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Pandemic prompts Indian farmers to cut out middlemen

Mary-Rose Abraham Bengaluru, India
May 27, 2020

India's corona lockdown has hit supply chains and seen vegetables left to rot in fields. But grassroots initiatives to connect farmers directly to consumers are helping cut waste and boost income.

A man sorting mangoes
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Seelam

Kannaiyan Subramaniam, a farmer on the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states in southern India, was just preparing to harvest 1.5 hectares (3.5 acres) of cabbages when the country imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Within hours, shops shut, roadblocks went up and people were told to stay home. Workers trained to pick cabbages were barred from traveling to Subramaniam's farm, until three weeks into the lockdown, delaying his harvest and the sale of his cabbages.

"The government did not extend a helping hand and it impacted small and marginal farmers," Subramaniam told DW. "I am running on a heavy loss and have a lot of debts. It's a beautiful harvest. But the harvest needs to go to the people who are needy."

Usually, traders would arrive at Subramaniam's farm to buy, pack, and transport his crop to retailers and wholesale markets. But with markets, restaurants, hotels and shops closed, demand plummeted. Subramaniam's usual trader only bought half of his 100-ton cabbage crop, and paid him only half of the usual price by weight. A quarter of the crop went to waste, rotting unpicked in the field.

Read more: Under coronavirus lockdown, Delhi slum residents struggle to get water

The Vegetables Growers Association of India estimates that 30% of ready-to-harvest crops have been left to rot during the lockdown. That's compared to around 5 to 10% typically wasted on Indian farms, according to Sudha Narayanan, an economist at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.

But some farmers — and consumers — have found ways to save their crops and keep supplies flowing.

Fresh vegetables in boxes
Fresh vegetables ready for purchase direct from a farmer's truck Image: DW/M.-R. Abraham

Social media marketplace

Chandra Gowda grows grapes on the northern outskirts of Bengaluru (or Bangalore as it's also known). He had a good harvest this year, but when lockdown hit, one variety of his grapes sold for only a sixth the usual price. Gowda couldn't negotiate because he needed the grapes out of the way to grow next season's crop. There were no takers for 10 tons of his black grapes, which he ended up having to compost.

Scrambling to save the rest of his harvest, Gowda posted on a Facebook page called Farm to Fork Bangalore. A week later, he sold 400 kilograms (880 pounds) by renting a van, driving into the city and delivering to consumers. He has had to take out loans this year to support his family of seven. But being able to negotiate a good price on the portion of his crop he sold directly has encouraged him to do the same next year.

"I can actually get the benefits immediately by selling to the customer," Gowda told DW. "Otherwise, I'm stuck with the rate that the middleman offers. And they don't give cash right away. It can take up to two months to get the money."

Farmer Chandra Gowda holding a bunch of grapes
Farmer Chandra Gowda sold 400 kilos of grapes direct to customers after posting on a Facebook page Image: DW/M.-R. Abraham

Farm to Fork Bangalore is just one of many nonprofits that have responded to the pandemic by connecting farmers and consumers via social media.

Ruchit Garg, who heads an agricultural finance company, launched the Harvesting Farmer Network Twitter handle on April 12, after he saw farmers dumping fresh fruit and vegetables on the roadside. It has since been used to list more than 1,600 tons of fresh produce from thousands of farmers. Each Tweet gives a farmer's name and contact number, crop, quantity and location.

Read more: Are apps tackling food waste an antidote to our throwaway culture?

Consumers get involved

Initiatives are coming from consumers, too. Less than a week into lockdown, the Residents Welfare Association of Sarjapur in Bengaluru was contacted by local farmers struggling to sell their produce. It gauged interest from its members, helped the farmers get police permission to transport, and the next day the farmers were delivering tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and leafy vegetables to Sarjapur apartment buildings.

Residents wearing facemasks stood in socially distanced queues to buy farm-fresh produce while many local retailers were either shut or low on stock. Even now the lockdown has eased and shops are better stocked, the farmers' van is still making its rounds.

People queuing to buy veg from the back of a truck
Residents of an apartment complex in Bengaluru's Sarjapur area form a socially distanced line to buy produce transported from local farmsImage: DW/M. Abraham

Shilpa Polavarapu bought five kilos of mangoes from a similar scheme in Bengaluru at 85 rupees per kilo ($0.40 per pound). The week before, she had paid 99 rupees for a kilo through an online grocery company, and ended up having to throw out the lot because they never ripened. "The farmers' mangoes were a quality product at a cheaper price," Polavarapu told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus lockdown: Delhi struggles to feed migrants left behind

These positive experiences suggest that farm-to-doorstep selling could make a longer-term impact on food waste.

"This lockdown has forced consumers to behave differently," Garg told DW. "Consumers are getting more aware of the issues farmers face and the effort it takes to grow food. With consumers knowing what it takes to put food on the plate, they would become more mindful of wastage and see produce in a different light."

Rethinking supply chains

Fresh mangoes
Customers have been pleased with the quality of produce they get direct from growers Image: DW/M.-R. Abraham

Tweeting your crop might not be a long-term solution but with some direct-selling schemes getting more organized and setting up dedicated web pages, Narayanan predicts that once the lockdown is fully lifted, the model will persist alongside a return to the traditional chains of traders and wholesale markets. 

Still, direct-selling is more challenging for some farmers than others, and location is key.

"For farmers with perishable produce, urban centers are like magnets because consumers are willing to pay a high price," Narayanan told DW. "But not all farmers were able to take up this opportunity. They need proximity to the cities and a means of transport."

Read more: India's Himalayan apple farmers feel the heat

Subramaniam's cabbage fields are 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the nearest urban center. He managed to shift around 15 tons of his crop through small sales generated by posting on Twitter and another 10 tons to a startup that aims to get better prices for India's farmers and lower food waste. He says the experience has made him rethink his supply chains.

"I'm not a businessperson, but I would like to elevate from just crop production to marketing," Subramaniam said. "I've already started talking with some friends to create a small farmers' collective so we can tie up with these companies who are sourcing from farmers and directly reaching consumers. I want to protect farmers from exploitation at the traditional wholesale markets."

Boosting food production in India