• Ayush Vani

FPO Workshop 2020—My gateway to the world of Indian Farmer Producer Organisations

Updated: Apr 28

A student of Environment policy from Wageningen University, Netherlands looks back at his experience of being a part of National Workshop on Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), during his internship at Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), Gujarat.

Food and Farming – A journey in the making

I have grown up in Indian countryside, where it was not uncommon to see farmers selling their produce in the local 'haat-bajaars' for a nominal price. Later, as I travelled to bigger cities and then came to the Netherlands, I began to realise that food too, has a journey. As I bought food from supermarkets, packed, priced and stamped with different brands, I couldn't help but think of the farmers who toil hard to grow this food. Did they get the price I paid for the food? Who decides how much should food cost? Why do farmers continue to live in poverty despite increasing price for food? As a student pursuing MSc in Environmental sciences and food policy, my search for the answers was definitely not new but nonetheless, my recent experiences has given me a new lens to understand evolving food systems. I was interning with Prof. Shambu Prasad at IRMA Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) in a project named Living farm incomes: Inequality, Sustainability and civic action in India.

During the internship, I got an opportunity to engage with participants of a national-level workshop on Farmer Producer organisations (FPOs), which offered me a view of the complex ecological and economic landscape that farmers need to navigate. The workshop was hosted on 12th March 2020 at IRMA. I was asked to be the rapporteur for the conference, and I was excited to take on the responsibility. (The workshop report is available here) The workshop mainly focused on institution building in the context of FPOs. An FPO is a legal entity formed by farmers as a collective enterprise which provides for sharing of profits/benefits among the members, with a main aim to ensure better income for small and marginal farmers. Creating such organisations helps farmers have more agency and get a fair price for their produce. In reality, however, FPOs face challenges at different levels, and it is essential to understand what can be done to support them. The workshop was an effort directed at building and governing stronger institutions for sustainable food systems in India.

Diversity of stakeholders at the workshop

Unlike most conventional workshops involving researchers and academics, one of the first things that struck me was the diversity of participation. Apart from scholars and students, individuals who managed, promoted or worked with FPOs

also shared their views. The variety of narratives made for an enriching experience, as I heard young management graduates, such as Hiren Borkhatariya and Pratheek Abraham.

The same platform was later shared by individuals such as Naveen Patidar from Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) who those narrated their efforts in the form of a story. The absence of PPTs from many presentations was a welcome change, as it allowed me to take part in the vibrant discussions without feeling overwhelmed with any technical jargon.

The inclusive nature of the workshop was also evident in the multilingual debates (in Hindi and English, a bit of Gujarati as well) and exchange of ideas. The participants raised several pragmatic and critical questions such as how does the FPO work? Where does it stand in the food supply chain? Does it represent and support the small farmer's cause? What skills are needed to function as an FPO? How many years does it need to mature, sustain and grow? Can it be a fully self-reliant organisation? Can FPOs become the new mainstream for future farming at a national scale? The participants also seemed aware of the contextual nature of these issues, so none of them expected broad 'solutions' of any kind. Instead, I saw most of them trying to understand the nuances and variation in possibilities for FPOs across the spectrum.

An event grounded in realities.

Various interactions at the event made me aware of the grounded tone of the workshop, wherein lived realities of the farmers remained a constant backdrop of the conversations. In fact, the workshop began in remembrance of the seminal contributions by Late.Ms.Vijaylakshmi Das, often referred to as the mother of Indian micro-finance. She played an important role in providing institutional mentorship to the financially excluded small farmers collectives and women co-operatives through small loans and capacity-building support. Nilanjan Dey & Himanshu Vaghela, from the Friends of Women's World Banking (FWWB) shared that her spirit lives on in the organisation, as it continues to focus on working capital for growth, agri-input procurement and loans for income diversification of thousands of marginal farmers, especially women.

During the conference, the challenge of institutional capacity building and lack of working capital emerged as the key focus areas among all the FPO narratives. Different FPO and Civil Society Organisation (CSO) representatives shared their ways of dealing with these challenges. Some saw the village-level (Panchayat) microinstitutions as a solution, while others felt that collaborations with existing self-help groups could serve as a block for institutional building. Others shared their views on the allocation of responsibilities. For instance, Mr Kuldeep Solanki, the CEO of Gujpro – a state-level FPO federation in Gujarat shared that capacity load on FPOs could be reduced (e.g. value addition, transport etc.) by dividing the roles and tasks between the FPO and federation. Entrepreneurs voiced several new business ideas and recommendations while learning from each other's experiences, both successes and failures. Interacting with the group offered me an entrepreneurial lens to understand livelihood possibilities for marginal farmers.

Last but not the least, fireside chat session was the platform where I, along with other young researchers, had the opportunity to share our research interests with renowned professionals in the field of sustainability and policy research. The practitioners like CS Reddy, Kavitha Kurungati and others advised us on our research plan, direction and raised thoughtful questions. Session was so deeply engaging that the discussions went on till late evening without us realising the clock!

Kindling a spark

Carrying the learning from the workshop forward, I was inspired to look at the functioning of a Gujarat-based FPO involved in sales of mangoes, a summer treat in India I tried to understand how the FPO (is managing and evolving its operations amidst the pandemic. In fact, I was fortunate enough to volunteer in the management of a local mango supply-chain that led me to understand some aspects of conscious consumerism

(An article on this can be read here). My insights and observations helped me better appreciate the discussions at the workshop. Especially, it upheld the message that healthy functioning of FPOs can play a major role in building resilient rural enterprises. Similar to the workshop and my engagement above, more interesting stories reach my ears everyday as many FPOs across the country join hands to uphold the food supply chains in these challenging times. The workshop helped in sharpening a few of my initial questions, as well as provide some direction to my research interests in sustainable and profitable food supply chains.

I felt very fortunate to be part of such constructive forum and wish to engage more with FPOs entrepreneurs in days to come. Currently being socially distanced, I like many others invest my days in rethinking and reinventing many wheels. Food supply-chains is one of them and the word FPO leaves me with more interesting puzzles and possibilities.

Mr. Ayush Vani is a student of Environment Policy at Wageningen University, Netherlands and has recently completed his research internship under the project - ‘Living Farm Incomes: Inequality, Sustainability and Civic Action in India’ at IRMA.