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Dear dairy

An all-women group of milk producers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region is breeding entrepreneurs in an area beset with agrarian distress

Rajkanya Kadam’s family have been farmers for generations. But in recent years she and her husband have found they can’t make enough from agriculture to feed and educate their children. Ms Kadam lives in Ternoli village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. This is a part of the Vidarbha region, which for decades has reported agrarian distress and suicides by debt-ridden farmers. In fact, the Kadams have also taken loans to keep their household running.

The couple always wanted to find another source of income, but never knew how. That changed in 2018, when the Indujaa Mahila Milk Producer Company (MPC) launched an awareness drive in their village. The idea was simple: to convince cash-strapped farmers and even the landless to take up dairy farming as a source of supplementary income.

Ms Kadam had no hesitation in joining Indujaa, an all-women company of dairy farmers. She purchased a cow to start her business, despite never having considered dairy previously, mainly because she didn’t know how to find a market. “We would have to sell the milk outside the village and I was not even sure of the right price. Indujaa made it easy,” says Ms Kadam. “With the team’s guidance, I have learned to make my business profitable.”

Ms Kadam’s husband has joined her and they have added two more cows to the enterprise. “After starting the dairy business, our earnings increased and we have been able to repay all our loans,” says the proud dairypreneur.

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Rural milk mural

Indujaa is one of five MPCs under the Tata Trusts’ dairy initiative, which has programmes in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Dairy is seen as an underdeveloped area of the rural economy and the programme aims to show small farmers the benefits of dairying as a business. The Dairy Health and Nutrition Initiative of India Foundation (DHANII) was set up in 2016 to be the implementation and delivery arm of the Trusts for the initiative.

More than 100 million farmers are engaged in dairy farming in India and at least 70 million own two or three milch animals. The sector constitutes almost 5% of the national economy but is still not considered a profitable means of livelihood by many small farmers. This despite dairy being a recession-proof business. That became obvious during Covid, when dairy boomed — while other businesses floundered — because of an increased demand for milk.

“When we started the dairy mission in 2016, we expected to help each beneficiary family get an income of 50,000-60,000 per annum,” says Baljinder Singh Saini, regional manager with the Tata Trusts and head of operations with DHANII. “Today many of them earn in excess of 100,000.”

DHANII is looking to reach at least 300,000 households through dairy farming by 2025. Indujaa has more than 12,000 members as of now and is growing continuously. “Dairy was identified as a high-impact subsector because income flow to households from agriculture is seasonal,” adds Mr Saini. “Farmers get money at the end of the cropping season. On the other hand, milk sale from dairy provides regular income and is crucial to run household expenses.”

The lack of enthusiasm for dairy farming has its reasons. India’s dairy sector is plagued by some common problems: low productivity due to poor breeds, little or no veterinary services, and lack of knowledge about feed, cattle care and such.

The Indujaa team with a dairy-farming family in Hatni village in Yavatmal district

“A large part of the sector is still unorganised,” adds Mr Saini. “Though we have big milk cooperatives like Amul, they cover only 30% of the total market. About 70% of dairy farmers still don’t have access to the organised market. Also, over 65% of the farmers belong to the smallholder category (owning one or two milch animals).”

MPCs have taken care of most of these issues. Indujaa, for example, offers farmers several kinds of services, from breed improvement (mainly through artificial insemination) and infertility management camps with suitable treatment, to fodder reinforced with cattle feed and a mineral mixture. Some of these services are offered at the doorstep of Indujaa members.

Indujaa also ensures education and training programmes for its members, as well as exposure visits to other MPCs, where they learn from peer dairypreneurs. The women producers are informed about the latest technology and field facilitators are employed to teach them how to use it. Additionally, MPCs facilitate loans to members through bank linkages.

Indujaa lends a hand with productivity enhancement for members who are not able to generate enough milk from their livestock. This is important for women entrepreneurs, who actually take care of the livestock (while men typically arrange for the fodder). MPCs run a ‘ration balancing programme’ that customises cattle diet based on health indicators, body measurements and specific needs. This enables productivity increases.

Getting on board

Indujaa, like the other MPCs, has a board of directors and a professional team hired to run operations. Ownership and autonomy rest with members, which ensures the best returns directly to the milk producers.

The most crucial service offered by Indujaa to its members is milk procurement, thereby providing a market for the farmers and eliminating middlemen. A few MPCs under the initiative have even launched their own products, such as ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (farmer cheese), by collaborating with local manufacturers.

“Since the farmers are members of Indujaa, they pour out milk twice a day, in the morning and evening,” says Mr Saini. “They carry the milk to a collection centre that has been opened by the milk producer company [in this case Indujaa].” The MPC then pays the members on a 10-day cycle.

The system has changed Durga Shende’s life. She had dreamed of financial independence but this unlettered wife of a farmer never got a fix on earning a little extra. “I could not complete my studies due to my father’s limited income and I did not want my children to suffer the same,” says Ms Shende, who hails from Galwa village in Yavatmal.

When the Indujaa dairy members conducted a meeting in her village, Ms Shende approached them for more information about the business process and its benefits. Since she did not have any milch animals, she took a loan from the local self-help group and purchased a cow.

Ms Shende has emerged as one of Indujaa’s more successful dairypreneurs. She owns three buffaloes and three cows, as well as company shares worth 5,400. Her monthly income is about 15,000 and she plans to increase it. “As I began to fulfil my family’s needs, I grew more confident about the work,” she says. “Dairy and livestock management has, since, been the primary occupation of my family.”