BCI Farmers in India Form Their Own Farmer-Owned Collective and Improve Their Livelihoods

“In my village, cotton farming is hard work and families often struggle to make a living, particularly now that the rains are increasingly unpredictable,” says BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar. This is a situation echoed across rural Gujarat, a coastal state in India, where climate change and extreme weather are leading to water scarcity and increasing salt levels in the soil, making it harder to cultivate crops. Meanwhile, high input costs (fertilisers, for example) and low yields are putting a further strain on cotton farmers’ livelihoods. 

By participating in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), cotton farmers are learning to build resilience and improve their livelihoods by adopting sustainable practices. In the 2017-18 cotton season, BCI Farmers in India achieved 24% higher profits, while using 19% less pesticide and 15% less synthetic fertiliser1.


1. Compared to non-BCI Farmers in the same region. Learn more at bettercotton.org/farmer-results/

BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Balubhai is helping to lead an enterprising group of BCI Farmers who founded their own organisation — the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation — in 2013, putting themselves at the forefront of continuously improving their members’ performance. The organisation helps its members — all of whom are licensed BCI Farmers — to save costs and achieve fairer prices for their cotton, while developing new ways to boost their income.

Balubhai and the other founding BCI Farmers received support in creating their Farmer Producer Organisation in 2013 from one of BCI’s on-the-ground partners in India, Ambuja Cement Foundation – a grassroots, not-for-profit organisation which aims to significantly impact the pressing issues currently inhibiting India. As one of its five board members, all of whom are selected by members, Balubhai is responsible for deciding the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation’s (SFPO) strategy and monitoring its performance. The SFPO began with 938 BCI Farmer ‘shareholder members’, and now counts 1,811 BCI Farmers among its membership. 

“It all began back in 2012, when a group of us BCI Farmers in Kanakya village set up a committee to help other farmers in our community use pesticides and fertilisers more efficiently. We wanted to promote plant-based natural alternatives, but they weren’t readily available locally, so we had to find a way to make it easier for farmers to gain access to these products at reasonable prices. And we also had to convince them to change their ways by showing them the results in the field.”
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

In this way, a small group of BCI Farmers in Kanakya entrusted Balubhai and the BCI Farmer committee to start buying bio-pesticides like neem oil (made from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree) and beauveria bassiana (a fungus used as a biological insecticide) on their behalf, from a trader in nearby Una. By purchasing these inputs collectively, Balubhai and the other farmers saved approximately 25%, compared to buying individually. Building on this initial success, a further ten committees were established in local villages, enabling farmers to obtain healthier, plant-based natural pesticides at prices they could afford.

“This positive experience of collective action encouraged participating BCI Farmers to increase their cooperation and found a Farmer Producer Organisation, working together more closely for mutual benefit,” says Ambuja Cement Foundation’s Kiritbhai Jasani, who also guides the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation’s board on business planning.
— Kiritbhai Jasani, Ambuja Cement Foundation

Buying Together: Saving Costs by Purchasing Healthier, More Sustainable Inputs at Affordable Prices

The Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation (SFPO) first focused on the collective purchasing of good quality cotton seeds (to help guard against low quality options prevalent on the market in Gujarat) and fertilisers in the form of micro-nutrients. These bio-fertilisers help to improve soil health but were hard to purchase locally, with pesticide dealers unscrupulously pushing farmers to buy synthetic products for their own commercial gain. Balubhai and the other SFPO leaders soon opted to purchase pesticides on members’ behalf too, in order to help them obtain safer products that were best suited to their crops. They opened four retail outlets in local villages, where agronomists volunteer their time to give advice to farmers. With farmers’ best interests at heart, these outlets function both as shops and knowledge centres.

“The pesticide dealers cheated the farmers because often they didn’t see through their hard selling techniques and marketing promises. We want to stop this exploitation of farmers in our community.” 
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

Cotton community, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Cotton community, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

“Establishing the knowledge centres has helped members to save costs by obtaining products that meet their needs, rather than the products that local pesticide dealers wanted to promote, which varied in quality and toxicity. I’ve personally saved around 70% on my inputs each year, compared to before 2013.”
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

Importantly, BCI training sessions provided by Ambuja Cement Foundation supported this effort by informing the SFPO members on when it made sense to spray, based on regular pest monitoring, and advising on healthier, more sustainable alternatives – plant-based natural pesticides. This both helps members to reduce their expenditure and improve their impact on the environment. 

