Seed Custodians A women-led farm enterprise

With handholding and training support, women entrepreneurs in Maharashtra have developed confidence to provide quality goods and services. From an invisible contribution which was limited to the confines of their homes or on the fields, they have now emerged as visible, successful entrepreneurs with greater social acceptance.

India’s 40 crore rural women are the heart of our rural economy. Besides managing their households, they are also involved in agriculture and livestock management. With rapid feminization of agriculture, their role has become even more crucial.

Statistics reveal that 20% of India’s 63 million Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) owned by women are ensuring employment for 22 to 27 million people. Further, rural areas have a higher share of women-owned enterprises (22.24%) than urban areas (18.42%). Nevertheless, lack of recognition for these women-led enterprises remains a matter of concern.

Box 1: Ecosystem barriers for women entrepreneurs

a. Entrepreneurship promotion, which includes creating awareness and knowledge of different entrepreneurship opportunities

b. Easy and affordable access to finance

c. Training and skilling in technical and business skills

d. Mentoring and networking from industry experts to guide and incubate budding entrepreneurs and peer networking

e. Market linkages with domestic and global markets

f. Access to business, legal, digital and other higher support services for better efficiency and productivity.

The fact that women entrepreneurship is concentrated in low-earning farm and ancillary sectors is one of the reasons why women-led enterprises are seldom acknowledged. The common perception is that these are everyday activities and are not income generating avenues. As per the sixth economic census, 34.3% of all women-owned Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises were engaged in agricultural activities, with the majority being involved in livestock (92.2%), followed by forestry (4.5%), non-crop farming (1.9%) and fisheries (1.4%). More than 99% of women’s enterprises are in the micro sector. It has been observed that there is an inverse relationship between women-led enterprise and the size of enterprise. As the size of the enterprise increases, the proportion of women-led enterprises decreases. A combination of factors – individual, societal and ecosystem can be attributed to the limited success of women entrepreneurs. The challenges faced by women-owned MSMEs at the individual and societal level have often been discussed. In addition, there are larger ecosystem barriers, some of which have been identified as given in Box 1.

Women-led initiatives                                  

BAIF Development Research Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with its focus on fundamental developmental concerns such as agriculture and women development, has facilitated the formation of more than 4000 women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs) in its operational areas. These women have been provided with necessary training and mentoring to set up their own enterprises such as nurseries, mushroom cultivation, poultry keeping and stitching units, with an aim to increase their financial and digital literacy for ensuring self-sufficiency and enhanced productivity. Presented here is a success story of Women as Seed Custodians.

 Seed Custodians

Kalsubai Parisar Biyane Sanvardhan Samajik Sanstha (Kalsubai Seed Savers’ Group) was formed in Akole block of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in 2015 to conserve and revive agrobiodiversity.

Akole, which was originally a bioresource rich agroclimatic zone of India has in recent years witnessed rapid commercialization of agriculture. This led to depletion of crop cultivars diversity resulting in narrow genetic base and low productivity, increasing incidence of pest infestation and diseases. Further, growing prevalence of mono-cropping has resulted in deteriorating soil health, increased cost of cultivation and has led to detrimental effects on nutritional outcomes of the local tribal communities. Not only has it led to erosion of knowledge, but traditional practices of management and conservation are also becoming precarious.

Rainfed agriculture on homestead land has been the primary occupation for the people of Akole.  During the winter and dry summer seasons, the local people, mostly of Mahadev Koli and Thakar tribes, sought casual employment as agricultural labourers or in neighbouring urban areas which indicated that the household had neither income nor food security for the entire year.

Initially, primary data was collected through focus group discussions, field visits and individual intervews. Mapping and collection of crop landraces was undertaken in various parts of Akole block. Seed savers were identified along with knowledgeable people leading to the establishment of 10 in-situ conservation centres for purification and scientific studies. Local indigenous vegetables and tubers were documented and germplasm collected and deposited in village/cluster level seed banks. The crop selection was based on the year- round availability and nutrition content. The selected worthy crop species seed production was carried out at the community level.

SHG members belonging to indigenous communities were inducted into this 11-member seed saver committee which was registered as a trust in 2017. Since its formation, this tribal women-led initiative is spearheading efforts for agrobiodiversity conservation and management by focussing on crop cultivar diversity, seeds and wild edible plants.  Field level training was imparted on organic input production along with usage of mulching, seed selection and proper storage. The germination testing and physical purity are carried out at the seed bank level.

The packaging and marketing of seeds was undertaken through the Kalsubai Parisar Biyane Sanvardhan Sanstha. The committee ensures quality seed production, management of seed exchange and establishment of market linkages. In addition, they organize field training for the local community on scientific agricultural practices along with exposure visits. The members have been trained in maintenance and record keeping of seed accession register, procurement and sale of seeds and grain production and are now confident of managing the day-to-day operations. Women conservationists Padma Shri Rahibai Popere and National Genome Saviour Farmer Award recipient Mamta Bhangare have led the way for conservation of indigenous seeds and wild vegetables through their knowledge awakening efforts and by linking science and technology therefore achieving the leap from Grassroot to Global and Research for Use.

This group has established three seed banks and conserved 118 accessions of 40 crops including rice, millets and pulses. The group has also been involved in production and sale of more than 21,600 kitchen garden kits and around 39 metric tons of quality seeds. Their success is not limited to their vicinity alone. They have successfully adopted innovative marketing techniques resulting in the sale of terrace garden seeds and thereby fostered a rural-urban linkage. Their efforts have generated business worth Rs. 46 lakhs till date.

There is also major thrust on capacity building in the community by means of women resource persons, called Poshan Sakhi. Due to the efforts of these Poshan Sakhis and good quality nutri garden kits supplied by the Seed Saver Committee, nutrition gardens have gained prominence in the area. These nutri-garden kits have seeds and saplings of 12-15 crops, and can ensure increased dietary diversity and assured availability of food for around 10 months. Seed saving among women SHG members is also encouraged thereby ensuring production in the next cycle. In the initial days, the initiative found support from the Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Commission (RGSTC), Government of Maharashtra. Later, its upscaling was carried out with the help of Shabari Adivasi Vitta va Vikas Sanstha Maryadit, Nashik, Tribal Development Department, Government of Maharashtra.


Thus, there is ample scope for promotion of new and green enterprises in the farm sector led by women which can either be niche products or service-based enterprises or a combination of both.  As there is considerable demand for such goods and services in both rural and urban areas, hence the rural-urban connect needs to be tapped. With some handholding and training, women entrepreneurs have developed confidence to provide quality goods and services. From an invisible contribution which was limited to the confines of their homes or on the fields, they have now emerged as visible, successful entrepreneurs with greater social acceptance.

These-farm-based enterprises have provided the women a dignified means of livelihood as well as income throughout the year. Higher disposable income has also promised greater secondary benefits for the entire household. These enterprises have the potential to be replicated across different tribal geographies and scaled up thereby ensuring greater profitability for the women. With the large base of farm women in India, such women-led farm enterprises can emerge as a major contributor to the Indian economy.


Dr. Rajashree Joshi

Programme Director

BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune.



Ms. Santarpana Choudhury

Associate Programme Manager

BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune.


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