How Primark is helping India's female farmers grow sustainable cotton

by Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect
Tuesday, 8 March 2016 09:28 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It's encouraging how proud the men are of their wives and exciting to see the broader societal shifts in these communities

While reflecting on this year’s theme for International Women’s Day - ‘pledge for parity’ - I was reminded of one of my first trips to an Indian cotton farm.

We often hold farmer meetings so we can hear how our programmes are delivering. This meeting, like many others, was only attended by the men from the community. The women had prepared a delicious welcome snack of puffed rice with herbs and spices all grown on the farm. After the meeting I went to speak to the women and asked them a simple question:

“When your husbands and fathers receive training on how to grow better, more sustainable cotton, do they share what they have learnt with you?”

Their response? Laughter. The women were keen to know more about our programme.

At CottonConnect our goal is to help create more sustainable cotton supply chains from farm to store. Engaging with women farmers is critical to creating thriving cotton communities.

In India over half of the population is engaged in farming, yet female farmers and smallholders often go unrecognised, with little to no access to formal training. Whether running and managing the land or working on it with their husbands, women are often responsible for sowing, growing, weeding and picking. They do their share of the hard work, but often receive a much smaller portion of income. Because of how these traditional, male-dominated communities function, men are often the beneficiaries of the training offered by organisations like CottonConnect. Which is why one of our goals is to engage more women in our programmes.

The United Nations estimates that closing the gender gap in agriculture globally would generate significant gains for the agriculture sector and society. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 per cent. A further study by the Global Development Institute in 2013 found that with higher incomes, women are more likely to support household welfare and children’s education.

But the truth is no one organisation, NGO, charity, government or brand can effect positive change alone. To have a long-lasting impact, you have to work closely with local community partners who understand the local language and the community dynamics.

This month, we announced a six year extension of an incredibly effective collaboration with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) – a local NGO which operates in Gujarat, India - and Primark. Cotton makes up a significant proportion of Primark’s clothing range, and The Primark Sustainable Cotton Programme is designed to support female farmers in Gujarat; to introduce sustainable farming methods, improve cotton yields and increase their incomes. The three year pilot exceeded our expectations, training over a thousand female smallholders and resulting in an average profit increase of 211%, which many used to improve household welfare and to invest in education for their children.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the women who have benefited from the Programme, and they told me of the knowledge this training had brought them.

One female smallholder, Kanchanben, told me that she invests the extra income that she now makes into her children’s education. One of her children is at the best school in the area, and another is first in her class. She’s very proud of them, and is proud of herself.

Most encouraging, is how proud the husbands are of their wives.

More exciting is the broader societal shifts in these farming communities. The wives are both agriculturally and socially active. Their voices are heard and respected, and they’re part of the decision making process in their families and communities.

The extension will see an additional 10,000 female farmers taken through the Programme and the initial ‘graduate’ women farmers given the opportunity to learn how to become successful entrepreneurs.

Primark was the first western brand to approach SEWA to form a partnership, and SEWA will continue to be critical to the success of the Programme; providing the essential understanding of life on the ground for female farmers. They’ll continue to organise village-level meetings and engage with the initially sceptical males and elders. And we’ll continue to deliver the training, to help empower female smallholders to increase - and take control of their - incomes.

To make a material difference to women’s lives, and the lives of their families and communities, collaboration is key.

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