Mumbai: Around 50 farmers spread across three Maharashtra districts have stopped approaching banks or private moneylenders for loans. Yet, every year, they invest in quality fertilisers, insecticides and seeds, and reap a tidy profit.
Farmers helping farmers: This is the guiding principle of a club — called the Farmers Club — that seeks to transform how farmers approach cultivation and free them from the cycle of debt and penury that has dogged the state’s drought-hit Vidarbha region for years.
Members of the club draw their finances from a crowdfunded pool of funds. All members plough a part of their profits back into the pool each year to increase its size and widen the club’s reach to more farmers.
Within two years, the club’s membership has more than doubled.
Just another business
The club is guided by a team of agriculture experts associated with the Shivprabha Charitable Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that counsels farmers on the crops to sow, the fertilisers to use and the insecticides to pick.
“I got Rs 10,000 in aid from the farmers’ club last year to buy fertilisers and seeds as advised,” said Fakira Bolke, 40, a small farmer with a 2.5-acre plot in Yavatmal district’s Lonwadi village.
“At the end of the year, I put Rs 12,000 back. The idea is that if 10 of us were benefiting from the club earlier, we can take the number to 12, helping more farmers,” he added.
“At the end of next year, the new members will also be in a position to generate profits and give back to the club to help more farmers, and the cycle continues,” he said.
The seeds of the farmers’ club
The club took shape in 2017 with 20 farmers from Yavatmal, Buldhana and Chandrapur districts — all in Vidarbha — as its members.
Amol Sainwar, founder and president of Shivprabha Charitable Trust, said his NGO was initially involved in helping farmers with funds for their children’s education and weddings as, besides farming, these were the main motivations for debt.
“We soon realised that their financial planning and management is completely awry. Agriculture is a business, but they don’t run it like one,” Sainwar told ThePrint.
“So, we thought, rather than helping farmers by giving them money, we should help them by teaching them how to manage their money,” he said.
Inspired by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the concept of micro-financing in Bangladesh, Sainwar and his team decided to experiment with the club idea, gathering an initial pool of funds through donations.
“We gave farmers initial capital based on their requirements and landholdings,” said Sainwar.
“Instead of directly giving them money, we gave them seeds, fertilisers, insecticides and other farm equipment worth the amount. At the end of the year, farmers returned their initial capital [in money] to the fund as well as an additional amount to keep the fund growing,” Sainwar added.
In 2018, with the help of more donors, and contributions made by club members, 30 more farmers were added to the club.
‘Would have benefitted more with better rain’
Farmers in the club told ThePrint that, among other things, Shivprabha’s agriculture specialists advise them on crops compatible with local water availability, as well as the kind of seeds sowed by other farmers.
The idea is for farmers from the same region to alternate crops and not compete with each other at the marketplace.
“We also help each other with small requirements. If someone I know from the club is falling short of labour, I can lend them a hand in their fields,” said Bolke, “Or if I am in need of a pair of oxen for ploughing, someone can lend me theirs.”
While he has not been able to fully pay back his old debt, he told ThePrint, he found solace in the fact that he hasn’t had to take a new one.
While members of the club agree that the concept has been revolutionary, some feel a poor monsoon has limited its benefits, at least in the last one year.
Vitthal Sonagare, 29, of Buldhana’s Kinhi Mahadeo village, said the club had helped him at a time when he was at a complete loss.
“I was not declared eligible for the state’s farm loan waiver, so I could not get a fresh loan from the bank. I already had a debt of Rs 1.9 lakh, taken from a private moneylender,” he told ThePrint.
“I was in need of finance for the fresh farming season, and the farmers’ club helped,” said Sonagare, an arts graduate who turned to farming when he could not get a job.
However, a poor monsoon last year, followed by a drought, limited his income in 2018. “If we had had a good rain, I would have progressed a lot. But, last year I had to pawn some of my mother’s gold to pay my share back to the club,” he said.
“Hopefully, this year will be better.”