Adapting to a pandemic to serve India’s smallholder farmers

October 10, 2020

Tanager’s team in India quickly pivoted to provide additional support through their existing programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help India’s smallholder farmers mitigate threats and improve their agricultural productivity.

Tanager partners with smallholder farmers in India to help increase on-farm income by providing access to expertise, R&D, and support for gender-equality — critical services for agricultural productivity growth, especially in times of crisis.

However, crises like the COVID-19 pandemic directly threaten farmers’ access to extension services and research and development. Countrywide measures implemented to control the spread of the virus forced Tanager to find creative ways to continue to provide these critical services.

India went into lockdown on March 25, 2020. As the country grappled with the evolving situation, smallholder farmers were hit particularly hard. With a lack of labor due to movement restrictions and other supply chain threats, India’s smallholder farmers were facing (and continue to face) an extraordinary risk to their livelihoods.

Shubh Mint Project: Pivoting services to keep farmers running

In Uttar Pradesh, Tanager’s five-year Shubh Mint Project — supported by Mars Wrigley, Symrise, and GIZ — works with 25,000 smallholder mint farmers in Uttar Pradesh. With corporate partners, Tanager works to increase adoption of good agricultural practices of mentha arvensis to improve the livelihoods of farmers, their families, and communities. The project also established an inclusive, traceable, and sustainable mint oil supply chain for Mars Wrigley.

When COVID-19 hit, farmers in the program experienced a slight impact on mint oil yields, especially in areas newer to the project. Fearing a demand slowdown with limited market activities, movement restrictions, and cash availability, Tanager conducted a rapid phone assessment to determine the farmers’ most pressing needs.

After the rapid assessment, farmers received (and continue to receive) regular phone calls to share updates on the status of their mint season. To date, every farmer received an average of eight contacts during COVID-19 to check in on farm status, with priority given to contactless engagements.

Tanager’s ongoing work to help farmers access a diverse and nutritious diet is also important for maintaining health — particularly critical in the midst of a pandemic. As part of the Shubh Mint project, Tanager uses Self-Help Groups to encourage households to adopt the use of kitchen gardens to improve household nutrition, provide advice on starting and managing their gardens, and on-going support as the gardens developed.

Currently, there are around 700 smallholder farmers who have raised kitchen gardens, growing five types of seasonal vegetables with the support of Tanager’s team and Self-Help Group supervisors.

APFMRP 2 Project: Adjusting to remote extension

In Andhra Pradesh, a two-year Walmart Foundation-supported project – the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Market Readiness Project II (APFMRP II) – aims to improve social and economic outcomes for smallholder vegetable, maize, coffee, cashew, okra and peanut farmers. Tanager works with Farmer Producer Organizations to improve market readiness and reach diverse markets. Tanager helps to provide the resources, expertise, and services to help FPOs reach and maintain market viability. 

The COVID-19 pandemic began as the project started, leading to delayed start up activities, assessments, and trainings. India’s movement restrictions affected the marketing of farmers’ cashews and vegetables to buyers and led to a labor shortage. Farmers also experienced a shortage of cash for purchasing inputs.

Tanager’s village-based staff remotely link farmers directly to buyers while continuing to advise farmers on safe selling practices. Tanager utilizes technology such as mobile and video to disseminate messages on COVID-19 and offer digital agriculture extension services to farmers, while also conducting rapid phone assessments when needed. In addition, Tanager distributed COVID-relief kits to farming families in late May to help farmers with their immediate needs.

Lessons learned in COVID-induced shift

A large part of Tanager’s ability to adjust to COVID-19 in India is a result of embedded staff within farming communities. Tanager safely and efficiently leveraged their community-based staff and trained lead farmers to help disseminate expertise quickly.

Tanager also utilizes virtual communication, video training, and rapid assessments via SMS-messaging on WhatsApp. Through these mediums, they are able to distribute resources to educate farmers on social distancing, the importance of handwashing and face masks, new government aid programs, and ways to increase productivity without relying on increased labor inputs.

Using WhatsApp, Tanager also conducts rapid appraisals to understand how farmers are dealing with the crisis financially. Past appraisals yielded some actionable results: across the three project farmer groups that Tanager contacted, farmers were most concerned about their financial future and maintaining their access to markets.

Tanager’s extension agents – those that live in the farming communities – have been able to connect farmers to buyers. For example, in the Araku Valley region of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh, Tanager encouraged a group of farmers to harvest their produce and arranged permission from the government to transport the vegetables to a group of buyers. The team helped these farmers sell 5388 kgs of worth of Red cabbage, Capsicum, Yellow Zucchini, Tomato, Cabbage, and Green Chilies for a total of Rs. 26,834.

Combatting aflatoxin in peanuts for higher value for farmers

Tanager, Mars Wrigley, IFAD, and GIZ are partnering with farmers in the Junagadh region of India to help build a stable source and supply chain for aflatoxin free peanuts. Aflatoxin-free peanuts help farmers access higher value markets. While increasing farmer incomes from peanuts, Tanager has also established a traceable and sustainable supply chain for Mars Wrigley peanut factories in India and the region.

When COVID-19 hit, the farmers and organizations anticipated a shortage of quality planting material. Also, pandemic-related precautions discouraged group meetings and face-to-face trainings, making the research elements of the project difficult.

With these concerns in mind, Tanager conducted a rapid phone assessment with farmers. Using the results of that assessment, Tanager is focusing resources on prioritized activities and on developing activities with respect to COVID-19 safety protocols. As with Tanager’s other projects in India, the team utilizes technology as a substitute for in-person trainings. To further support farmers, Tanager developed contactless transactions for the supply chain with suppliers and Mars Wrigley.

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