Soy Beans and Self Reliance

Along with a group of other fellows, I attended the AIF Livelihoods Conference that was hosted by Self Reliant Initiatives through Joint Action (SRIJAN), an NGO that improves livelihoods of farmers. SRIJAN uses a self-help group (SHG) model to organize and mobilize women farmers. SHG members have opportunities to gain new training, skills and to take on leadership roles all of which aim to increase their earning capabilities.

The SHG members described facing many challenges as they became more active in their businesses and communities. The dynamics around women’s lives were such that they did not participate in the public sphere. The existing power structures were threatened by the SHGs and communities often pressured members to quit the SHGs.

Women gather for a SRIJAN rally to learn about the benefits of joining Self Help Groups (SHGs).
Women gather for a SRIJAN rally to learn about the benefits of joining self-help groups.

Many of these women did not have the opportunity to attend school and thus could not read, write or do arithmetic. The prevalent belief in their villages was that uneducated women could not accomplish anything. Many of the SHG members explained to us that they had to overcome this internalized belief before they could convince their communities. SRIJAN started countering this belief by encouraging women to take over roles within the SHG like taking attendance and keeping track of the groups accounts. SRIJAN also trained women to use better breeds of seeds and to do pest and disease control. Additionally, SRIJAN helped to increase access to markets and credit for the SHG farmers. Collectively, these trainings led to higher profits and the SHG members began to see what they were capable of. Eventually, when the SHG members’ success was written about in the newspaper, their communities stopped trying to push them out of the public sphere and back into their homes.

One of SRIJAN’s projects is working with soya farmers. Originally, women soya farmers would grow the soya and sell it to a refinery at a low cost. The refinery would then create soya products, like milk or soya paneer (tofu), and sell them with a larger profit margin. The soya farmers were not aware of what happened to the soya after they sold it or that it was profitable.

Three of the five SHG members that went to Bhopal to learn about how soya can be refined.
Three of the five SHG members that went to Bhopal to learn about how soya can be refined.

SRIJAN wanted its SHG members to be involved in the more profitable aspects of selling soya and sent five SHG members to a soya processing plant in Bhopal for an exposure visit. During that visit, the soya farmers saw the value of soya for the first time. They told us that prior to the exposure visit they did not know how to eat soya, what it could be made into or how profitable it became once refined. The SHG members were inspired by what they saw in Bhopal. They also learned about how nutritious soya is, so they decided to bring nutritious products into their communities and increase their profits by refining the soya themselves.

This machine makes soya milk!
This machine makes soya milk!

Now, ten women work in a small production room that was provided by a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partnership. They negotiated bank loans for the necessary equipment themselves, something they said they would never have imagined before joining their SHG. For the past six months, these soya farmers have been making soya milk, cakes, namkeen and paneer. The SHGs are exploring different avenues for marketing and how to ensuring quality control and SRIJAN is helping to promote direct sales within local markets.

SRIJAN is also promoting a warehouse model where farmers store their soya until it is most profitable to sell. SRIJAN informs their SHGs of the daily market costs and the farmers choose when to sell based on the market fluctuations. SRIJAN has bank partnerships to give loans of 70% of the estimated crop price so that farmers can afford to wait until it is most profitable to sell their soya. Even after paying the warehouse storage fee, the bank loan fee (10%) and the transportation costs, the farmers still make a significant profit. Currently, only a small percentage of soya farmers are participating in this model because the warehouse is very far from their farms. SRIJAN is exploring partnering with additional warehouses and continuing to seek innovative options to improve the farmers’ profit.

Yasin is excited to explore, live and work in West Bengal. Her goals are to gain a practical understanding of how to overcome structural inequality and provide sustainable public health services. Prior to AIF and after completing her MPH, she participated in an Urdu fellowship in Lucknow, India. She is excited to combine her Urdu/Hindi with Public Health.

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