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All-female cooperative brings women farmers to the fore in Sri Lanka

Cooperatives have enjoyed success in Sri Lanka. By banding together, farmers and fishermen have been able to access markets, enjoy the advantages of collective purchasing and marketing, tap credit facilities and access social welfare programs.

Feature | Puthukkudiyiruppu, Sri Lanka | 22 March 2018
Puthukkudiyiruppu, Sri Lanka (ILO News) - It all began with just 15 women. Sivasubramaniam Nandini remembers returning after the war to this village in Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka only to find her house had been made unliveable by war and abandonment. With no one to stand guard, wild elephants had devastated her family’s once thriving coconut plantations. “We had come with big expectations, but everything was upside down,” says Nandini.

She wasn’t the only one in Puthukkudiyiruppu to find herself struggling to make a living. Sivakumar Mala was in the same position. “What was unique about us is that we were all female-headed households,” says Mala. Having survived the conflict, the women now struggled to build new lives. While some funds had been made available for reconstruction, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Women showing their Moringa harvest ©ILO

“We needed money, but nobody was willing to offer us credit or a loan,” Mala explains. For the group of 15 women, their solution was to form their own network. If one of them had a sick family member or a house needing essential repairs, the other women would pool their cash to help out. It was the start of what would become the Puthukkudiyiruppu D.S Division Women Entrepreneurs’ Cooperative Society (PTK cooperative).

Today, Nandini is the President of the cooperative, and Mala is its secretary. The International Labour Organisation worked closely with them, first helping to expand the group to 80 people and linking them with another social enterprise. They were then registered as a cooperative in 2016 under ILO’s ‘Local Empowerment through Economic
Development’ (LEED) project and also received funding through the Employment Generation and Livelihoods towards Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ (EGLR) project for cooperative management and capacity building.

The only all-female cooperative in the district, the move allowed them to reach more women. Now with close to 500 members and counting, they are getting set for a new, more ambitious phase.

Cooperatives help boost incomes across the island

A new US$ 2 million project called EMPOWER is being funded by The United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (UNPBF) through the International Labour Organization (ILO) with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the PTK women’s cooperative as implementing partners. It will conclude in June 2019.

“Through our experience with the LEED and the EGLR projects we know for sure that the cooperative model works,” said Simrin Singh, ILO’s Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, noting that the organisation had supported 38 cooperatives in northern Sri Lanka in the last seven years. “As a result of our work, we have seen the incomes of farmers and fisher people in these cooperatives double in the last six years. So we know cooperatives can be transformative here.”

Speaking at the launch in Puthukkudiyiruppu, WFP Deputy Country Director, Nguyen Duc Hoang said WFP and ILO would both bring their expertise to strengthening the EMPOWER project. He added: “the PTK women’s cooperative role as an implementing partner is designed to ensure bottom-up, inclusive, and locally-owned economic recovery and social integration. These in turn will contribute to revitalizing business linkages that were disconnected over two decades of conflict.”

Cooperatives have enjoyed success in Sri Lanka. By banding together, farmers and fishermen have been able to access markets, enjoy the advantages of collective purchasing and marketing, tap credit facilities and access social welfare programs. Agricultural cooperatives also receive critical institutional backing from both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Cooperatives.

Empowering women benefits the community

In particular, by enabling female beneficiaries to take up employment and managerial positions that are often occupied by men, the project is also empowering women to break out of conventional gender roles. “Our ability to participate in decision making in the community has gone up, and we are able to take more leadership roles in many platforms,” says, 29-year-old Annadasan Pushparaji, the youngest member of the collective. She adds that the income earned has empowered them to become primary breadwinners and support their families.

This has proved critical in Mullaitivu, where women farmers who are conflict affected, heads of households, and war widows remain particularly vulnerable and are typically excluded from local social and government decision-making processes. Studies have also noted health challenges, with significant numbers of women in this area having been diagnosed as underweight, anaemic and at risk of becoming food insecure.

In this context, becoming part of a cooperative can be professionally and socially transformative for women. For instance, Nandini has gone from earning between Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 a month, to earning Rs.50,000 or more from selling her produce. On some months, that figure can be as high as Rs.80,000.

Critical to her income is selling dehydrated moringa (drumstick) leaves to the private sector through the cooperative. In fact, she makes Rs.20,000 per month just from selling moringa leaves, harvesting an impressive 500kgs or more of moringa leaves from some 400 trees on her plantation.

ILO gave her seeds and plants that have helped her set up a thriving farm, so she also gets additional income from growing papayas, bananas, pineapples, eggplant, cassava and green chillies - all this in an area where an entire family earns only around Rs.30,000 per month on average.

PTK set to expand under EMPOWER

“The next step is we would like to see is their produce exported overseas,” says Cooperative Development Officer, Sivabalasingham Balasundaram, emphasising the need for innovation and value-additions that will boost the income of the producers. As part of his responsibilities he carefully monitors their records and financial transactions, and says that PTK’s great strength has been how hard they have persevered in the face of considerable odds.

Having joined the cooperative, the women say they have learned diverse skills including financial management, organic farming and business negotiation. With a drought plaguing the area, learning new agricultural practices around water management, crop diversification and irrigation techniques have been particularly critical, says Krishnakumar Jayaranjini, a former president of the cooperative.

Challenges remain for the cooperative but under the EMPOWER project they hope to expand their membership from 8 GN divisions to 19, adding hundreds of new members along the way. Standing on the cusp of this big change, the group can see just how far they have come.

“When we started, it was not possible for us to get even Rs.1000 as a loan, but now our community approaches us to supply micro-credit,” Jayaranjini says with pleasure. She believes such schemes support the broader goal of reconciliation in the community.

“Normally, conflicts rise on economic grounds and due to unequal access to resources. We are changing that, people are becoming more empowered, and they have many sources of income as we build good business connections with other communities,” she says, adding simply, “It motivates everyone to think in a peaceful way.”