Ayan Banerjee, CEO of Chetnna Organic
Chetna Organic is working with small and marginal farmers in India in order to improve their livelihood options and by making farming a sustainable and profitable occupation. Chetna’s strength has been collective action and the fair supply chain. Chetna Organic Agriculture Producer Company Ltd (COAPCL) is the name of the 100% farmer-owned producer company. Some of The Fableists’ clothing is made from cotton grown by farmers who are a part of this collective.
We spoke to Ayan Banerjee, CEO of Chetna
The Fableists > Tell us how Chetna was started and what inspired you to form a collective?
Ayan > The Chetna Organic & Fair Trade Cotton Intervention Program (OCIP) was established in 2004 as a supply chain initiative in organic cotton that works towards improving livelihood of farmers. The intent was to improve livelihood options of smallholder farmers by making their farm systems more sustainable, profitable and creating access to ethical and fair-trade markets in cotton. Chetna Organics or Chetna Organic Agriculture Producer Company Ltd India (COAPCL) has made clusters of organic cotton farmers from 2005. Established in 2009, Chetna Organic Agriculture Producer Company Ltd (COAPCL) is a 100% farmer-owned Company, professionally managed and backed by venture philanthropy so as to empower farmers by engaging them to build an ethical supply chain.
The Fableists > Where are you based and why are you active in that region?
Ayan > We work in the highly underdeveloped areas of Maharashtra (Vidarbha – Amravati, Akola, and Yavatmal), Andhra Pradesh (Telengana – Adilabad, Karimnagar) and Odisha (KBK region i.e. Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput). Most of the districts are rated as some of the country’s 250 most backward districts. We are present in that region to improve the livelihood (options) of small farm holding households in India through making their farming systems more sustainable and more profitable.
The Fableists > How many farmers are now part of your collective and how do they benefit?
Ayan > Currently we are working with 15,000+ farmers across the areas mentioned.
The benefits they are provided are:
- Premium: Organic cotton generally would receive a premium over and above the market price. This premium is very important for a small farmer whose income is just sufficient to feed his/her family with one meal;
- Low investment: Organic farming normally does not involve capital investment as high as that required in chemical farming. Agriculture greatly depends on external factors such as climate, pests, disease. Further, most of the small farmers are dependent on natural rain for water, as they are based in far off tribal areas. Therefore in cases of natural calamity, pest or disease attack, and irregular rainfall, when there is a crop failure, small farmers practicing organic farming have to suffer less as their investments are low;
- High return on investment: Compared to BT (conventional) there is a high Return on Investment for farmers, thereby creating social impact;
- Traditional knowledge: Small farmers have abundance of traditional knowledge with them and within their community. Most of this traditional knowledge cannot be used for chemical farming. However, when it comes to organic farming, the farmers can make use of the traditional knowledge;
- Create community owned and managed assets: The money which is received as Fairtrade premium is used for creating assets for the farmer groups and cooperatives towards local institution building, thereby fulfilling the “Gandhian concept of local Self-Sustainability”. The farmers of our various cooperatives in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Odhisa have built a storage warehouse with 560 MT capacity and Water Treatment plant at Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh, Bio Fertilizer unit at Amravati in Maharashtra, Dal processing unit/5 MT/Per day and purchased a tractor at Akola in Maharashtra, Rice processing unit at Golamunda in Odhisa and Dal processing unit/5 MT/Per day at Bhawanipatna in Odhisa.
The Fableists > Are there a lot of farming collectives in your region now? If so, do you work together?
Ayan > Yes. There are a lot of farming collectives in the region compared to 10 years ago. We do work with some but not all because there are some activities that are done with the use of chemicals and pesticides, which will deviate from our major environment objective of being organic.
The Fableists > Apart from cotton, are any other crops grown by your collective? What are they used for?
Ayan > Yes, they also grow pulses, soya bean, millets, etc. It is used for self consumption as well as for commercial purpose.
The Fableists > Where and to whom do your collective crops mostly get sold?
