Guar is a bean that South Asian farmers have cultivated for centuries. The grain is the source of guar gum, a key ingredient in many products, ranging from condiments to cosmetics. The Sustainable Guar Initiative was launched in 2015 with the goal of improving the livelihoods and incomes of smallholder guar farmers in the Bikaner region, India.
The Sustainable Guar Initiative
The NGO TechnoServe leads the initiative’s on-the-ground implementation. Solvay, L’Oreal, Henkel and HiChem serve as partners of the program.
The initiative benefits more than 7,000 guar-farming households in Bikaner and operates across 36 villages. TechnoServe has facilitated the launch of a farmer producer company, which helps connect guar farmers with potential buyers. The initiative has built a traceable supply chain, which ensures that everyone from the farmers to their crops’ consumers benefits from the exchange.
Additionally, the initiative features social programs aimed at improving the well-being of farming households. One way the initiative achieves this is by educating the families on growing kitchen gardens.
The Impact of COVID-19
As of July 30, India has seen over 1,600,000 people tested positive for COVID-19. Over 40,000 people have tested positive in the state of Rajasthan and, just in the city of Bikaner, over 1,900 contracted the disease.
The Indian government declared a national lockdown on March 25 given the complexity of the situation. Since then, life has changed significantly for smallholder guar farmers in Bikaner and for the people working to support them through the Sustainable Guar Initiative.
TechnoServe’s team in India told The Borgen Project that guar farmers now face various challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many farmers can no longer sell their crops, disrupting the incomes they rely on. Lockdown measures also prevent farmers from finding daily wage labor to supplement their incomes. These farmers face a shortage of resources necessary to continue growing guar, like tractors, seeds, laborers and working capital.
These challenges could pose a real threat to Bikaner’s farmers. Though Rajasthan, the state where Bikaner is located, has made progress toward reducing poverty compared to India’s other low-income states, 15% of Rajasthan’s population still lived below the poverty line in 2012. With their incomes stagnating, guar farmers and others throughout the state could fall into (or deeper into) poverty as the COVID-19 crisis drags on.
TechnoServe and their partners are working to keep smallholder guar farmers from this unpleasant fate. To do so without spreading the virus, TechnoServe has been engaging virtually with farming households since March 2020.
As the TechnoServe team in India told The Borgen Project, the virtual engagement strategy involves multiple communication methods. The team uses text messages, audio calls, video calls and conference audiovisual calls to communicate with households. Local personnel delivers training through digital platforms. Guar farmers who have both good communication skills and access to smartphones are then tasked with disseminating the training information throughout the villages.
Since May 2020, the TechnoServe team has reached approximately 4,959 male farmers and 1,238 female farmers through phone calls alone. The team reported technical difficulties in the switch to virtual engagement but they have been able to work around these challenges and develop closer ties with the farmers through one-on-one virtual interactions.
The TechnoServe team said that after six months, they will review the efficacy and efficiency of these virtual engagement strategies and their impact. The team will also evaluate the state of the COVID-19 outbreak. Based on these two areas of concern, the team will decide whether to continue with virtual engagement through the end of the fiscal year (ending April 2021) or to adjust training methods.
TechnoServe and its partners are also taking larger steps to further the goals of the Sustainable Guar Initiative amid the pandemic. Here are five ways that the initiative is supporting the farmers in the longer term:
- Kitchen Gardens: Solvay and L’Oreal established a COVID-19 relief fund. TechnoServe identified over 534 farming families whom the COVID-19 pandemic has made vulnerable. Tapping into the relief fund, the TechnoServe team has facilitated the distribution of seeds to these families. The families can plant these seeds in kitchen gardens, which provide them with more diverse food options and give them a potential second source of income. Growing food at home also allows women to avoid shopping in crowded markets, where they could become infected with COVID-19.
- Farming Equipment: TechnoServe is providing 534 vulnerable farming families with weeding, plowing and hoeing equipment for the approaching monsoon season. This equipment will enable the families to continue growing guar once the season starts.
- Protection Against COVID-19: TechnoServe is raising awareness about social distancing and safety protocols while providing the smallholder farmers with ways to protect themselves against the virus. The TechnoServe team said they plan to provide Sanitary Protection Equipment to the 534 vulnerable farming households.
- Guar Sales: To help farmers who cannot sell their crops during the pandemic, the partners of the Sustainable Guar Initiative have worked together to help peasants sell their guar above the local market price. This allows farmers to pay for daily expenses and invest in another year of crop cultivation.
- Price Floor Implementation: Solvay and L’Oreal proposed implementing a price floor for guar. This means that farmers would be guaranteed a reasonable price for their crops. While the initiative’s partners work out the arrangement’s details, Solvay has been offering a price for the farmers’ guar above the market rate.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so do challenges for the smallholder guar farmers of Bikaner. But thanks to TechnoServe and their partners, the Sustainable Guar Initiative persevered through the crisis. The initiative provides needed support for a vulnerable population during unstable times.
– Emily Dexter