Climate prize winner empowers women in India to become farmers and entrepreneurs
On Sept. 30, 1993, at 3:56 a.m., a deadly earthquake shook Latur and Osmanabad, districts in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. It killed 10,000 people and demolished 52 villages.
While many nongovernmental organizations were involved in the immediate rescue and relief work, there was one group that worked a little differently. It focused on efforts that engaged with women from affected communities and aimed to ensure their long-term wellbeing. The Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), established four years later, began its journey by going door-to-door after the earthquake, meeting thousands of women. The group trained the women to become farmers and entrepreneurs, enabling them to become financially independent and rise above the adversity and loss they'd encountered.
Today, Swayam Shikshan Prayog is one of four winners of the Local Adaptation Champions Awards, organized by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), that is being announced at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
The awards recognize community-led efforts to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change. Winners will receive €15,000 to help their further their work. In an interview with NPR, SSP Director Upmanyu Patil shares significant moments from his journey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You've helped around 300,000 rural women from across India adapt to climate change. How did your journey begin?
It began with our relief efforts during the Latur earthquake.
Prema Gopalan was the founder of SSP, but unfortunately we lost her last March. I've been working with Prema and the team since 1993. I took over operations after she passed away. In those early days, we worked largely with disasters — the Gujarat Earthquake , the Tamil Nadu tsunami , floods in Bihar  and in Kerala . We're working more extensively in three Indian states now — Kerala, Bihar and Maharashtra.
What do you focus on during the aftermath of a climate disaster?
Our focus is on restoration of livelihoods, especially for women. While relief efforts are needed in the immediate aftermath, long-term rehabilitation is our goal. We support them financially, so they can revive any business ventures that were lost as a result of these disasters. In some cases, we provide training so they can gain more skills that will help them set up entrepreneurial ventures. We are actively engaged with communities 3 to 4 years after a disaster, and even post that we continue to work with communities, helping local women generate more income.
Why did you start working on climate-resilient agriculture initiatives?
There were many farmer suicides in Marathwada [in the western Indian state of Maharashtra] when we worked there in 2012-15. When we surveyed the area, we realized that farmers there were planting only a single cash crop like sugar cane or cotton [crops produced only for their commercial value]. This was a problem, because if there was a climate-related disaster and the crop failed, they could not sell it and neither would they have money to buy food. We realized that there were mounting losses in the process, and that was causing great distress [to farmers]. What they needed most was food security. Being an organization with a mission to empower women to take on decision-making roles in their families and communities, we knew that this could come only with economic empowerment, because a breadwinner is a decision-maker. So we began to speak with these families, suggesting that they allocate a piece of their land — say about one-fourth or a fifth — for women to cultivate food crops. We provided training in organic farming, helping them sow pulses, grains, vegetables, fruits.
Did farmers always cultivate a single cash crop in this area?
No, they didn't. If you go back 25 years ago, people sowed multiple crops, ensuring food for their families and communities. Things changed when farming became commercialized, driven by market forces instead of primary needs. India's green revolution of the 1960s, which ushered in pesticides and fertilizers for greater yields, did a lot of damage too. We're trying to get communities to go back to traditional practices. We are mining the knowledge of elderly people in these communities, checking with agricultural departments at local universities to see if these traditional practices are backed by science and if they can come back. For instance, practices such as sowing seeds from native plants around your own home, creating your own compost from agricultural waste and creating bio-fertilizer by using leaves.
Was it hard to make that transition to food crops and convince families to give away that land?
Initially it was, but we tell them that it's for their own food security. They can do whatever they want with the rest of the land. We ask them to involve women in growing their food. We've faced challenges in two areas. Many don't believe that organic farming can give you the same yields as farming with the use of chemical fertilizers. And many men don't think women can farm efficiently, even though women do a lot of manual labor on farms. They don't believe that she can take charge of the sowing or be a decision-maker.
How did you go about changing mindsets?
It takes time, but we reason with them. We show them how organic farming costs far less, when compared to the high costs of chemical fertilizers. And with 2 to 3 years of training, we prove that women can build their capabilities and take lead in their agricultural sector, just as they have done in sanitation and health. Getting [communities] to believe in this is a challenge in the initial phase.
Once women grow food for their families, what's the next step?
Once they secure food for their families and they have excess, the next challenge is finding a place to sell their extra produce. We link them to markets, and try to secure better prices for them. It's a challenge too, because traditional marketing methods require packaging, certification [and] branding or you won't get premium prices. The women work hard to produce organic food crops, but because of this, they often can't sell at the prices that justify that effort. They are unhappy about that.
Is there anything you do to ensure that they get fair prices?
We have started women farmer producer companies [where women farmers are partners, a system with collective ownership and joint investment]. They are involved in cultivating grains and pulses, but also in selling dairy [and] poultry. These allied activities ensure their incomes.
How does climate change affect their daily lives and their farming?
There are a lot of weather-related changes that we're seeing in recent years. For instance, earlier, the rains would come in mid-June, and remain till mid-October. People do their sowing and harvesting at this time. By February, it's time to sow the summer crop. But now, the rains come only in mid-July, and these are torrential, heavy rains. Then they stop abruptly, and farmers lose their crops. Farming is their only source of income and it is threatened by climate change. It's very distressing and women are especially vulnerable. Climate change has an impact on everything — health, economic conditions, water sources and food security.
You encourage "clean energy initiatives" in local communities. What does that involve?
In 2005, British Petroleum wanted to understand the energy needs in rural markets. So we partnered with them in that research. We found that cooking energy is a primary need in rural households. Together, we created a product — a "clean" cooking stove run on biomass pellets.
In 2012, we got funding from USAID to help create 1,000 women entrepreneurs, setting them up financially to be able to sell these stoves and other clean energy products [like solar panels] and services to 200,000 families in their communities.
How do these stoves that run on biomass work?
It works with cow dung. Every family has 3 to 4 cattle. They collect the cow dung every day. They feed this into a "bio-digester" — it's a machine that converts cow dung into cooking gas and slurry. The process takes 6 to 8 hours. We use the slurry as organic fertilizer. And the biogas is piped to power the stove. This is safer than burning cow dung directly, which is a practice in many rural homes. It's also safer than LPG–compressed liquified petroleum gas, which is usually piped in for cooking. Each farmer owns their own biomass machine.
How do you intend to use the prize money from the award?
We would like to expand our scope and see if we can get more women involved.
What are the biggest changes you've seen after all these years of working with rural communities?
One of the biggest changes is in the attitudes of men. Earlier, men didn't like it when we met with women exclusively and they were not involved. They were wary and suspicious. But now, they actually welcome us, because they've seen how our helping women helps their children in turn, and improves the families' quality of life. There's more appreciation now replacing the snarky comments that we got earlier! This is a major change we've seen over the last 30 years.
It just goes to show that by empowering women, we can empower everyone.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.