Swimming against the tides: How a women-led fishing collective became a profitable enterprise
This article narrates the journey of how women farmers settled near the Brahmaputra river made their living as a fish farming community. They established a Farmer Producer Organization (FPO) and are living prosperous, self-reliant lives, inspiring many others to embark on their development journey.
The story of a successful enterprise
The journey started on April 23, 2015, with 50 fish farmers from six villages of Nagaon district in Assam coming together and establishing the FPO named 'Anchalik Pragatishil Matsya Utpadhak Samitee' (APMUS), through facilitation of the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) organization. The women-led FPO presently comprises 630 members (71% are women) from 15 villages, and has increased its capital base to INR 6.30 lakhs. The journey of the FPO has been significant and true to their name of 'Regional Progressive Fish Producers'. APMUS registered a 380% growth in five years, enhancing its annual turnover from Rs.10 lakhs during FY 2015- 2016 to about Rs 48 lakh during FY 2019 – 2020. During this period, the FPO attracted and successfully repaid INR 32 lakhs credit from reputed financial institutions such as NABARD & Punjab National Bank (PNB).
Promoting the FPO through community mobilisation
The fish farmers came together to fight against what they thought was the fish traders' 'exploitative' behaviour (mas-byapari). They had heard about NABARD supporting the local fish farming from the promotional activities in the area. NABARD, though keen to support these fish farmers' initiatives, indicated that they could get associated only if they get registered as an FPO. They put them in touch with a local NGO named SWRC based out of Juria block of Nagaon district, Assam. SWRC agreed to play the promoting agency's role, helping them set up their institutional foundation. The promoting institution engaged with women through financial literacy training and skill-based training even before establishing the FPO. Also, they supported the FPO with community mobilization, advisory services, and counseling for scientific fish farming in the wastelands. The guidance helped them reach a wider market by hosting a buyer-seller meet, and they also received assistance in acquiring Kisan Credit Card and credit linkages.
SWRC also embarked on a community mobilisation exercise in the FPO catchment area. They formed Joint Liability Groups (JLG) among different villagers to form Farmer Interest Groups (FIGs); these FIGs were the initial members. Later, the FPO leaders met the village representatives, and together, they mobilised the farmers. The FPO focussed on farmers with the landholding of approximately one acre and made them into groups. Each group consists of at least seven farmers with uniform landholdings to create an embankment of the larger water body for fish farming.
Capacity building and innovative practices
The series of capacity-building initiatives enhanced the FPO members' knowledge and skills. The members also underwent various training programs conducted by the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department of Assam. They took part in Umbrella Programme for Natural Resource Management (UPNRM), commissioned by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and executed by NABARD.
The training programs enabled them to incorporate better practices and explore newer fish varieties. The introduction of Jayanti Rohu (Labeo rohita), a genetically improved fish variety by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) - Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA), as part of the farming, improved the harvest and increased their income. All the FPO members were practising ornamental and local varieties of fish, and their yield was paltry compared to the 2300kg/Ha yield of the newly introduced Jayanti Rohu.
To augment the income of the women farmers during the lean period from February to August, SWRC helped the women farmers to explore alternative livelihood options. Water hyacinth is available in plenty in the fish farming areas as it is an invasive weed. However, they identified it as an opportunity by using it as raw material for preparing various handicrafts such as purses, bags, hats, stools, mats etc. SWRC facilitated the support of SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) for helping the women take up handicraft making. The FPO also played a significant role in marketing the handicrafts at fairs and exhibitions organised by the Government and NABARD.
The women members refused to give up their efforts despite various hurdles. For instance, the women members took up fish farming because conventional agriculture was not feasible due to the flood-prone nature of the area.
Also, the women members visualised converting their problems into opportunities through getting to the handicraft business. Apart from augmenting income, this process of not having to bow to the pressure of the fish traders has helped them improve their confidence. With the additional income, now they have sent most of their children to school.
Ms Tehminaar Saheen, a member of 'Anchalik Pragatishil Matsya Utpadhak Samitee' (APMUS), proudly shares that,
"The FPO helped me to improve my standard of living. I learnt the scientific way of fish farming. Today, I earn anywhere between Rs 2 lakhs to Rs 2.5 lakhs per annum. I can send my daughter to a private English medium school, and this has been possible only because of the FPO."
Members earlier used to purchase their inputs at an individual level and were constrained by the limited options provided by the local input dealers. After associating with the FPO, the members are availing the fish seeds and feed at a subsidized rate and leveraging the existing government schemes to avail inputs at a lower price. Similarly, earlier, the members sold their produce to the local buyers with minimal scope for bargaining. The situation improved as the FPO procured the final catch of the producer member and transported it to the nearby commercial markets such as Nagaon, Dimapur and Guwahati to fetch the best prices. Aggregating the produce has empowered them to bargain for better profits.
APMUS – an institution of creditworthiness
APMUS, led by a nine-member board, all fisher-women, has gradually become self-reliant over the past three years, repaying the loans offered by the financial institutions. Mrs Sajida Khatoon, CEO of the FPO, sensitised and motivated the region's women to come together and join the FPO to realize the collective power in bringing the development to the individuals and their institution. Also, NABARD and PNB recognized the FPO's scale of business as a creditworthy institution. It extended a loan of INR 21 Lakhs and INR 11 lakhs, which was fully repaid by the FPO within the stipulated loan period. The FPO is also planning to expand its infrastructure capabilities and is presently constructing its fish feed plant to reduce its market dependencies for inputs. The women-led FPO's remarkable progress in empowering rural lives has attracted other FPOs, who are keen to understand and replicate their journey of success.
Deepthi Reddy and Sivaram Kandaswamy Pazhanivelan are members of Samunnati, an agri-finance institution for small and marginal farmers.
Prof Sankar Datta is a development professional and independent researcher.