The government of India’s ambitious plans to set up 15,000 decentralized BRCs to provide quality alternatives to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, while welcome, suffers from lack of clear guidelines for farmer engagement. Existing practices from BRCs in villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan provide insights for the potential scaling up of these micro-initiatives.
A key aspect of the National Mission for Natural Farming (NMNF) includes an ambitious goal to engage ten million farmers in the Ganga-belt and rain-fed in natural farming practices. A crucial step towards fulfilling this goal involves providing quality alternatives to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides in the form of bio-input resources. Recognising the labour, cost and quality constraints, The Centre aims to provide for these resources through setting up 15,000 decentralised bio-input resource centres (BRCs) to cater to local needs and contexts.
Multiple models of BRCs are being carried out on farmers’ fields and need to be documented to work out to replicate processes and potential business models for sustainability. The National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF) has brought out a technical process manual for natural farming that talks about BRCs and the technical and managerial aspects of such centres and the role of civil society organisations in the process. While this document describes the ideal parameters for a BRC to function in terms of products, processes, business model, role in the local village economy etc., understanding the situational factors governing the running of BRCs is best understood on the field.
An opportunity to visit 6 BRCs arose through the Rajasthan and Gujarat chapters of NCNF, helped understand the contextual and general challenges of the BRC, as seen on the ground and opportunities they present the farmers both as entrepreneurs selling the bio-inputs and as buyers/users of bio-inputs.
Bio-input Resource Centres: Shed, Storage and Shop
BRCs come in many forms and sizes but the common thing about them is that essentially the farmer(s) locally produce bio-inputs for the purpose of sale. The BRCs can be owned by a farmer or a group, like an SHG. Having cattle and a shed are essential components since cow urine is a prime ingredient of the myriad bio-inputs produced. Depending on the inputs a BRC produces, the costs of setting up a BRC can vary from as little as Rs. 14,000 to as high as Rs. 80,000. The one-time set up and basic infrastructure required for preparing, storing and packaging the bio-inputs such as vermicompost, jeevamrut, beejamrut, etc. is often provided by the civil society organisation (CSO). CSOs may also support the BRCs in terms of covering the cost of raw materials, as witnessed in BRCs being managed by AKRSP(I) in Netrang and Sayla, in Gujarat, until there is a steady customer base and reliable profit.
Other costs include consumables such as bottles for packaging, and less frequently, new drums, jars, and composting bags. In some instances, enterprising farmers have been able to reduce these costs by linking up with suppliers beyond those introduced by the CSOs.
Allied-agri activity or an enterprise?
In Abu Road, Rajasthan, a region dominated by Bhil and Garasia tribals, bio-inputs associated with natural farming are not known, beyond a few SHG leaders and proactive farmers. Pesticides are applied only if necessary. It is also not uncommon to see the chemical fertilisers being used in conjunction. Use of farmyard manure can also be seen as the traditional practice of using gobarkhaad on the fields is still prevalent. Similarly, in Pratapgarh, while utilisation of bio-inputs has been adopted by farmers, through sustained intervention of CSOs, the inputs are mostly produced on-farm for personal use. In families or groups that manage the BRCs, selling bio-inputs is seen as value-additions rather than an enterprise of their own. They do it since they are able to use it in their own fields and also sell it to someone through their social network, which in most cases is not very huge. The record of quantities produced, costs incurred, and sales made are maintained by many farmers. Predominantly scattered hamlets also discourage large-scale operations.
With a more market-focused approach, BRCs in Netrang and Sayla in Gujarat, have branded the bio-inputs with flashier and creative names such as penta-fighter, panchh yoddha and soya shakti. While the CSOs are investing a similar amount of money in BRC set-up in the two states (Rs 14,000 – Rs 16,000), the difference lies in where that money is invested. In Rajasthan, the investment has gone into creating compost bags, whereas, in Gujarat, the emphasis has been on better-quality packaging bottles and branding.
The BRC in Wankaner Naseeb Jaivik Dawa Utpaad Kendra, supported by Aga Khan Foundation has adopted an entirely decentralized approach and was formed through a three-party quasi-agreement. Women of Naseeb SHG provide labour to produce bioinputs, at a rented plot of a farmer with large land holdings. An FPO, the Macchu Agri Producer Company undertakes sales and marketing. They also purchase cow-urine from a Gaushala in large quantities (about 20 Litres/day). Similar to BRCs in Netrang and Sayla, the investment of the supporting CSO has been in terms of purchase of recipe raw materials and providing packaging for ‘branded’ bio-inputs. The scale of production is very high (with about 7,000 Litres of Jeevamrut (branded as G-amrut) and 410 Litres of Dashparni Ark (branded as Herbo-power) in the last year and they sell/deliver to farmers with large land holdings. Smaller orders are delivered only if there is a larger delivery happening in the vicinity.
What holds BRCs back?
Regardless of the approach a BRC might take, there are still hurdles to overcome. For instance, cattle urine collection, without a dedicated infrastructure, prevents farmers from utilising all the available urine. Urine was most often only collected in the morning at the time of milching their cattle. At other times, collecting it manually would require a lot of patient labour.
Geographical realities naturally impact the profitability of a BRC. Crop failure due to reasons such as water scarcity (like in case of Sayla and Wankaner), unanticipated rainfall, or salinity of soil are reasons why farmers cancel their bioinput orders, causing wastage of production and labour. Low density of households in a village reduces the outreach potential of a BRC, as the transport costs start to add up for both the consumer and seller. In some cases, as NF practices become more popular, farmers could be unwilling to buy bio-inputs as these can be produced by them at their homes for their farm’s consumption.
Most BRC owners expressed difficulties in meeting big orders since their production level as per regular requirement is low. The pricing of bioinputs also differed between the two states. In Pratapgarh, a one litre bottle of jeevamrut could sell for as little as Rs. 15 (and still self-report being profitable), whereas, in Gujarat the same sells for Rs. 80. While it can be explained by the costs incurred in high quality packaging material and better product branding in the latter case, there is still ambiguity regarding the other costs incurred in obtaining the raw materials and storing and processing infrastructure like cans and drums and bags.
Visits to BRCs indicate diverse experimentation in terms of practices and institutional structures with multiple models suited to local conditions. Incubating these BRCs requires both one-time capital investments and repeated interaction with farmer-experimenters. Sustaining support over two-three cropping seasons and some training on basic business skills can help BRCs sustain growth and incomes and can lead to growth of rural entrepreneurs. The various models of BRC however prove that multiple forms of engagement and functioning are possible if farmers are provided a supportive ecosystem. Plurality of visions are embedded in the growth of BRCs, and ways in which multiple ideas find space might decide the possible success of these ventures.
Aneesh Mohan is a Research Associate in the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) project at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA).
Abhishek Saxena is a Research Fellow at the LFI Project and also pursuing his doctoral research at IRMA.
Asmita Chaudhari is a Project Assistant in the LFI Project at IRMA.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA and coordinates the LFI project.
Acknowledgment: The BRCs were visited courtesy AKRSP(I) Sayla and Netrang, AKF Wankaner ,SRIJAN Pratapgadh