By Camilla Marcus-Dew, Corporate Volunteer, Accenture UK
What a whirlwind two months volunteering in India! It certainly included a bit of everything - intellectual challenge, a few moments to test my patience for sugarcane politics, eye-opening journeys, a sprinkling of frustration, the odd bout of 'Delhi Belly' and lots of fun and laughs!
My aim during my volunteering placement was to investigate the opportunities to improve the equity of women in the production and processing of sugarcane, known as the sugarcane value chain. Sugar is a hugely important commodity globally, but sugarcane can also be used to make ethanol for vehicle fuel, alcohol such as rum, paper pulp, jaggery for eating and can be burnt in co-generation power stations to provide fuel to the grid. India is only second to Brazil for sugarcane production, but India has the highest domestic consumption globally due to a high population and a relatively sweet tooth (as anyone who has been to India will certainly have noticed from the chai laden with sugar!!).
The industry is certainly complex and involves tens of millions of people, many of which are rural farmers. They collectively hold great political influence, and as such, the pricing system for cane and other policies are very closely tied to state government affairs. During my time in India, my journey took me out of Delhi and across three states to meet some important stakeholders including over 100 labourers and farm owners, a dozen entrepreneurs, several mill operators, researchers and institutions. Gladly most (but still not enough) of my time was spent with the female farmers, who would be at the centre of any future intervention of VSO in India.
The research initially focused on the highly populated state of Uttar Pradesh (>200m) which produces 40% of India’s Sugarcane, but suffers from a highly politicised pricing system, lower yields and lower sugar recovery rates when compared to the rest of India - albeit with pockets of good yields in the state which highlight potential for agricultural productivity interventions. As the research then extended across two other states beyond UP, it became evident that leading practices from all states could be better leveraged across India, with appropriate technologies to facilitate that.
Sugarcane is seen as one of the greenest bio fuels but agricultural practices and the subsequent standard of living of the stakeholders vary considerably based on location and many other factors. This makes it a very compelling commodity to study with various opportunities to both reduce environmental impact and improve livelihoods.
Several issues were highlighted during the research which included the cylicity of supply, cane prices being more than sugar market prices, delays in cane delivery to the mill, policies that promote quantity over quality, low pay for migrant labour, delayed mill payments to farmers.
A progressive farmer will be using less water, only applying organic fertiliser and will have eliminated the use of pesticides, but their numbers are few, and the research demonstrates common challenges for the farmers, labourers and entrepreneurs. However these stakeholders are quick to highlight opportunities and areas where improvements to the value chain would have direct benefits. There are a large variety of entrepreneurial opportunities that, if implemented, would benefit all stakeholders and the health and development of the wider community within the command area.
I am happy to say that the research highlighted multiple opportunities for VSO to initiate projects for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders (‘actors’) with the millions of farmers and their families at the heart of any intervention. These opportunities included:
- Training female farmers in widely accepted improved agricultural practices,
- Advocacy for farm labourers and education for their children to support the poorest stakeholders in the value chain
- Assisting in the training and development of entrepreneurs and SHG (Self help groups - collectives of rural women) in sugarcane support services such as bio-controls for pests
- Creation of more profitable alternatives to selling cane to the mills, such as co-operative jaggery making units
- Technology to improve farmer-mill-entrepreneur interactions
I certainly didn’t expect to uncover so many opportunities and dig so deep into such a complex topic during this time. It opened up doors for a future career in sugarcane with an international certifying body and was a great experience to reignite my career outside of the corporate world.
I would like to thank the members of Accenture UK and VSO International for making this voluntary placement possible and I do hope the partnership continues long into the future. I eagerly await news from the VSO India team about how the opportunities are taken forward in the coming months!