The production of fruits and vegetables is a highly profitable but risky initiative for farmers. The Bhangar Vegetable Producer Company Limited (BVPCL), a 1751-member strong farmer collective has achieved consistent growth through strategic partnership and direct marketing of these perishable commodities, becoming an inspiration for many small and marginal farmers in the process.
Introduction – Overcoming barriers of trust
Agriculture is a major source of rural livelihood in West Bengal, with paddy and fresh vegetables being major crops. 90% of the cultivators are small and marginal. Over the years, the increase in the price of agricultural inputs, uncertain price of perishable produce, inadequate market infrastructure, and distress sale of produce by small and marginal farmers have pose serious challenges to the sustainability of the farm sector in the state.
So, in 2011 – 12, when the Centre in collaboration with the Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC) launched a pilot project called National Vegetable Initiative for Urban Clusters (NVIUC) in seven districts, Bhangar was selected due to its proximity to Kolkata. As one of the Resource Institutions for the SFAC program, ACCESS Development Services (ACCESS) was tasked with mobilizing farmers and incubating the collective enterprise. Jabbar Khan, a Local Resource Person (LRP) of ACCESS was also a farmer, and acutely aware of the prevalent issues. He had completed graduation but took up farming along with his father due to lack of jobs. He, along with a few other LRPs played a crucial role in mobilizing farmers to form a company. The Saradha chit fund scandal was still fresh in the minds of the local farmers, and they were understandably reluctant to trust strangers asking them to form a company in lieu of making profits. Finally, after many rounds of discussions, the Bhangar Vegetable Producer Company Limited (BVPCL) was registered in 2012, and currently spans 23 villages with 1,751 farmers across 117 Farmers Interest Groups (FIGs). Most of the farmers have small landholdings. Since its inception, BVPCL has grown more than 26 times (27.86 to 755.29 Lakhs from FY 2013-14 to 2019-20) in terms of total revenue generated and 361% (1.2 to 5.55 Lakhs from FY 2013-14 to 2019-20) in terms of profit, respectively. What has made this journey possible?
Can FPOs leverage government schemes?
The farmers’ leap of faith began to show results when ACCESS helped them participate in training programmes and buy farming infrastructure through government schemes and welfare support systems. As Jabbar Khan, currently the chairperson of BVPCL commented,
“We did not recognise the Government. We only knew ACCESS, in turn they had been liaising with the Government. For two years ACCESS was the only contact point with the Government... They brought the Government officials to the site, arranged meetings with them, told us how to implement the project, starting with filling the form to getting the subsidies, everything was done by the ACCESS Development Service.”
Till date, the FPO has received a total investment of Rs 121.65 lakh from the Government of West Bengal for a variety of needs such as polyhouses and poly-tunnels, shade nets, irrigation pumps, transport vehicles, seeds and vermicomposting units. As a result, farmers have been growing crops multiple times, and even in off-seasons to avail better market prices. Sayed, the CEO of BVPCL explained,
“Before Bhangar was formed, here cultivation was done in a conventional way. This means if someone was farming cauliflower then he was only into cauliflower... after training programmes, we started inter and multi-cropping...like, if someone had one acre of land, we told him to divide the land and cultivate cauliflower in one-fifth of that land, green chili in another one fifth, broccoli, capsicum, cabbage in other one fifth each... We also grow English vegetables like bokchoy, lettuce, celery etc. Spinach is sold normally in 5 to 10 rupees per kg, but during the rainy season, it is grown in poly-house or polytunnel, and then it is sold for 40 to 50 rupees per kg.”
Building market linkages and creating local employment
BVPCL has tied up with nearly 30 Mother Dairy outlets to sell their produce. They also made use of the state agriculture department has a marketing initiative called “Sufal Bangla” to open 70 static-cum-mobile outlets. They were also able to get contracts with private players like Air India Canteen, C-Dac Canteen, and Park Hotel amongst others to deliver vegetables, on a daily basis. They have four marketing offices where the produce is sorted, graded and packed. In the process, they have hired local youth on a contract basis, either as a driver or stock keeper or as an accountant. The locals are able to earn on an average of Rs 10,000 through this job, in addition to their earnings as a farmer. BVPCL currently supplies over 25 tons of vegetables in the Kolkata market. During the pandemic, they were classified as providing essential services and were also able to cater to large housing complexes directly. The pandemic thus turned into an advantage for them as longer supply chains were disrupted and they could create a niche for themselves. Jabbar Khan described how the company has learned some lessons along the way as well,
“Now if you have come to buy a vegetable from us, through our auditor we have to reach an agreement, what kind of authorisation your company has, you have to pay us a security deposit. We will have a strong contract...We have been cheated, marketing system has changed. Earlier we were supplying to Big Basket, Reliance fresh, Big Bazar, they were taking from us cauliflower in 10 rupees used to sale it for 30 rupees. At that price of 10 rupees, if they procured 500, out of that 25 they used to reject. Now we don’t supply to Reliance. Now they are our competitor.”
Selling vegetables in KMC Market
A motorised vending cart allotted to BVPCL
Making way for bigger dreams
As of December 2020, the total share capital of BVPCL was Rs 14.86 Lakhs and they have received the matching equity grant of Rs 7.43 Lakhs from SFAC. They have dabbled with exports and plan to get licenses to get into the business more systematically. Recently, they have also purchased land from the government to set up a permanent office. Obstacles continue to present themselves in different ways. Bhangar lost many polyhouses in the cyclone Amphan last year and motivating farmers to invest in the infrastructure again has been a challenge. However, Jabbar Khan’s dream for the company is evident in the following comment,
“In near future we want to train our farmers about pesticide restriction... Right now we are working with semi organic fertilisers... We want to sell premium vegetables to other countries. This is my desire. I also wish to have our Brand “Bhangar” like Big Bazar, Reliance in Kolkata market... there will be an advertisement in the television, like there could be a punch line, tasty and fresh Bhangar Vegetables … I have no idea when it will actually happen. But yes, I have this dream.”
Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow at the Living farm Incomes project, IRMA.
Sudipto Saha is the Vice President of Access Development Services, West Bengal.