Rural Women Collectives: A Step Towards an Able Future

By Ram Kaundinya, Director General, Federation of Seed Industry of India, Board Member, Axis Finance, NICR and Kalgudi, Co-chair, SVP Hyderabad, & Co-founder, ThinkAg Mar 01, 2022

Even as the agricultural value chains undergo a massive transition with the introduction of collectives and technological advances, it may be a missed opportunity if not for the active participation of its female labour force. This may just be the opportunity to diminish the glaring gender gap, and build sustainable ecosystems by empowering women farmers. Ram Kaundinya, a veteran in agri-space, shares his insights on collectives—farmer producer organisations (FPOs) and self-help groups (SHGs), and how certain policy level imperatives may pave the way for efficient long-term agricultural practices.



Although nearly half of the Indian population consists of women, their representation in several economic activities is not in the same proportion. While certain sectors and geographies have higher percentages of females engaged in economic activities, it is nowhere near the halfway mark. Rural women are at a considerable disadvantage due to age-old practices and prejudices, alongside skewed inheritance laws and property rights. With agriculture being the primary occupation in rural areas, it becomes important to understand the reality in that sphere. As per a recent report,[1] about 33% of farmers are now women, and this number is constantly on the rise. Even though women are engaged in almost 80% of farming activities, a meagre 13% actually own land. This wide gulf has further amplified the need for an institutional mechanism to bring rural women into the economic mainstream and foster gender equality. It also highlights the crucial role women farmers can play in the emerging agricultural value chains.

There are different routes to achieve this. One is the system of self-help groups (SHGs) to improve the collective strength and livelihoods of women farmers—these are informal groups with no legal structure. Another method is through producer companies (PCs), which are collectives of producers under a legal structure. They could be farmer producer organisations (FPOs) for crop-related activities or PCs for non-crop based products. In my opinion, FPOs can go a long way in addressing this need by giving small and marginal farmers access to resources, inputs and better bargaining power, thereby enabling them to reap the benefits of scale and go beyond labour-intensive activities. FPOs can be formed under the Company Law or the Cooperative Act in India. The number of shareholders can be as small as seven, and there is no upper limit. They function like small companies whose aim is to generate business for the company and profits for the shareholders. They also provide several services and capacity building activities for the members. Usually, an external professional manager is recruited to manage the day to day commercial and other activities. Recognising the merit, the government is pushing forward a target of 10,000 FPOs[2] to be formed in the country in order to leverage technology, effectively market the produce, and optimise farmers’ incomes. Government organisations like the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are helping in this process. However, we need more emphasis on building women-led FPOs in agriculture and allied fields.

Solutions in Sight—Are SHGs and PCs the Answer?

A few not-for-profit organisations and corporates have been working to collectivise rural women under the SHG structure and/or the FPO structure and making them self-reliant. Cooperative values and principles formed the bedrock of these institutions. The SHG movement, essentially of rural women, has seen tremendous success in some parts of the country. It started as an effort to create savings-oriented collectives of rural women but has now transformed into one of the world’s largest platforms for poor rural women to access financial services. Project Shakti of Hindustan Unilever (HUL)[3] is an example of successfully leveraging the rural women collectives (SHGs) to empower this underprivileged group by creating opportunities and capacity building. The women (called Shakti Ammas) were trained on the basic principles of distribution management and were given the opportunity to sell HUL products to small-time retailers in the neighbourhood or directly to households in rural areas. By the end of 2020, they had nearly 1,36,000 Shakti entrepreneurs spread across 18 states. Impact was felt on the income and livelihoods of these women, apart from helping them build their self-esteem and confidence, and nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset.

Similarly, Andhra Pradesh Mahila Abhivrudhi Society (APMAS), Hyderabad, has done outstanding work with SHGs in the last two decades and created a tremendous impact. They developed guidelines, resource materials, conducted capacity building exercises, and several other actions through which they helped in scaling up the SHG movement in India.

