About 60 million people in India are involved directly or indirectly in cotton production, processing, textiles and related activities. But there is a major problem in this sector: cotton is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Even if just 5% of cultivated land in India is occupied by cotton farming, more than half of the pesticides used are going into this sector. The consequence of this is poisoned water sources and loss of land fertility: factors that are creating enormous problems among farmers in the sector.Chetna Organic believes that organic cotton farming is the solution to this issue. Started in 2004,they are working with small and marginal farmers towards improving their livelihood options and making farming a sustainable and profitable occupation. They are present in Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh covering around 35,000 acres. From 234 farmer members in 2004 they grew to 15,300 in 2012. Moreover they are not using pesticides and fertilizer: this improves health of farmers since they are not exposed to potential health hazards and improves their financial condition since they don’t need to invest in chemical fertilizers. Even as Chetna Organic is increasing its impact, the sector is facing challenges due to contamination of cotton, adding to the problems it already faces.
We had the chance to interview Ayan Banerjee, CEO of Chetna Organic. After his studies he decided to come back to India to join Chetna Organic. The program was started in Maharashtra and they work with small and marginalized farmers. “They were exploited and they were cheated. We decided to work with them because we wanted to give them self worth, get them out of exploitation chains and create an ecological equilibrium through sustainable agricultural practices,” says Ayan.
When they started their program, farmers were using large amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that were very dangerous for their health and were creating a lot of pollution. They also had a water shortage: Ayan realized that cotton organic farming could be a possible solution. “We understood that organic farming could help the marginal, tribal and rain-fed farmers to fight poverty and to have sustainable livelihoods,” says Ayan. Farmers involved with Chetna Organic increased their productivity that led to their incomes going up by 25%.
Starting a social enterprise is not always easy. In his experience in Chetna Organic, Ayan identified some important steps for every startup. The first one is to understand your customers and to educate them. “Educating the market participants – buyers and farmers alike – is crucial: You need to help them understand the benefits of genuine organic. To that end, we are part of different sustainable boards like fair trade, sustainable and organic cotton farming forums and we participate in a lot of fairs, conferences and engage actively in advocacy,” tells Ayan. The second step is being able to centralize everything, from the buyer supply to the farmers, creating an important value chain. The third one is helping farmers to access to finance, but they solved it creating grants for operational activities of farmers. Lastly, is about to have a consistency in delivery.
This is not an easy period for the cotton sector and Chetna Organic is facing a huge problem that is creating some difficulties “A big problem of organic cotton from India has been the increasing incidences of GM contamination and the unavailability of non Bt seeds. The consequent contamination, puts downward market pressure on prices since the market is unwilling to accept a premium for organic unable to distinguish between genuine and spurious. People are less willing to pay for organic cotton and that means that farmers are not paid as before. This is creating a problem also for their livelihoods,” says Ayan.Ayan is facing up to the challenge. His advice to any aspiring entrepreneur is an authentic message of hope, “Live your dream. For sure you will face a lot of challenges. You will need to change your behavior, but never stop to living your dream. We need to have the courage to continue working on what we dream,” proudly tells Ayan.