Helping the Smallholder Shrimp Farmers of Odisha
By Aditya Dash
Imagine a farmer, I bet your mental picture doesn’t include a shrimp farmer of Odisha. Yes, shrimps are raised in ponds these days. The average monthly income of a shrimp farmer of Odisha varies between Rs 12,500 and Rs 20,000. A majority of them are smallholder farmers and one has to bear in mind the fact that the income figures are for the years when there is no crop failure or destruction due to cyclones. The average shrimp farmer is educated up to Class X or XII. His household owns a television, a smartphone and a fridge. The shrimp farmers would love to double their incomes as suggested by our Prime Minister. But how are they going to achieve this?
Low prices are a major problem for shrimp farmers. I remember six years back I wrote to a Dutch friend how it was great time for shrimp farmers in India. We were enjoying high prices due to outbreak of disease in Southeast Asia and China. I guess farmers around the world were a happy lot at that time and there was global oversupply. Now, with the pandemic, what we know for sure is that there will be a global shortage and we hope to make up for the shortfall in supply.
The other problem faced by the farmers is access to getting right information. If a misinformation could be spread that homoeopathy can cure coronavirus, imagine the plight of shrimp farmers who can be easily misled. How could they differentiate a good quality seed from a substandard quality? Do they have access to area-wise disease outbreak reports and weather reports. Lack of proper roads and electricity add to the woes of shrimp farmers.
The problem of finance
One major problem is that of finance or rather the lack of it. The average smallholder shrimp farmer farms shrimp on one acre pond. This activity would create five jobs across the frozen shrimp value chain. For each crop, the farmer would need to arrange approximately Rs 500,000. This is where a financier comes in. For the most part, the financier is supplied with feed and other inputs from an exporter. For other expenses, there is the local money lender and his rates begin from 36 per cent. The amount is pricey for microfinance, and banks are a reluctant lot. Finance is one of the biggest bottlenecks that restricts the development of robust aquaculture value chains in India.
Would more intensification work? What about more efficient operations? So, in this line of thought we simply need to ensure that the farmer has access to finance, through which he can buy those fancy equipment which could lead to increased production per acre. It might increase the effluent load a bit though. Other options exist such as sustainability certifications and fair trade options. How does one go about doing that? This is where an organisation such as Solidaridad comes in.
My association with Solidaridad started with my friend Willem, and to quote one of his lines, “they seek to bridge the gap between commerce and ethics.” For aquaculture in Odisha, we launched the Sustainable Aquaculture Initiative (SAI) in Jagatsinghpur district. Through SAI, we are making an attempt to make aquaculture more sustainable and address the problems listed above.
Our first course of action was to launch a registration drive. Exports to the US and the EU need registrations unlike exports to China and other Asian countries. The farmer doesn’t even have the time to submit water, soil and shrimp samples to the lab, how can we expect him to deal with the paperwork and regular visits to Government offices. The Solidaridad team, along with a very cooperative Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA), has managed to register almost one thousand farmers within one year. We are also following up with getting the registrations from Coastal Aquaculture Authority (CAA). Whether it is arranging institutional finance or opting for third party certifications such as organic and fair trade, the first step is always registration.
Another important step we have taken is to organise information sessions at different farming clusters. In order to scale up our reach, we have used technology such as Zoom for conference calls. We have used YouTube videos of successful farmers and have created Facebook groups. Our approach is to first work with a select few lead farmers and after equipping them with the relevant technology and knowledge, they will transmit the knowledge to the wider farmer base.
A farmer network has to be created and connected with the rest of the world. The way things stand now, they are far removed from their consumers in Europe. We at SAI envision a world where the farmer network has access to finance through P2P lending, Development Finance etc. They can have access to knowledge in their native languages. Through this initiative, the farmers can have access to new technologies and products on a pilot basis. Maybe it could be Skretting’s 360 approach, AquaConnect’s Farm Mojo app (we have had some traction here), XpertSea’s Bucket, Alune Aqua’s innovative finance approach and Eruvaka’s sensors.
But why SAI? Why not business as usual and simply scale that up? Popular sustainability labels such as Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) have their limits, even though they have standard network of farmers. It is unrealistic to expect the farmers of Odisha to simply leapfrog to these standards. MPEDA’s structured approach with their own certification is a more realistic option. We also need to acknowledge that the benefits of certifications do not always trickle down to the farmers. With SAI and the involvement of the industry, we can implement an area management approach towards sustainable aquaculture and not be limited to a few corporate firms.
A programme like SAI gives us the foundation to start something like a brand Odisha for shrimps. In commodity business, it is very important to create our own brand. Through this, we can create something along the lines of Ecuador’s Sustainable Shrimp Partnership. Big things have small beginnings and what can be more auspicious than our project initials. So, think about the shrimp farmer the next time you are eating shrimps. A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into it.
__ The author is an “Authority Member” of Marine Products Export Development Authority. He is also Managing Director of Ram’s Assorted Cold Storage Ltd, the seafood exports division of Suryo Group. He is passionate about aquaculture and writes frequently on it.