“Farmers don’t believe words alone, they have to see it to believe it. So we invite farmers to visit the fields of farmers who are doing well and show them the effects of using bio-pesticides. When they see this, farmers really start believing.”
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation retail outlet/knowledge centre where live MCX cotton commodity prices are displayed. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation retail outlet/knowledge centre where live MCX cotton commodity prices are displayed. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Selling Collectively: Achieving Fairer Prices and Developing New Sources of Income

Fairer Cotton Prices

To help BCI Farmers achieve fairer prices for their cotton, in 2018, the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation (SFPO) registered with India’s Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) online commodity trading platform to sell cotton bales, selling 100 bales of cotton lint via the platform in 2019. 

Improving fibre quality is both one of BCI’s key principles and a fundamental condition of MCX trading, meaning farmers stepped up their efforts to improve fibre quality. They did this by learning techniques to improve fibre quality, including storing cotton in dedicated indoor spaces, protecting it from dirt and rain. 

The quality was so high that the SFPO achieved a bonus of Rs 15,000 (190 euros), which it shared among members. In 2020, the SFPO aims to sell 1,000 bales through the MCX, increasing steadily from there. 

“This will help farmers discover prices that are favourable for them, rather than having to rely on prices that are fixed by local cotton gins and traders."
— Kiritbhai Jasani, Ambuja Cement Foundation.

BCI Farmer purchasing inputs at the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation retail outlet/knowledge centre. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav.

BCI Farmer purchasing inputs at the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation retail outlet/knowledge centre. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav.

Fairtrade Peanuts

Beyond fairer prices for their cotton, the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation (SFPO) has also helped participating BCI Farmers to develop an extra revenue stream by growing and selling Fairtrade certified peanuts. 

With Gujarat being one of India’s major peanut producing states, the Better Cotton Initiative and Ambuja Cement Foundation have encouraged BCI Farmers to grow peanuts as part of their strategy to promote soil health. Farmers help the soil to recover vital nutrients by alternating the crops they grow in particular fields, growing cotton and peanuts. 

Peanut harvest. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Peanuts being roasted. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav.

Peanut harvest. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Peanuts being roasted. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav.

In 2018, with the knowledge that BCI is supportive of farmers pursuing diverse sustainability certifications, the SFPO members decided to seek Fairtrade certification for their peanuts. This further benefitted members, who sold 600 tonnes of peanuts to Fairtrade in their first season, obtaining Fairtrade premiums for their produce.

Farmers recognise that the stringent sustainability conditions under which Fairtrade peanuts and Better Cotton are needed to be grown complement each other. Furthermore, the farmers recognise that the sustainable agricultural practices that they have learnt — for example, learning about non-chemical methods to managing pests — through BCI training sessions have supported them on their journey to grow Fairtrade peanuts. 

“This was an important milestone for us. We could really see the value of adopting sustainable agricultural practises. Not only this – we believe the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation is helping other peanut producers, too, by transforming the market in favour of farmers.” 
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

Children at Sonpara Primary School, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Children at Sonpara Primary School, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Social Sustainability and Community Impact

The growing understanding of the health benefits connected to using fewer synthetic pesticides and opting for healthier alternatives has extended beyond the Somnath Farmer Producer Organisation (SFPO) members, creating a greater awareness of public health issues among cotton farming communities. 

Balubhai also feels that the SFPO members are more aware of the importance of their children’s education.

“Before, children sometimes helped their parents in the field, doing things like planting seeds or assisting with the cotton harvest. But now, because of the BCI training sessions, we make sure that farmers’ and workers’ children attend school.”
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

Children at Sonpara Primary School, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

Children at Sonpara Primary School, Gujarat, India. Photo: BCI/Vibhor Yadav

“Beyond sustainable farming practices, the BCI training sessions have taught us a lot about leading healthier lives in general. We see a real difference between our community and other villages that aren’t involved. We’re more self-sufficient and able to achieve a better quality of life while keeping our families safe and healthy.”
— BCI Farmer Balubhai Parmar

In the next three years, Balubhai and the other board members, with the support of Ambuja Cement Foundation, aim to expand the SFPO to reach 5,000 members, as he continues to spread the message on the power of collective action to save costs, grow cotton more sustainably and support farmers in leading a happy, fulfilling life.

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