An industry report[4] highlights that at the national level, by March 2021, a staggering 1.12 crore SHGs with a membership of almost 12 crore rural women having savings linkages with banks, and 58 lakh SHGs having credit linkage with banks were working with a total savings of about INR 1 lakh crores (INR 1 trillion) and an outstanding loan of INR 1.12 lakh crores (INR 1.12 trillion).

Women-led FPOs: Thriving and Leading By Example

Ensuring that women farmers are a part of the agricultural revolution and contribute systematically to the evolving value chains, various pockets within the country have done well in promoting women-led FPOs. 

  1. National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE)[5] has documented stories of five women FPOs in agriculture, six in dairy, and five in the veterinary sector, spread across Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. A total of 2,66,215 women farmers are members of these 16 FPOs—about 1,88,900 being dairy farmers—who have benefitted from the economic activity they could generate through this collective approach.

  2. Mahila Abhivruddhi Society, Andhra Pradesh (APMAS) has incubated a women’s FPO called Dheesali, promoted in 2018 by local NGO Grameena Mahila Mandali (GMM) located at Bommalaramaram with funding support from NABARD. In the process of recognition, the FPC has 586 women shareholders (farmers, agricultural labourers, landless and marginalised farmers) at present. The FPC has been running an input centre to sell seeds and fertilisers to both member farmers and others, benefitting them immensely. The company is marketing farmers produce, training the interested organic farmers on sustainable agricultural practices, raising the demo plots in sustainable methods, leveraging the government benefits in the form of PSS and Pandal system[6] of cultivation for the production of vegetables. Farmers have steadily gained confidence in the company activities. Through input shop, this FPO[7] has an average of INR 42 lakh (INR 4.2 million) annual turnover. On the output front, they have clocked a turnover of over INR 38 lakh (INR 3.8 million), cumulatively since 2018.

  3. Access Livelihoods (ALC) helps farmers realise the power of collectivisation by organising them through producer companies and ensuring that they achieve benefits of scale. The primary stakeholders are small and marginal women farmers, and the secondary stakeholders are the consumers. As part of its efforts, ALC incubates women-owned enterprises (producer companies), helping them in skill development (technical, managerial, and entrepreneurial), raising finance for livelihoods initiatives, providing a range of sustainable production services, providing inputs and marketing linkages through their own brand, and creating cutting-edge technology improving traceability and decision-making.  

  4. Tata Power Community Development Trust (TPCDT) entered into a partnership with ALC in 2015 to promote a producer company near Pune, comprising  1,475 women dairy farmers as members and a total of INR 22 lakhs (INR 2.2 million) in investments. The dairy had reached a peak procurement of 5,900 litres milk per day within two months of its operations in 32 villages and had become the single largest milk collection agency in these villages. The dairy provided employment to 76 local youth (47 women and 29 men), and became EBITDA positive in February and March 2020.

Overcoming Roadblocks—Policy Imperatives for Equitable Growth

FPO promotion is a complicated story. FPOs are usually formed by landowners, sharecroppers, or those taking land on lease. Since a vast majority of the rural women farmers aren’t landowners, it places them at a considerable disadvantage from participating in the FPO movement and in accessing bank credit for agriculture right at the beginning. I see this as the primary reason for women-led FPOs not coming up on a large scale.

The success of FPOs has been higher with perishables like fruits, vegetables, and milk because of the frequent production cycles, direct consumer marketing opportunities, and a very focussed approach by the organisations. However, the success of any FPO depends on how much business orientation is brought into its operations. Adoption of modern technology-based solutions, value addition, progressive marketing arrangements, branding and financial discipline are also critical for their success. In their book ‘Making Farmer Producer Organizations Achieve Viability’, Dr Sanjiv Phansalkar and Dr Avinash Paranjpe recommend many measures, including:

  • financial viability through recovery of all costs and adequate margin through price
  • larger scale of operations and scope of work
  • need for capital formation within the FPO
  • delicate management of interests of members in multiple commodity-based FPOs
  • good governance standards

In my opinion, some of the key policy initiatives that may help empower women farmers and lead the transformation of women-led rural economy and society are:

  1. The RBI may prescribe separate lending guidelines to the banks to facilitate the free flow of credit to women-led FPOs, as was done for SHGs earlier. This will help FPOs access bank finance for their working capital needs without the requirement for large scale collaterals. This should also facilitate capital investments in processing plants, cold storage, warehousing, transportation, etc., by the FPOs.

