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Lalitha Krishnaswami. Too many women cultivate food which they don’t get to eat

Economy / -

Sewa è una federazione di 103 cooperative

Ever since its beginnings, the strength of SEWA – a federation of 103 cooperatives – has been its integrated approach to problem-solving. Because without access to credit, or health insurance, or education, women were unable to run a farm. Today, they follow production from the field to the table… their own table too.

Food security and access to credit are two closely related concepts. Especially if you live in India’s Gujarat region, where the SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) Federation has been active since 1972. This is a combative federation of cooperatives which offers a whole series of integrated services to working women. Today, with 103 member cooperatives, SEWA is the largest women’s federation in India. We asked Lalitha Krishnaswami, President of SEWA – a speaker at the ANCC Coop Conference “We not me-Everyone’s Food” – to tell us the story of this extraordinary organization.
What are the federation’s basic principles?
The most basic of all is this: at a certain point, women, especially poor women, realized that they could give a concrete voice to their problems if they united. If there are many of you, you can get things done. So we try always to increase the number of economically active women. Women have always worked, but previously they had no tools, no access to markets, no training. But where can they get the necessary money? The first problem SEWA had to tackle was access to credit. How can a woman who borrows 100 rupees, but has to pay 10% to the intermediary, sell her products on the market? She’s left with nothing, and she gets sucked into the vicious cycle of debt. So, SEWA contacted national banks, to persuade them to lend money to women for their businesses.
The banks accepted, but the people working in the banks were quite unused to dealing with poor women, who came into the bank straight from working in the fields or in the market-place. So SEWA took on the responsibility of helping them with their bureaucratic procedures. But this wasn’t enough, because the women kept turning up at different branches, and turning up outside opening hours, clutching bawling children with runny noses, reeking of vegetables and fish. So we organized a mass meeting of our members. At that meeting, a woman stood up and said; “We are poor, but we are many.” There were 4,000 women at the meeting, and each one contributed 10 rupees. That made 40,000 rupees. And six months later we had reached 100,000 rupees, the amount we needed.
Then what did you do?
We created SEWA, the bank for women. That was 41 years ago. The official at the Company Register Office said: “You must be mad! Completely crazy! How can poor women run a bank? These women (the promoters of the cooperative) don’t even know how to read or write! They don’t know how to send an e-mail! How can you run a bank in these conditions?” So we gathered all the illiterate women, to teach them how to write their names: they spent a whole night sitting in a room learning how to write their names. The next day we went back to the Registrar and we said: “Now they know how to sign their names, so we can register the bank.” The registrar said “You women will never be able pay back your loans. The bank will go bust: it won’t work!” 41 years later, the bank is working perfectly, and has half a million members! It was a completely new system, at the time: a woman worker could deposit her money in a safe place, and take it out when she needed it. So she could finally administer her own money without having to go through her husband, her brother or her son.
And where did the cooperative go from there?
After we had set up our bank we had to tackle another problem: if a woman fell ill, she could no longer work, and therefore no longer earn, and therefore no longer feed her children. So it was vital to set up some kind of health insurance, to reinforce food security. And so our bank launched its own health insurance system. If a woman is insured, her health improves and she doesn’t have to spend all her savings on treatment. And she can also insure her farm produce or her animals. All the things which provide food. Secure food and better food.
How do your food sector cooperatives work?
We have a lot of cooperatives in rural areas. The women cultivate vegetables and sell them wholesale in our shop… the only one run by women. So not only do they produce, they also pick, sell, distribute, package and check on quality. We have seeds, fertilizers and everything they need to improve their production. We have a collective store where they can buy tools, or rent them… i.e. use them and then return them. The whole productive cycle is run by our cooperatives. And the profits are reinvested within the village: in other words, the profits remain within the rural area and the women eat the food they have produced. Too often the food doesn’t reach the women. But a woman who is pregnant needs plenty of good food, and when her child is born she needs good food too.
What are the next challenges your food cooperatives have to face?
We are working to increase the use of organic and natural production methods which do not impoverish the land. This involves a whole series of different methods and products. But as always, we have to keep on winning the same battles, helping small farms, especially those run by women, through cooperative concepts.

At the Women’s Forum at Expo Milano 2015, we will be discussing workable solutions in which women can do and are making the difference

Culture / -

Jacqueline Franjou

A lot of topics on the agenda at the Women's Forum Italy as part of the Expo Milano 2015 on June 29 and 30: an important moment to discuss the solutions in which women can make a difference. “While tracing the route of humanity towards a sustainable future, we do not only ensure that the women are on board but also that they have the same possibility to govern the ship”.

