Strength in numbers for female farmersA female collective in a remote village is a powerful model for independence and income
Collectivisation may have earned a bad reputation because of Stalin’s policies in the 1930s that led to widespread famine in the Soviet Union, but in Nepal today it is becoming a way for women farmers to work together to make up for the absence of men.
Sumitra Karki had been observing the worrying trend of young men moving to the cities or abroad, and in the absence of farmhands more terrace fields were fallow. In recent years, even the women had started leaving to take care of their grandchildren in the cities.
Baglung in the lap of Mt Dhaulagiri in central Nepal is the district with one of the highest proportion of out-migration of young men. In the scenic village of Galkot, tucked amidst forested mountains in the back of beyond, women like Karki who stayed behind have taken over farming.
The feminisation of farming in Nepal is an example of necessity being the mother of invention, so that women who barely grew enough to feed their families now make up the shortfall with money sent home by their husbands abroad.
“Farming was not productive at all,” says Karki. “The women had to wait for the menfolk to send home money even to buy and wear bangles. What kind of a life was that?”
But Sumitra Karki had other ideas. During a visit to Palpa, she had seen women engaged collectively in agriculture to grow more food and cash crops by putting fallow fields to good use. On return, she put forth the idea at a mothers' group meeting, but the other women did not quite grasp the concept.
“They had not seen what I had seen. There is a difference between seeing with our own eyes and listening to someone describe it,” she explains.
But Karki did not give up, and a few years later the mothers' group applied for a government grant to grow vegetables and onions. The women realised the power of working collectively, where two and two became more than four.
Encouraged, the women formed the Melmilap Ekikrit Krishak Samuha collective farmer’s group in 2019 with eleven members and Karki as president. Today, the women of the Dudilabhati settlement of Galkot who were once confined to household chores and dependent on remittances, are growing valuable vegetables, including unseasonal ones in greenhouses.
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“It is easier to work in a group,” says collective member Nirmala Gurung. “We get to learn from each other and it also makes the work more fun when there are more of us.” For Nirmala, there is another reason to be happy: seeing her income rise, her husband has returned from the Gulf.
Nita Gurung is also happy she joined: “The collective farm has given us a sense of collective security. Sumitra has been a good guide and coordinator.”
Besides vegetables, the women also leased 5,000 sq m to grow millet this season, a native crop which is falling out of favour because it is more labour intensive and has been displaced by rice and wheat. But Karki wants to make this a model farm for the revival of the nutritious and climate-hardy indigenous crop. “We want to give priority to what was traditionally grown here and make an income from that,” she says.
Agriculture in Galkot used to be subsistence, with low yield on steep terrace farms, dependence on rain, limited market, risk of natural disasters and wild animal raids. All these factors have been exacerbated by the impact of climate breakdown in the Himalaya.
The first major challenge for the women’s collective was Covid. All members of the group tested positive, the market closed down and lots of vegetables went waste. Not one to give up, Karki took charge as soon as she recovered and started posting photos of vegetables on her Facebook page during the lockdown.
The group no longer sells vegetables through social media posts, but has developed contacts in the municipality to take their produce to market.
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Growing up, Karki never thought she would ever be a farmer-entrepreneur. She had wanted to be a staff nurse. But when she was in Grade 9 at the age of 17, she was married. A year later, her oldest son was born.
“Although my in-laws and husband were supportive, I couldn’t go back to school because I wanted to bring up my son myself,” says Karki who missed going to school. When her oldest was in Grade 4 and the younger boy was pre-school, she joined private classes and passed the school exam.
In those days, her husband Padam tried his hand in farming, running a rice mill, poultry and running a shop, Sumitra was always by his side, learning the ropes. There was just one thing she wanted to change: society knew her as someone’s wife, daughter-in-law, sister. But she wanted to carve her own identity.
“Setting up a collective farming group has given me my own identity,” she says. “Now people know me as Sumitra Karki,” she says with visible pride.
The seven women in the group work together in the fields, dividing time between their own plots and the group’s collective farm. The men come in as consultants and help with physical labour when needed. Profits are equally divided between the women, with some amount going into a savings account to buy seeds, or lease more land.
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Karki is aware that running a successful business needs time, but making an agro-business work takes even more effort because of prices, weather, and other changing variables. But the women find their strength in numbers, and this cushions them from hurdles along the way.
“Women are often left behind in our society. But when we gain financial independence our voices are heard in the family and larger community,” explains Karki. “So my dream is to add more women to the collective and make them financially independent. For farmers like us, there is no better way.”