The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and PepsiCo are partnering to promote women’s economic empowerment in the potato supply chain in West Bengal, India. The partnership aims to demonstrate the business case that empowering women makes good social and economic sense, leading to the adoption of sustainable farming practices, improved yields and income for farming families, and increased profitability for companies. The project uses multiple approaches to reach, benefit, and empower women in the potato supply chain, strengthening women’s land tenure security, creating improved livelihoods and entrepreneurial opportunities for women, and promoting increased social acceptance of women’s role as farmers. This project is implemented under the Integrated Land and Resource Governance (ILRG) task order, led by Tetra Tech in collaboration with Landesa, with funding from the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Fund at USAID.
During the 2019 – 2020 potato season, ILRG supported four women Community Agronomists in two communities to reach, support, and empower women potato farmers who are part of PepsiCo’s supply chain in West Bengal. Women (like men) can benefit from mentoring support not only on agronomic practices but also in household and group decision-making, access to credit, use of time-saving techniques and technologies, safety measures, and market negotiation to successfully engage in the PepsiCo potato supply chain. While external experts may be useful for training in these technical areas, they are not always available when needed for continued capacity-building, mentorship, and problem-solving assistance. Thus, ILRG trained women as Community Agronomists to support local women potato farmers, with the goal of ensuring easy and timely provision of extension support services and access to modern potato cultivation techniques for women in PepsiCo communities and farming households. It was also important to empower these Community Agronomists in becoming community-recognized change makers, mentors, trainers, and support service providers.
Four women in two communities – Dhuluk (Purba Burdawan District) and Boragori (Hooghly District) – were selected to participate in this project in the first year. Project support included a three-day Community Agronomist training program that covered potato agronomy and women’s empowerment principles, on-call support from ILRG Field Agronomists and the ILRG Country Coordinator, and a monthly stipend. Agricultural cooperative societies and PepsiCo staff also provided support to identify potential candidates. PepsiCo, ILRG, and agricultural cooperative societies provided female Community Agronomists with continued technical support. ILRG offered hands-on training, mentoring, and problem-solving support on data collection, data analysis, how to organize field visits, and how to engage with women farmers. PepsiCo Agronomists provided direct guidance on PepsiCo potato production.
The purpose of the activity was to test the effectiveness of using Community Agronomists to help PepsiCo staff reach more women farmers within their supply chain. ILRG selected literate women with some schooling (up to grades 8 – 12), with previous farming experience, as well as experience supporting community development programs. The role of these Community Agronomists was to act as a bridge between women farmers organized in women’s groups and PepsiCo staff to disseminate information, technologies, and other services. They supported training in PepsiCo’s package of potato farming practices (POP) and in sustainable farming practices (SFPs), and monitored field-level activities during household visits. In Year 2, they will provide mentoring and support to increase gender equality and address harmful gender norms within the project, as well as support for women who participate in an upcoming Empowered Entrepreneurship Training (EET). Developed by the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) SEE Change Initiative, EET is an entrepreneurship program focused on comprehensive business, self-empowerment, and leadership skills.
Over the course of the potato production season (November – March), these four female Community Agronomists supported 71 women organized in seven women’s groups in two farming communities. In addition to providing much-needed local support and mentoring, they also developed their own agronomic, personal, and professional skills. They learned new farming techniques related to potato seed cutting, use of personal protection equipment (PPE), safe storage and use of agrochemicals, and grading and packaging of potatoes, as well as learning about harmful production practices such as crop residue burning, which have negative environmental impacts. They also learned how to organize training events, prepare reports, and interact with local farm families in a professional capacity.
Their main achievements this year include increased self-confidence and community acceptance of women in non-traditional roles. Community Agronomists developed confidence to meet with farmers – including male farmers – to discuss agricultural issues and provide them with guidance. Community acceptance was a critical success, with farmers welcoming Community Agronomists during field visits, asking them questions, and taking their advice. Farmers in the community have even requested Community Agronomists to continue field visits beyond the potato season and into the rice season. Working as Community Agronomists helped women overcome personal and social barriers related to women’s public speaking. Engaging Community Agronomists was key to begin to shift social gender norms in these communities, leading men and communities to increasingly acknowledge and respect women as valuable sources of agricultural knowledge, change agents, and leaders.
Initially, Community Agronomists were not sure if they could play this role and do their jobs effectively. They were unsure of their capacity, the support they would receive from their families, and acceptance from the community. Their biggest initial challenge was convincing their husbands and family members that they could successfully perform the required tasks while simultaneously ensuring that their regular household duties and roles were fulfilled. In some cases, it took almost two months to prove this personal “business case.” Another challenge was visiting farmers and farm families in their fields and at home, at a time that was convenient to them. This required a lot of flexibility and negotiation, and the Community Agronomists had to adapt their schedules to provide required support. In some cases, farmers were hesitant to share information about their farming practices, especially fertilizer doses and agrochemical use. In addition, in March 2020 coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) restricted the ability of ILRG Field Agronomists to reach these two communities, so having Community Agronomists living in these communities became even more important.
However, the biggest challenge was community acceptance of Community Agronomists, even from women’s group members. Social gender norms establish the roles that men and women are allowed or expected to hold, with advisory roles usually associated with men. With their own determination and support from agricultural cooperative societies to engage and convince key community members, technical support from PepsiCo staff, programmatic support from the ILRG team, and moral support from family members, Community Agronomists were able to overcome these barriers and demonstrate their value.