  2. A certain level of aggregation of the produce of women-led FPOs, especially the perishable commodities, may have to be facilitated by state governments by encouraging private investment into secondary level processing, branding and marketing. Private investments in sourcing perishables from rural aggregation centres will help scale up as it happened in dairy. Daily transportation from the aggregation centres directly to markets, setting up cold storage facilities, processing facilities and digital architecture for ease and speed of transactions can be undertaken by the private sector through large investments.

  3. Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) may set up value chain clusters for both domestic and export markets through a network of women-led FPOs and SHGs. 22 values chains were identified by the High Level Expert Group (HLEG)[8] to promote agricultural exports from India. Women FPOs can be made a part of the formation of export clusters for these 22 value chains, with financial and capacity building support.

  4. Empowering women by enhancing their property rights may help remove gender discrimination in land ownership and facilitate better access to bank finance for agricultural operations. Other parts of the country may follow in the steps of the five states—Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka—who took active steps to strengthen women’s position following amendments in property rights.[9]

Ensuring Sustainable Ecosystems in the Long Run

The success stories discussed earlier show that the FPOs followed some or all of the above practices to achieve success. However, the challenge lies in scaling up these islands of success to create a robust network of women-led SHGs and FPOs through a federation structure. Women have demonstrated that they can run them efficiently. It is crucial to ensure that the mindset for the women-led FPO is firmly focussed on making it a business enterprise and not exclusively a service organisation. Going beyond livelihood creation, these FPOs should help women create wealth for themselves and de-risk their lives. The support of men is essential to make it a success at the household level. Promoter organisations have to build the capacity of these women in business, governance, team building, leadership skills, and most importantly, digital proficiency. They should also train the men to support these initiatives.

Women-led PCs dealing in perishables seem to be doing better and are touching several lives. This line may be pursued to help with scaling up. In my view, associated rural businesses, like handlooms, cottage industries, etc., have a huge opportunity for collectivisation. Corporates have to play a pivotal role by diverting their CSR funds into supporting women-led FPOs and SHGs.

Re-modelling gender roles in the agri-space, in my view, will not only maximise productivity and improve food security, but will be more sustainable and ecologically friendlier in the long run. Ultimately, such successful women have the power to get into our legislatures and contribute to building a strong nation from the grassroots levels.


[1] Oxfam India. (2018, November 15). Move over 'Sons of the soil': Why you need to know the female farmers that are revolutionizing agriculture in India. Retrieved from
[2] Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (2020). (Release ID: 1619391) Retrieved from
[3] Hindustan Unilever Limited. Retrieved from
[4] NABARD. (2021). Status of Microfinance in India 2020-21.
[5] National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE). (2021). Success Stories on Women Farmer Producer Organizations. Retrieved from
[6] Pandal cultivation is an effective and efficient technological improvement to grow gourd crops like ridge gourd, bitter gourd, bottle gourd etc. keeping them pest-free and healthy.
[7] Achieving Gender Equality Through Empowerment of Women in Agriculture (AGEEWA). Retrieved from
[8] Finance Commission. (2020). (Release ID: 1642591. Retrieved from,report%20to%20the%20Commission%20today
[9] Gupta, A. (2006, August 20). Property rights of women. The Economic Times. Retrieved from

Ram Kaundinya, Director General, Federation of Seed Industry of India, Board Member, Axis Finance, NICR and Kalgudi, Co-chair, SVP Hyderabad, & Co-founder, ThinkAg

Ram Kaundinya is an author, strategic management consultant, and a policy analyst with expertise in the field of agriculture management. In a  corporate career spanning 36 years, he has held several top positions and worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India. He co-founded ThinkAg, India’s first agritech platform, with an aim to build India’s largest agri-stakeholder network, nurturing partnerships and creating knowledge that will accelerate investments in the sector. Currently, he serves as co-chair of the Hyderabad chapter of Social Venture Partners, a global philanthropic organisation.

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