March 11, 2019 | By Sebastian Teunissen, Mohd Dilshad

Guest Commentary - Sugar, Water and Women: India’s Changing Sugarcane Industry

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.

By Sebastian Teunissen and Mohd Dilshad

All women training program in Pune, India. A total of 400 woman participated in workshops at the Vasantdada Sugar Institute, in Pune.
When the women of Basarge Gad village in Maharashtra, India, boarded buses for Pune, more than 300 km away, they had no idea how much the trip would change their lives. Along with women from neighboring villages, they set out for a training program on sugarcane cultivation at Vasantdada Sugar Institute (VSI.) For many, it was the farthest they had ever been from home and thus quite an experience. Even convincing their husbands and families to allow them to travel, accompanied only by other women, was a challenge.
During the 3-day program, the women were taught climate-smart agricultural practices, the importance of water management and were exposed to a wide range of techniques to improve the yields of their family sugarcane fields. But, beyond the tools and knowledge, they also discovered something more – their own capacity to learn, experiment and make decisions regarding the way they would do things in the field.
India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar. The country’s sugarcane industry, second only to cotton in size, relies on more than 6 million smallholder farmers and countless laborers to produce its sugar. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in India, accounting for more than 80 percent of total consumption, and sugarcane is an incredibly thirsty crop.
A typical Indian sugarcane farm is about ¼ hectare in size and yields at a rate of approximately 68 tonnes per hectare. Globally, yields of 150 – 300 tonnes per hectare can be achieved. So, Indian productivity lags far behind, largely due to small farm size and the associated inefficiencies. Solidaridad, a smallholder agriculture focused NGO, has implemented a major program to improve productivity, increase water efficiency and deploy climate-smart agricultural practices throughout the country. One component, the VSI training program, prepared by Solidaridad with funding from PepsiCo, and supported by the International Finance Corporation and Olam, enrolled 400 women from the Kolhapur and Belgaum Districts of Maharashtra and Karnataka states. The curriculum emphasized water management, soil health, pest control and fertilizer optimization, and other good agricultural practices, which prepared the women to improve farm productivity.
However, a significant by-product of the training was the change in the women themselves. Whereas, previously, they had simply done the field work given to them by their husbands, now they understood the reasoning behind the best agricultural practices and could advise their husbands accordingly. Sugarcane is a labor-intensive crop and more than 60 perccent of that work is done by women. So, this new-found knowledge had a significant effect on their roles within their families, leading to increased confidence and greater self-esteem for many of them. The ability to improve their family’s wellbeing through greater productivity of their farms has been empowering.

The women of Basarge Gad, discussing their VSI training experiences. Their husbands sit in the background.

In Turkewadi village, not too far from Basarge Gad, one can see the effectiveness of this training. Vaishali Mahadev Nivgire and her husband Mahadev Minaji Nivgire have become model farmers, producing sugarcane at a rate of 200 tonnes per hectare on their farm. Working side by side in their field, the husband and wife team utilize drip irrigation, trash mulching (incorporating the cane foliage into the soil rather than burning it,) optimal row spacing and numerous other techniques. These have reduced water consumption, dramatically increased yields, and lowered the use of fertilizers and pesticides. They have done so well that they have become lead farmers for the Solidaridad program and more than a hundred surrounding villages have sent farmers to them to study their methods. As lead farmers, they have imparted their knowledge and experience to many. Mahadev, retired from the Indian Army, takes a precise, methodical approach, recording everything he does and measuring its effectiveness. The couple employs little outside help, so they work as team from the preparation of the fields, and planting of seedlings, to irrigation, and weeding.
A few days of training is only the start. In addition to the VSI course, the women are still actively learning about agricultural practices, water management and related skills. Throughout the sugarcane growing cycle, periodic training is offered to both men and women. In total, this ongoing program has enrolled approximately 25,000 farmers within the supply regions of the two Olam sugar mills.
Women participating in an evening training class on ratoon management in Dholgawadi village alongside male farmers.
In addition to classes taught by live trainers, Solidaridad has rolled out a mobile video van that screens training videos at one or two villages, each evening, after the day’s work is done. Presented in an entertaining fashion, these screenings impart additional knowledge and re-enforce previously introduced materials.
A mobile video van visits villages each evening.
The effectiveness of the water conservation program is being rigorously evaluated by the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Research Station, in Sankeshwar. Drip irrigation, furrow irrigation and flood irrigation comparisons are being carried out, under controlled conditions, in the very heart of the region covered by the program, to confirm the water utilized under each system. The knowledge gained from this analysis will be shared amongst all the farmers in the region, in subsequent training programs.
India is reported to have the highest groundwater depletion rates in the world and, in Northern India, it is at crisis levels. With agriculture as the dominate consumer of water, it is imperative that action be taken now, at a national scale, not only to reduce consumption but also to harvest rainwater. Therefore, the 6 million sugarcane farmers, the majority of whom are women, must be enlisted in this effort. The program underway in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madya Pradesh is working with some 25,000 farmers. Other Solidaridad programs in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere involve another 300,000 farmers. But so much more needs to be done.
Solidaridad is expanding its sugarcane program to address this crisis. But this effort needs the sustained support of the companies buying the sugar produced by these farmers. PepsiCo and Coca Cola have each supported programs involving their sugar suppliers. Other food companies have made token investments. But these are not enough. The millions of women, such as those from Basarge Gad, need to have access to further training and support in order to ensure the sustainability of their farms and families and the conservation of groundwater throughout India. Only with their active involvement in water management and the implementation of climate smart agricultural practices, will the future sustainability of the sugarcane sector in India be assured.
The women of Basarge Gad discussing their VSI training experiences.
As the global agrifood industry faces several challenges, ranging from climate variability to human rights violations, and as consumers and investors demand greater transparency and responsibility, it is becoming increasingly evident that a sustainable food system requires holistic solutions that encompass the entire supply chain. To lead further thought and discussion around supply chain innovation, Solidaridad has joined with the University of California, Berkeley to organize a comprehensive two-day workshop that will bring together leaders from the private sector, academia and, civil society. To be held from April 10 – 11 in Berkeley, California, the training on “Innovation in Agrifood Supply Chains: Finance, Profitability, and Sustainability” will examine innovation in the agrifood sector, from business, social and environmental perspectives.
Held for the fourth year in a row, the program will bring together a diverse set of speakers addressing agrifood innovation from companies such as Mars and Revolution Foods, civil society organizations such as the Mastercard Foundation, financial innovators such as Bonaventure Capital and the Milken Institute’s Financial Innovation Labs and universities including UC Berkeley, Michigan State University and the University of Guelph. Learn more about the program here.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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