When we talk about Nurturing a sustainable future, our theme for Women’s Forum Italy 2015, there are two very good reasons to talk about it with women in mind. Women and girls make up half the world’s population, and they are typically on the frontline not only when it comes to feeding their families but also when it comes to feeding the world. Women living in rural areas produce half of the world’s food and, in developing countries, they are responsible for between 60 percent and 80 percent of food crops. So first of all, if we are to overcome hunger and malnutrition, we must end practices that deny women their basic human rights, and we must pull down the barriers that prevent women from realizing their full potential in agriculture as in all other sectors. Secondly, we must rely on the intelligence and insight of women as we seek sustainable solutions to the world food crisis. As we chart humanity’s course into a sustainable future, we must not only make sure women are on board; we must give them an equal chance to steer the ship.
In the course of our discussions at Women’s Forum Italy 29-30 June, we’ll focus not only on the problems – hunger, obesity, water shortages, food waste, climate change, food insecurity… – but on workable solutions where women can make and are making all the difference. We’ll see how women’s knowledge and concerted efforts are enhancing resource productivity, aiding in the conservation of ecosystems, and improving nutrition for men, women and children in all geographies and at all income levels. We’ll hear from trailblazers such as Ertharin Cousin, Vandana Shiva and Emma Bonino, and from leading business figures such as Guido Barilla, Fiona Dawson, Oscar Farinetti, and Alessandro Marchionne. 
We are delighted to be having this Women’s Forum meeting in Italy, where the “slow food” movement began and where Expo Milano 2015 has brought nutrition and sustainability to the heart of the debate. We are proud to be associated with Valore D and WE-Women for Expo, two successful networks helping women in Italy connect with each other and with other women around the world. And we are grateful for the support of our corporate partners Bank of America, Chopard, The Coca-Cola Company, Generali Group, Sisal, CNH Industrial, Intesa San Paolo and Mars, Inc., and our media partners, France Médias Monde and L’Huffington Post.

FAO: Innovation, access to markets and research: all essential for family farming

Economy / -

Family Farming
© Terry W. Eggers/Corbis

"In the poorest countries – says Jakob Skoet, an economist at Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and one of the authors of 'The State of Food and Agriculture' report which this year focuses on family farming – productivity is low. Innovation serves to increase both productivity and sustainability."

Innovation, research and access to markets. These are the themes which as elements for developing Family Farming, may well reduce poverty and bring added value. "In the poorest countries - says Jakob Skoet, an economist at FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), and one of the authors of the report 'State of Agriculture', which this year focuses on family farming – productivity is low. Innovation serves to increase both productivity and sustainability." Skoet insists that "if you do not support family farmers (classified as those who run their own business with just the contribution of their family and whose income is solely derived from cultivation, ed) the problems of malnutrition and poverty will never be resolved."
Access to markets means infrastructure and sharing of information
Another little-known but essential aspect is access to markets: "Often there is a lack of infrastructure, access to credit and sharing of information. These limits deny many family farmers entry to markets, and not just the international ones where big companies operate, but also the national and the more local markets that are closer to the community."
The return on agricultural research is extremely high
And then there is Research: it is one of the key factors that helps family farmers: "The return on Research & Development (R&D) investment is extremely high but very few countries invest, so there is a need for fund-raising for research for all the others, and a partnership between public and private sectors. And let’s not forget that it’s essential at this stage to have individual farmers taking part because only with their collaboration, can the best results be achieved for the very areas in which they grow their products."
Cooperation among individual farmers is vital
In all three sectors, innovation, research and access to markets, it is key to have "cooperation among farmers. They have to make their voices heard, they have to ask for what they need to improve conditions" and to do this, it is better that they speak with one voice and not with thousands of different voices. 
The FAO State of Agriculture report
The "State of Agriculture" report, published on October 16 this year, focuses on family farming. In fact, 2014 has been declared by the FAO as the year of Family Farming. It is a phenomenon with enormous ramifications. According to FAO, out of 570 million farms in the world, about 90 percent are family-run, that is about 500 million. They take up more than three quarters of cultivated land and produce 80 percent of global food. Taking action in this context will have a profound effect on the way agriculture is done in the world, on what we eat and how we tackle the challenges of the future, from climate change to population growth.

Over a million people are already #FoodConscious. What about you?

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