November 26, 2020

Rural livelihood nonprofits must reinvent themselves

We will need to embrace technology and markets, and improve farmer incomes exponentially to stay relevant in a rapidly changing agriculture sector.

7 min read

Livelihood nonprofits have no future, said a candidate during an interview I was conducting last week. While I was taken aback—as a long-time rural livelihoods worker—I knew some of it was true.

The near absence of voices from livelihoods nonprofits on the debates on farm acts 2020 has been a disconcerting phenomenon. Despite working with farmers to enhance their livelihoods for decades, and pioneering concepts like farmer producer organisations (FPOs), we are nowhere in the picture, when it comes to engaging with the government on farmers’ interests.

There are two reasons for this:


Nonprofits are only thought of providing training or relief work. When the government talks about farming, while they know about us, they do not engage with us because they believe that our work doesn’t address the issues of agriculture.

The silence around farm acts isn’t the first instance of nonprofits being disengaged.

More importantly, we, as a sector, do not engage with markets or government in a way that matters. The silence around the farm acts isn’t the first instance of nonprofits being disengaged. We weren’t involved during the 2018 kisan (farmer) long march either—the 180 km journey by foot to Mumbai by over 30,000 farmers, many of whom were marginal tribal farmers.

Why is the above important? First, because the dominant interventions of rural livelihoods nonprofits are in the farm sector. Second, outside of government, this group has the largest and arguably the most well-meaning professionals committed to farmers. These organisations also draw upon significant philanthropic and government funding which means that they must look for deeper and more meaningful engagement with the people we seek to serve.

Most importantly, it is time for us to examine our approach, especially now, because we are beginning to see the emergence of a new farming ecosystem on account of the recently introduced farm acts 2020 and schemes like PM KISAN which aims to provide direct income support to small and marginal farmers in the country.

If we are to make our work relevant to rural households, we—the rural livelihoods nonprofits—need to reinvent ourselves to contribute meaningfully to the livelihoods needs of rural India. And the question we need to ask ourselves is whether our mediation-focussed approach is becoming outdated, and crowded out by direct government support, technology, and markets.

Related article: Are livelihoods nonprofits losing their relevance?

The livelihoods landscape has changed

When livelihoods nonprofits started their work several decades ago, it was largely geared towards food sufficiency or developing land and water assets. India ranks 94th out of the 107 countries on the recently released Global Hunger Index, and some of this—indicators like stunting and wasting of children under-5 years of age—is driven by accumulated intergenerational neglect and externalities outside the farm sector.

However, when you consider efforts such as the National Food Security Act, the Mid Day Meal Scheme, and rations available through the anganwadi Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) system, that contribute to a household’s food supply, it can be argued that space for livelihood organisations to work on food sufficiency is irrelevant in large parts of India.

Over time, rural livelihoods nonprofits have focussed on mobilisation, training, and adoption of practices required to achieve the stated goal of food sufficiency and modest income gains. However, even here, we didn’t create any significant impact. A study done by Tushaar Shah et al in 2012, highlighted that livelihood nonprofits, at best, brought only marginal income gains to participant households.

This was also because few nonprofits ventured into developing the agricultural value chain and it was even rarer to see us engage with issues of markets or other structural problems such as the viability of football field-size farms.

We also believed that poorer geographies had what we called the ‘antenna challenge’, where communities were unable to tune into public policy and market signals, and mediation was required to translate government policies and schemes into opportunities like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme. This, however, is not true anymore. This government’s high-intensity outreach efforts have resulted in people being aware of their rights and entitlements in most cases. There is also near-universal coverage of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and commercial start-ups have started delivering a range of services including crop advisories and real-time meteorological advice to farmers.

farmer couple tending to their field_BRLF

The questions and drivers that farmers are grappling with have shifted, and the new environment being created by the farm acts will further accelerate this movement. | Picture courtesy: Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation

All these together have rendered the core engagement strength of nonprofits—that of mobilisation and extension—somewhat redundant.

There is a disconnect between our skills, the farmers, and the markets

One estimate indicates close to 25 million-plus farmers benefited from some access to the government’s minimum support prices (MSP). These are the farmers with whom we, as a sector, largely don’t engage, even when they could be present in the geographies we operate in.

An example of this is from the time I worked in Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh. Despite our work being intrinsically linked to farming, I didn’t engage with the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) or the local primary agricultural credit society (PACS), whether it was around the sale of farm produce or electing representatives to these farmer associations.

Moreover, the kind of commercial, market-centric training and organising that one needs to do with farmers is very different from mobilising them to create MGNREGA assets or training them to access subsidies. It’s a very different skillset, one that many of us do not possess.

The landscape is fragmented

Large nonprofits typically work in 40-50 villages in a particular region at a time. But when you consider the scale of the households—for instance, there are more than 2 million rural households in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district alone—the nonprofit concept of scale seems minuscule and fragmented.  On the other hand, there are associations and collectives like the Bharatiya Kisan Union(BKU) that works with millions of farmers. There is no way to compete with that kind of reach and collectivisation. As a result, we are unlikely to become the ‘farmers’ voice’.

We know that rural livelihoods nonprofits go beyond just looking at incomes.

