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Amelia  Ahl headshot

Walmart Extends a Hand Up to Indian Farmers

The Walmart Foundation took another step in its $25 million commitment to support smallholder farmers over the next five years.
By Amelia Ahl

The Walmart Foundation recently announced it will award two grants totaling $4.5 million to the NGOs Tanager and Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) in order to improve the livelihoods of Indian farmers. These grants are a part of a $25 million commitment the foundation made in September 2018 to support smallholder Indian farmers over the course of five years.

A commitment to the supply chain from Walmart

The announcement comes as Climate Week 2020 is well underway – and as Walmart announced its own long-term objective to reach zero emissions by 2040. This initiative also is launching at a time when more organizations are focusing on the global pandemic's impact on farmers worldwide. 

Among the voices heard during this year’s Climate Week, some advocates are demanding an increase in climate philanthropy to support smallholder farmers, who currently feed 75 percent of the Global South. These same proponents of climate philanthropy point out that less than 2 percent of philanthropic contributions support environmental groups or causes, with a small fraction of that funding supporting women-led environmental action.

The Walmart Foundation grants will enable Tanager, an international agriculture nonprofit, and PRADAN, a Delhi-based community development organization, to focus their efforts on supporting farmer producer organizations (FPOs) to attract new members and scale their knowledge of sustainable farming and business practices, specifically for women farmers.

"The Walmart Foundation and PRADAN share a vision of building sustainable communities by creating opportunities for marginalized people. FPO’s are key to the Foundation’s strategy for empowering farmers and bringing them into the digital era,” said Narendranath Damodaran, executive director of PRADAN.

Harnessing technology to improve livelihoods

The announcement of these two new grants boosts Walmart Foundation investments to $15 million, distributed across eight Indian nonprofits since the program began in 2018. To date, such programs have supported more than 140,000 farmers total, the majority of whom are women.

In 2019, Rubi Devi, a mint farmer living from Uttar Pradesh, joined an FPO run by TechnoServe, a nonprofit supported by a Walmart Foundation grant. Until that time, Rubi’s farming income was unpredictable and subject to the whims of the middlemen she was forced to negotiate with in order to gain access to the market. After joining the FPO, she started to receive regular information on market prices through text messages and in-person meetings.

“Being associated with my FPO and the TechnoServe program has helped me become more independent,” Rubi said. “By selling through the FPO, I receive a better price for every kilogram of mentha oil, and my oil is weighed using an accurate electronic scale to prevent unexpected losses.”

Like TechnoServe, both new grantee organizations will focus their efforts on supporting female farmers via FPOs. Participating farmers gain access to finance and new markets and learn new and sustainable farming practices that improve yield and access new technologies, and generally adapt to an uncertain and unpredictable climate and economy.

In India, women farmers are particularly vulnerable

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture is among the more common livelihoods for Indians today, with more than 70 percent of rural households making a living from the land. This type of work has become increasingly dominated by women due to ongoing rural to urban migration of men, the growing number of female-run households, and increased production of cash crops.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately has an impact on India, with cases on track to surpass the United States total in coming weeks after reporting the highest daily count of infections, 98,000 in one day, last week. While the effects of the pandemic can be felt across the subcontinent, there are growing consequences for female farmers, who are often denied ownership of the land on which they farm and earn less for their labor compared to men.

Further, women farmers increasingly find themselves juggling maintaining domestic responsibilities and earning a living farming amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19, which has exacerbated food shortages, limited earning potential and caused much higher levels of emotional distress.

The pandemic also comes at the heels of a disturbing trend of farmer suicides across India, which has one of the highest rates of suicide globally - with more than 10,000 farmers and farm laborers dying of suicide in 2019. In India, farmer suicides are often attributed to fears and misery over bankruptcy and debt.

For example, critics say many farmers found themselves forced to purchase expensive “terminator” GMO seeds from companies like Monsanto (which Bayer acquired in 2018). Although additional research suggests the causes of this high rate of suicide are far more complex than the use of GMO seeds and actually date back over the past several decades, this public health crisis hasn’t gone away. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the threats of suicide as many farmers have found their livelihoods threatened during the nationwide lockdown.

Since India continued its shift from a system rooted in permaculture and organic agriculture to one that is increasingly based on monoculture, critics of such practice say conditions for farmers have worsened, environmental risks have increased – even while crop yields and profits for multinationals have grown.

Beyond grants, technology can also help boost farmers' incomes

Through FPOs, Tanager and PRADAN have been able to provide critical support to rural communities in order to mitigate some of these effects. Trainings on sustainable and efficient farming and business practices for women farmers have shifted to digital platforms while the organizations have also responded to immediate needs such as food and hygiene supplies during India’s lockdown.

This Walmart Foundation program – which funds similar initiatives in regions such as Latin America -  represents an important evolution in the way corporations are interacting with smallholder farmers: one that is less extractive and instead, a focus on supporting the development of small-scale, sustainable farming practices through grants to local organizations.

In the future, watch for companies to evolve further away from extractive models and work to ensure living wages and safe working conditions for all farmers and laborers along their supply chains.

Image credit: Walmart Foundation

Amelia  Ahl headshot

Amelia Ahl is an MBA/MPA candidate at Presidio Graduate School, pursuing a degree in sustainable solutions. She has a background in humanitarian and international development, which fueled her interest in regenerative business models. Amelia's experience ranges from social business and impact investing to policy and the nonprofit sector. Her research and work is guided by social justice and antiracism. Amelia is a consultant for sustainable businesses and the co-founder of an accountability group for female and non-binary entrepreneurs.

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