Our impact, Their voices

Growing a field of dreams

For the many first-time women farmers in the village of Chettikulam, black gram offers new opportunities. Through its work in the agriculture sector, ILO Sri Lanka’s LEED+ project is working with Coops, government officials, and private sector to create sustainable livelihoods, and empowered communities.

Feature | 10 February 2021
Contact(s): Kaushalya Kathireson, Communications Officer - LEED+ Project, kathireson@ilo.org
About 45-minutes away from the busy town of Vavuniya in the north of Sri Lanka is the Chettikulam village.  Home to rich, fertile soil, for many of its residents, especially women, daily wage agriculture labour has been the main source of income. On a drive from Vavuniya to Chettikulam, one can see acres of black gram; a pulse crop cultivated by farmers in the dry and intermediate zones, on either side of the road. Recent regulation on import of black gram has seen demand for it soar in the local market.

Asmin Najeema, a first time black gram farmer, single mother, primary bread winner, and female head of household inspects the crop in her field as harvest approaches
 “Women, especially Female Heads of Households (FHH) possess key skills to engage in agriculture since they have been working as agricultural labourers for decades. It is lack of capital and guidance that discourages them from becoming farmers,” says Mukunthan, the Additional Divisional Secretary of Chettikulam, who also serves as the Chairman of the Chettikulam Multiple Purpose Co-operative Society (MPCS), MPCS acts as the hub for more than 15 branch co-operatives. The ILO Local Empowerment through Economic Development and Reconciliation (LEED+) project has been working with the Coop Society since November 2020, through which 458 beneficiaries received black gram seed crops to cultivate on 300 acres of land. Many were first time cultivators.
Harvesting new opportunities
39-year old Asmin Najeema is one such first-time farmer. She lives in a household with her two children, mother and sister’s family. “I’ve been the primary breadwinner for my family for the past 14 years, ever since the birth of my youngest son. My husband left us during my second pregnancy. For as long as I can remember, I have been working as an agriculture labourer, a domestic help, and other similar daily-wage jobs. When MPCS was providing black gram seeds, I felt that I should give it a try, at least for the sake of my family, especially now, since black gram has a higher demand.”
LEED+ in partnership with the Chettikulam MPCS has implemented several interventions in eliminating many of the challenges stopping local farmers from engaging in black gram cultivation.  Though owning fertile land, families surviving on daily wage labour could not afford black gram seeds, as they were expensive. The issue of intermediaries meant farmers were paid the bare minimum, which when combined with lack of market opportunities, was stifling for many. In addition to supplying seeds free of charge, and expanding market opportunities through private sector partnerships, LEED+ has also facilitated an agreement wherein MPCS will buy harvest from local farmers at a fixed price of Rs.450 per kg.

For Ulida Najmudeen, being able to cultivate black gram in her own field means she can work, while also keeping an eye on her daughter who needs constant care
54-year old Najmudeen Ulida lives with her husband and daughter. She has been the sole caregiver for her youngest daughter, who has a disability, since her two older children married and moved away. “My husband has a mental disability, so he doesn’t have a steady job. I can’t leave my daughter home alone, so taking on any work to earn an income was not possible. But, since I started black gram cultivation on my own land, it allows me to keep an eye on my daughter and attend to work in my field.”
Najeema and Ulida along with other farmers from the region are awaiting the harvest in late February this year. The farmers who received free black gram seeds from MPCS have also agreed to return the same quantity of seeds back to the Coop Society after their harvest, so that those seeds can be supplied to new farmers, expanding cultivation and further strengthening this self-sustaining intervention.

Standing tall on their own feet
“There are a number of households headed by females in the Chettikulam area. Many of these women and young girls worked as daily wage earners in agriculture, and have even walked from village to village, pleading for help because of poverty. Things are changing now; they are able to engage in black gram cultivation, without having to worry about the starting capital, transporting their harvest to the market, or getting a fair price, even during COVID-19. I think many of them who are breadwinners, like me, will continue cultivation, while attending to daily labour work only when time permits,” says Najeema.

Ulida’s plans for the future involve exploring additional means of income, while staying close to her daughter. “I am going to invest my profits from the black gram harvest in poultry, as well as buy a cow. The eggs and milk will supplement my household income further, and I can sell them from my house, so I don’t have to leave my daughter by herself.”
Having worked as an agriculture labourer for more than a decade, Asmina Najeema has taken up farming with the skills she has gained, and hopes to make life better for her family
For Najeema, it’s about aspirations for her children. “In my family our life has been revolving around the minimum wage I used to earn from agriculture labour. My hopes were that my children wouldn’t have to skip school, or lose their childhood because of our economic conditions, that my youngest son will get to finish school, and find a good job without having to resort to labour work. I never expected that I would be able to pay the tuition fee for their education, pay off the debt and buy necessities, all at once. But for the first time, all of it seems like a real possibility.”

Supported by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Government of Norway, the LEED+ project is part of the ILO’s Global Jobs for Peace and Resilience programme. At its very core, LEED+ is a quintessential ILO effort, given its ultimate aim of creating decent, inclusive and sustainable jobs, and ensuring the empowerment of conflict-affected communities in the process.