Despite all of the above, we know that rural livelihoods nonprofits go beyond just looking at incomes. We provide a voice to the marginalised and help fix the broken compact between state-citizen and state-institutions—both of which are critical in these times.

However, as farming as well as the aspirations of rural India—especially its youth—undergo tectonic shifts, we need to address the ‘high-income’ expectation, else our work will be of little significance to our constituents.

Related article: Routes to resilience in rural India

What does today’s farming ecosystem look like?

We are beginning to see increased corporatisation on multiple fronts: Production via contract farming, greater traceability through direct farmer-to-consumer links, a focus on processing and surplus management, and enabling farmers to make market-linked crop choices.

We are also seeing entities deploy technology across the agricultural value chain. Well-funded start-ups and organised entities with access to cutting-edge technology are leading these efforts.

Agriculture policy-makers have been making a case for efficiency, surplus management, private investments, MSP reforms, doubling farm income, and so on. This has played out in the numerous policy measures we have seen over the past year—10,000 FPOs, the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund, the three farm acts in 2020, and so on.

The most significant development though is the changing profile of farmers. They are younger, with reduced land sizes, have had some form of formal schooling, are more aspirational, detest drudgery, and are frustrated by the uncertainty of income associated with traditional farming.

This new regime has been emerging gradually for some time.

A new form of mediation is required

At the end of the day, nonprofits have been playing the role of a mediator, be it with the government, or mobilising communities in some way. We need to play a new kind of mediation—by engaging with businesses, leveraging technology, and working on improving the capacity of farmers to deal with current-day problems.

Today, the capacities of farmers are largely constrained by structural barriers: How does farming a plot of land that is 0.6 hectare—which is the mean holding size of marginal farmers—support farmers’ aspirations; how do you support farmers for whom more than half of the household income comes from non-farm activities; how do you provide this support year-round; how do you connect farmers with markets assuredly and profitably.

Mere provision of extension services—linkages to government schemes and access to inputs—will not suffice.

While the size of the landholding has been a concern, in practice, income is determined as much by what a farmer does on that farm, when, how, where, why, for whom, and how much. This requires both farmers as well as the organisations that work with them to build solutions that leverage the power that emerging technologies offer. The mere provision of extension services—linkages to government schemes and access to inputs—will not suffice.

Income gains will come from smarter solutions, interventions in markets, water demand management, climate resilience, price assurance, a locally-accessible input-output market ecosystem, and so on.

The questions and drivers that farmers are grappling with have shifted, and the new environment being created by the farm acts will further accelerate this movement. Nonprofits will, therefore, have to rediscover themselves in terms of their farmer-engagement model, especially since commercial startups have a head start here, in terms of their organisational DNA and skills to make this happen.

Related article: A new paradigm for rural livelihoods

The way forward

If we aim to drive high-income agriculture, there needs to be a significant change in perspective, skills, as well as capacities. Solving the structural barriers around capital, land, and markets will require innovation, technology, and partnerships.

Innovation: We need to address the fundamental issue of “small farming”—how does one live with dignity and prosperity from half a hectare of land. Can we explore solutions like land pooling and make them work at scale? Can we leverage financial instruments and consider blended finance options? Can we harness the creativity and aspirations of the youth to help develop strategies and tactics that yield higher incomes?

Technology: We need to provide communities with mechanisms—tools and techniques to mediate markets more meaningfully. This includes the deployment of technology in areas such as efficient storage, warehousing, transport logistics, sorting-grading, secondary processing, and so on. These don’t come naturally to traditional nonprofits; we will, therefore, need to dedicate resources to learn about these skill sets. Better still, we could partner with enterprises that have the requisite skills and capabilities.

Partnerships: This corporatisation of the farm sector will also require nonprofits to play to their strengths and build partnerships. The strong urge to control territory—that’s how donors have largely funded us—and own the “customer” has to give way to a working style that considers who is best placed to connect dots.

We are seeing the emergence of new agro-tech companies that focus on various aspects of the farming value chain and operate at scale. They are quickly addressing the real needs of the farmers when it comes to price discovery, storage, and distribution—resulting in increased incomes for farmers year after year. And their success is showing up in the number of investors who are willing to back them. It is with these players that livelihood nonprofits must learn to partner and leverage their capabilities if we are to benefit the communities we serve.

Nonprofits will have to adapt to this changed environment

Embracing technology, engaging with markets, and improving incomes exponentially are not strengths for most livelihood nonprofits. But they will need to build these skills—and quickly at that—because markets and structural issues of farming are rapidly becoming important areas.

It is imperative that we create the space to do things differently. As a sector, we will need to embrace the new paradigm and move the narrative to high-income farming.

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Anish Kumar-Image
Anish Kumar

Anish is Co-lead at Transform Rural India. Previously, he was part of the senior management team at PRADAN, a rural development nonprofit. His areas of expertise include creating business organisations run by poor communities and facilitating participation of smallholder farmers in modern value chains. Anish was involved in developing a smallholder poultry model, which has emerged as the largest family poultry network in India with a turnover of USD 56 million. He chairs the National Smallholder Poultry Development Trust.