Ayan > The products are sold domestically as well as internationally in Europe and Japan. Some of our buyers are Fellisimo, Rajalakshmi, Armstrong, C&A, Jackpot, H&M, Marks and Spencers, Sainsburys, and more.
The Fableists > Why organic?
Ayan > It is the belief of the organic farming community that organic farming minimizes the need for chemical inputs thereby limiting damage to health and the environment. It is a more sustainable method of farming than conventional techniques and biodiversity is promoted. Intensive farming is said to destroy the fertility of the land but with organic farming and sustainable crop rotations, soil health is improved. However, weed control is carried out mainly by mechanical cultivation methods thereby disrupting the soil structure, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, removing valuable moisture and increasing soil erosion.
There is a potential in organic farming to create systems that give farm animals good welfare, and current research does not contradict this. However, there are some dilemmas caused by the underlying philosophy, and these must be recognized and discussed so that solutions can be found which promote animal welfare within the given framework. At the same time, the organic approach can open up for new ways of thinking and for innovative solutions. Organic farmers must take animal welfare issues seriously.
Organic farming is substantially based in eco-centric ethics, and the overall goal is to create sustainable agro ecosystems. However, animal welfare has, from the start, been an important goal and animal welfare concerns in organic farming can be supported by the underlying philosophy.
The Fableists > Tell us about the certification you have received.
Ayan > We are certified by 3 agencies:
- Control Union (CU)-For being organic
- Aditi-For being organic
- FloCert-For being Fairtrade (FT)
The Fableists > How have the prices your farmers are receiving for their crops changed since you were founded (in 2004)?
Ayan > They never knew the benefits of doing organic farming. Once they started to do it; they realized that they would receive a premium for the products produced by them. It has become guaranteed for them that they will receive a higher price … and also the MSP (Minimum Support Price).
The Fableists > What are Chetna’s goals and objectives over the next 5 years?
Goal: To improve the livelihood options of Indian small farm holding households (we are working with about 40,000+ farmers not all engaged in organic cotton value chain); we hope to touch 100,000 farmers through making their farming systems more sustainable and more profitable.
Objectives over the next 5 years: Procurement, processing and marketing of 2500 tonnes of organic and fair trade certified cotton lint, produced by around 12,000 small and marginal tribal farmers. This is expected to translate into a total business value of approximately INR 20 Cr. Procurement and processing of 1000 tonnes of various food crops (e.g. Soya, pulses, rice etc.) – in partnership with the local cooperatives, is expected to generate revenue of approximately INR 3 Cr.
Establishment of related community owned infrastructure (through part financial contribution from the community) at co-operative level that supports the farmer’s business activity. Infrastructure envisaged are Dal Mill in Adilabad (for pulses processing), Vegetables grading and transport facility in Karimnagar, Bio fertilizer production facility (to support organic farming), shade nets and green houses etc.
The Fableists > And how about for the long term?
- To demonstrate an ecologically and socially sustainable delivery model for poverty elevation through development of an organic and ethical supply chain.
- Empowerment of farmers through prompting collective decision making, appropriate training and promoting greater participation in food and garment supply chains by moving up the value chain.
- Consumer education and sensitizing of supply chain constituents towards creation of an ecologically safe and socially sustainable market system which is a win-win for all.
- To achieve operational and financial self sufficiency of COAPCL through business operations
The Fableists > Has the suicide rate amongst farmers struggling with the cycle of debt in the areas that Chetna works decreased as a result of your effort?
Ayan > The suicide rate has decreased gradually in the areas where Chetna is working. It is important that the farmers are given necessary support that they require to become sustainable and to mitigate risk under different circumstances.
The Fableists > Is collective farming the future for farming in India? Can the smallholder survive on its own anymore?
Ayan > The smallholder farmer would be able to survive on its own only if he is not exploited and fetches the ‘right’ (not economically, with asymmetric bargaining powers, but (fair) price if offered in the market. But it is unlikely to happen in India. Therefore, collective farming is looking like the future for farming in India to get the ‘right’ price for the farmers for their produce. It also becomes easier for the farmers to raise finance for themselves through collective farming.