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How women are unlocking the potential of maize in Mayurbhanj, India

In the tribal belt of Mayurbhanj, Odisha, maize cultivation is becoming increasingly popular. Thousands of acres of fallow upland areas are suitable for maize cultivation during the kharif (monsoon) season due to the availability of rain, a slopy landscape and porous red soil. As maize is considered a ‘women’s crop,’ meaning that it is mainly cultivated by women, the expansion of maize can increase women’s economic opportunities as well. The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) has worked in Mayurbhanj since 2013 to increase agricultural productivity and diversify livelihood options for farmers. One way to maximize the productivity of their arable upland areas is to cultivate maize on previously fallowed land during kharif.

In 2017, CSISA held and event in Badbil village at which 130 members of 10 different self-help groups showcased their work on commercial maize cultivation from the previous year. Members of Baitarani Maa Shibani, a women’s self-helf group from Tangabila village with a 12-year history of participating in agricultural programs in the area were impressed with the successes they saw and felt inspired to cultivate maize themselves.

After some discussion within the group, six of the 16 members decided to start cultivating maize as soon as possible. The group allowed these women to take a loan from their joint savings to cover start-up costs. Having also received support from their husbands, despite skepticism in some cases, the six women proceeded to plant maize on fallow land as villagers looked on critically.

Women from the Baitarani Maa Shibani women’s self-help group who decided to take on maize cultivation. Photo: D. Vedachalam/CIMMYT.
Women from the Baitarani Maa Shibani women’s self-help group who decided to take on maize cultivation. Photo: D. Vedachalam/CIMMYT.

The women approached a community resource person from a women’s group in the Sayangsidha Federation to learn how to cultivate maize, as the community resource person had already attended trainings organized by CSISA and the Department of Agriculture. They also sought guidance from other maize farmers, as well as from CSISA. One of the women worked with the state Horticulture Department and was permitted to grow crops during off-season on a 37 acre plot of land. This opportunity gave the women immediate access to land.

CSISA suggested that they only cultivate 10 acres the first year as planting in the last week of July meant they had missed optimal sowing time for maize, which runs from the first week of June until mid-July. CSISA-trained service providers helped the group complete sowing within two days, following best-bet management practices for land preparation and sowing, including integrated weed management using herbicides and power weeders, sensible fertilizer use and post-harvest management to maintain high quality dry grain. The group also visited a large CSISA and Department of Agriculture event in the tribal-dominated village of Kashipal. Interacting with other farmers and seeing their successes boosted the womens’ confidence, especially when they saw what they could achieve the following year if they sowed their crop earlier.

At the end of the season, the women harvested 11 metric tons of good quality dry grain. CSISA, the Department of Agriculture and the district administration facilitated the procurement of this grain by Venkateswara Hatchery, one of the leading poultry production plants in the region, at a price of $223 (INR 14,500) per metric ton. This group of six women farmers had invested $923 (INR 60,000) for maize cultivation and earned $2,453 (INR 159,500). They were able to repay their loan and keep the rest of the profit as savings. The women felt proud and confident knowing they had set an example for other group members and men in the village who did not believe it would work.

Following this success, in the 2018 kharif season, more farmers (both men and women) are planning to utilize fallow land for maize cultivation. This will help farmers increase their income, and improve their collective access to markets, since their total grain production will be larger and better able to meet the needs of local industry.

Unfortunately, Baitarani Maa Shibani has not been given access to the same piece of land this year, so they have planned to cultivate maize on 10 acres of their own land in the plantation area. This change in fortune mirrors the cautionary tale reflected in the experience of maize-cultivating women of Badbil village, who also found it harder to get access to leasable land following their economic success in 2016. However, women in Mayurbhanj are still optimistic. Inspired by the success of Baitarani Maa Shibani, another group, Baitarani Maa Duarsani, is now planning to cultivate maize this season.

A decade earlier in Mayurbhanj, women often did not even step out of their houses. They feared going to the market or to the bank. Now, through opportunities afforded by economic development programs and collaborations such as the one with CSISA, women often hold leadership positions in their groups, go to the bank and are active members of their village. Money earned by self-help groups is frequently used to educate children as members want their daughters to be educated and have better opportunities.

The enthusiastic women who stepped forward to cultivate maize in the face of so much uncertainty are an example of what women can achieve through collective effort, dedication, hard work and determination, as well as by tapping into the potential productivity of the fallow land around them. CSISA will continue to facilitate partnerships, technical trainings and market linkages in Mayurbhanj to support income generation amongst women’s groups and tribal communities through the cultivation of maize and companion crops.

The Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) was established in 2009 with a goal of benefiting more than 8 million farmers by the end of 2020. The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and implemented jointly with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Operating in rural innovation hubs in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, CSISA works to increase the adoption of various resource-conserving and climate-resilient technologies, and improve farmers access to market information and enterprise development. CSISA supports women farmers by improving their access and exposure to modern and improved technological innovations, knowledge and entrepreneurial skills. CSISA works in synergy with regional and national efforts, collaborating with myriad public, civil society and private-sector partners.

About the authors: Sujata Ganguly is Research Consultant for CIMMYT and Wasim Iftikar is a Research Associate.