Women at the heart of technology delivery in the remote tribal villages of Odisha

Author // Sonia Akter Categories // Gender

It is not just about including women but, rather, about the strong social inclusion of the most vulnerable, marginalized, and left out.

Malati, leader of the cluster self-help groups in Odisha, using a seed spreader
Malati, leader of the cluster self-help groups, using a seed spreader to apply fertilizer over a DSR field. (Photo by Swati Nayak)

Gone are the days when agriculture was considered a man’s turf and women were to stay at home and tend to household chores. The idea that women are mere helping hands for the men in farming operations has been waning from common consciousness. The beliefs that understanding, accepting, and using modern technology are not rural women’s ‘cup of tea’ are also no more valid, our experience suggests.

With fallacious beliefs and misconceptions such as these prevalent in India and many South Asian countries, most conventional extension and technology delivery models are silent on gender inclusion. Had IRRI been part of this structural error, we would not have been writing this story today.

As part of its commitment to mainstreaming gender, IRRI works with local partners, such as Pradan and the Dhan Foundation. Their efforts have reversed the architecture of the technology delivery model for the Mayurbhanj District in Odisha.

The story began in 2013 with informal discussions with organizations engaged in agriculture and in helping women at Mayurbhanj District, under the umbrella of the Cereal Systems Intensification in South Asia (CSISA) program. CSISA is funded by USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and a partnership of four international research institutions—CIMMYT, IRRI, ILRI, and IFPRI.

The technology delivery model deployed by CSISA is participatory, bottom-up, community centric, and women-led—the outcome of which might seem implausible until seen and practically experienced, in just the first season of a planned intervention.

Shanti Bewa, a tribal woman farmer and widow in Odisha, using weed control machine
Shanti Bewa, a tribal woman farmer and widow, busy with her weed control machine at her direct-seeded rice (DSR) field in Jhalkiani. (Photo by Swati Nayak)

Jhalkiani, Saranggarh, Durgapur, Deogan, Manada, Ulidihi, Suhagpur, Palasa, and Kashipal are just a few villages out of many, spread across five blocks in Mayurbhanj that together tell the success story of a women-led, participatory technology delivery model. Most of the villages under intervention are inhabited by tribal communities—the poorest of the poor, with small or marginal landholdings. All these villages have women’s groups involved in savings, credit, and non-farm income-generating activities. 

Through the women-led technology delivery model, members of these women's groups now have training in improved farming practices and many among them have emerged as early users of modern technologies.

These women are now confidently involved in farming activities and have proudly established themselves as mainstream farmers in their villages. Their enthusiasm, confidence, willpower, mutual trust, and curiosity about modern technology are infectious.

More than 1,000 women farmers have used various improved technologies this season (kharif 2014) such as better varieties, direct-seeded rice, the mechanical transplanter, and maize line sowing. Others, who were hesitant because of fear and apprehension, are now convinced and determined to use the technologies in the next season. More than 2,000 women have undergone training through mass capacity building, technology sensitization, and mobilization programs.

All the mobilization, handholding, and adoption were ensured because of the dedication of community agents who worked tirelessly with the women’s groups. Leaders of the women’s groups are associates of the community agents, and together they moved from village to village, familiarizing and training farmers about the technologies, and motivating the women toward improved technology adoption.

The scenario was not the same many months ago. The journey has not been easy either. Apprehension, fear, risk, and feelings of a lack of support from family and friends were part of life for many days, for most of the women who joined us. In due time, however, the collective willpower, encouragement, and continuous handholding by CSISA have now resulted in smiles on the faces of many women farmers.

We have seen that these efforts are not merely about the success or failure of the technologies but, rather, about the big picture of this collective decision-making—the mutual motivation, support, and trust within and across the women’s groups that acted as the catalyst to initiate this transformation.

With this experience now being shared by those who practically witnessed it, will anybody still reasonably say that women cannot be mainstream farmers if they choose to be?

A women’s group in Saranggarh village, Odisha during their first trial of DSR
A women’s group in Saranggarh village gets ready for the first trial of DSR in their field. (Photo by Swati Nayak)

This is just the beginning, no doubt about it, and the potential that lies ahead is enormous. Evidence of success will not be solely seen in technology adoption by the women with whom we work, but also in a new set of structural links that ensure that women in agriculture become more central to government programs and to the day-to-day work of implementing NGOs.

CSISA has more to do to ensure that structural links are formed. There is the concern about the work of the NGOs, on whether this initiative becomes part of their long-term programs or if it’s a one-off effort. And then there is the concern about continued access to service providers for the technologies, which is very critical, and firming up potential links to microfinance and to government extension services, among others.

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Special thanks to Noel Magor (IRRI Training Center) and Swati Nayak (CSISA-Odisha Hub, India) for their contributions.


About the Author

Sonia Akter

Sonia Akter

Sonia Akter led the IRRI Gender Research Team. She is also the former coordinator for gender research across and within the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) program of the CGIAR.