producers 25% more and sell them on digital platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and others. We had launched another initiative to market these products under the Grain Forest brand,” explained Thomas.

The brand connects 12,000 farmers with consumers concerned about their health, the environment and society. “The creation of the brand has also helped the company create work and income opportunities for tribal and local women in processing and packaging,” he said. Alswamitra, a limited liability company (LLP), also ensures that 40% of profits from the sale of organic products under the Grain Forest brand are donated to the tribal farming community.

The company chose to be a Limited Liability Company (LLP) because it wanted to be sustainable while operating like a corporation. “We are working on obtaining commercial certification.” It is also trying to become a B Corp, which is an American format for recognition of nonprofit organizations. “Getting a B Corp registration is much more valuable in Europe and the United States,” Thomas explained.

First published on: July 02, 2022, 11:53 IST

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